The small shoot I run with a couple of mates brings me a lot of joy throughout the year. We have a couple of informal rough days, which are as much about the bar and food as they are about knocking birds out of the sky. The shoot is blessed with a high density of hares, which allows each of us to take one a year, and there are also a couple of roe to fill the freezers.
Our preparation starts earlier than most as I breed half the birds myself, adding another exciting but sometimes depressing dimension to the shoot. Counting the losses doesn’t start from releasing birds in the pen; it begins with eggs in the incubator. But the rewards outweigh any frustrations I have with my primitive incubation system, or the added worry of disease among the very young birds (which can be devastating if not caught very quickly).
I remember one year that started well, but I suffered a complete disaster on the third and final hatch with only a tiny percentage making it out the egg. This was due to an extended storing period and is a lesson painfully learnt.
Despite this, we still had more birds to release than in previous years and only suffered a small intestinal gut problem with 20 or so birds, which was quickly rectified before they were transported to the release pens a short distance from my house. Due to our low numbers we are able to net the tops of our three pens so I could guarantee that all the birds we put in are there when the time comes to open up the sides. Or so I had thought.
The shoot has never had a serious predator problem, although we always lose a few to our sharp beaked, taloned feathery friends. But this year nature has made a concerted effort to make up for it. Two days after the first birds were lovingly set free into our brand new pen we lost two to a stoat, followed by another the night after. Despite a military operation to catch the little bugger, he eluded me in the face of more fen traps than there are landmines in Bosnia (although I did get him a few weeks after the birds were out). After the third kill he never showed up again and I thought I had had a lucky escape. Charlie boy, on the other hand, had other ideas.
The torrential rain had made life difficult for everyone and the farmers were weeks behind in harvesting their crops. Some friends of mine, with their own syndicates, were reporting losses in the hundreds due to sickness brought on by the bad weather. This hadn’t been a problem for us, but we did have a more pressing issue than the need for fresh wheat. A tour around the fringes had shown some fresh fox spoor, but the layout of the farm made lamping all but impossible until the fields were cut. I had to sit and wait, losing two birds to the fox while I could do nothing to stop it.
My smallest rifle, a Sako .243 shooting 100-grain handloads, would do the job adequately (I have never been wholly comfortable using my .17HMR for foxes, especially on a night with even a breath of wind). The 6×42 Schmidt & Bender scope was a bit restrictive for longer range fox shooting at night, but it was a set-up designed for deer so I would just have to keep the range down. A Petzl headlight, knife, battery pack, Lightforce spotlight, extra ammo and bipod completed the array of gear strewn across the back of my pick-up.
As the shadows lengthened and the subtle shimmer of light faded over the back of the Caterthuns, we set off to survey the killing fields from a hill in the middle of the farm. To our amazement we spotted a fox within two minutes of driving up the farm road. Across the first stubble field, about 150 metres away, two eyes glinted back at us as my foxing buddy Edan swept past. Engine off and lights off, I squeaked my heart out trying to get the fox to venture from the ditch where he sat just out of sight, but this fox was no fool and certainly not a cub. After a good 15 minutes, the intermittent reflection from his eyes eventually stopped and it became clear that we had lost our first chance of the night.
Shortly after the engine came to life and started carrying us across the deep ruts, Edan again spotted the distinctive bright eyes of our midnight killer. At over 300 metres he was a bit far for me, but repetitive squeaking soon had the death-dealing critter wandering slowly in our direction.
As he approached the 200 metre mark, I was preparing for a shot when the wind changed direction and gusted our scent down the hill into the nostrils of our hunting fox. With that he turned and headed straight for the woods, never to be seen again that night.
We headed back out just after one in the morning to be greeted by a fox in exactly the same place as the wily old boy we had first seen. Again he was moving just out of sight, but I wasn’t banking on being able to call him in this time.
Disembarking from the vehicle with lightning speed, Edan hooked up the battery pack and we quick-stepped it to a bale some 30 metres closer to the fox. With a slight elevation I was hoping I could make out enough of the fox to take a clean shot. As Edan unleashed the piercing light, two beady eyes shone back from the underside of a bale some 130 metres away. I lined up my crosshairs just below his eyes, somewhere near the tip of his nose – not to shoot him in the head, but to drop the bullet in the centre of the chest.
The crack of my .243 shattered the silence. The muzzle blast momentarily blinded us from the result of my shot. We walked over, scanning the ground for a sprawled out fox or any sign of blood, but on approaching the bale where the fox had been there was no evidence.
Then, just as I started to replay the shot in my mind, Edan spotted Charlie boy half a dozen steps from where we were standing. Closer inspection revealed a very old dog fox bearing more than a few battle scars. The shot was slap-bang in the middle of his chest, with the bullet exiting near the back leg. It was a satisfying job well done.
The next weekend I was out again. It was fruitless, but just after 12am I decided to go have one last look. After scanning the usual places I headed to the top of the hill. The battery pack had given up the ghost and I had to spot and shoot at the same time.
I stood ready with the rifle set up on the bipod, resting expectantly in the direction of the woods by my release pen. After an hour of squeaking my mouth was dry, but I was eventually rewarded
A bold young fox, clearly from this year’s litter, came trotting across the grass field. Sighting in on the fox, I shouted to make him stop, which he promptly did 100 metres from where I was standing, poised and ready. As the firing pin struck, Charlie, Jr. had no idea that it was good night forever.
After a short search I found the body in the long grass. Taking two foxes out of the equation would make a big difference to the number of pheasants left for us to shoot. I was sure there was still a vixen and a couple of cubs kicking around, but I resolved to pay them a visit as soon as I possibly could. Byron Pace