Fox on the prowl

Mark Ripley’s heading to the zoo, but it’s not for a day out – he has some serious work to do after a tide of vulpine attacks on the zoo’s denizens

The phone rang and I recognised the number it had been stored in my memory from the last time I got a call from the zoo for the same reason. “Hi Mark. We’ve got a massive fox problem down here at the moment and wondered if you would be able to help us out?” The voice sheepishly asked. The head keeper went on to explain that foxes had been caught on CCTV around the zoo and that now some of their imported birds had been killed on several occasions.

For the birds’ safety they had been moved and one of the main attractions had also been closed as a result. The management had employed a pest control company to come in and try to deal with them however the company wasn’t really up to dealing with foxes and were more used to dealing with insects and rodents, although they had set up a cage trap and a trail camera in an attempt to capture the nuisances.

With the keepers baiting the trap and adding a few tit bits in the area, a fox or foxes had been seen craftily trying to get under the trap rather than enter it – clever buggers. A meeting was arranged that evening with the keeper and one of the members of the management to have a look around the perimeter with me. We had to decide the best course of action to bring about a rapid solution to this problem.

Mark sets up on the grounds just behind the zoo to get the best arc of safe fire

Having dealt with a similar problem a couple of years ago for them, I had a pretty good idea where the foxes would likely gain access to the grounds. To the rear of the area where the fox had been causing problems are some large arable fields bordered by nettles and hedges. At this time of year the crops are tall enough to hide foxes and with grass and Mark sets up on the grounds just behind the zoo to get the best arc of safe fire nettles high around the perimeter fence it can be difficult to spot something that’s right under your nose.

On closer inspection of the grounds and a quick walk through the long grass I soon found runs as well as some remains of the bait the keepers had put out. And to really mark it’s card, a fox had also left a scat next to some bones in the grass. The ground behind the zoo offered the best chance of a shot so for now I decided we would stick to waiting out here rather than within the zoo. So with the management happy to pay for our services on an hourly basis and arrangements made for access, we agreed we would start with a visit on that very same evening.

I arrived with Gary an hour or so before dark and parked the truck in the gateway of a field that overlooked the rear of the enclosures where I’d found the runs. Most of the area was covered by long grass and patches of nettle. However in front of that there was an area where some of the zoo animals where taken to graze and the grass nibbled shorter. This would offer a good spot to shoot a fox if it could be drawn out of the cover. As some of the runs ran out into this area and remnants of bait were also present, the odds where foxes would appear here at some point regardless.

As luck would have it I’d just kindly been sent a Fox Pro fusion electronic caller to test. With around 70 fox and rodent sounds pre- programmed into this one, I was very keen to try it out in the field. I walked out about 80 yards from the truck and hung the caller on a cut down road pin so it sat just above the grass to allow for a better signal for the remote and also help the sound travel a little bit further.

Thermal proved its worth on this mission, picking out foxes with ease

With a dense tree line behind the truck I was happy to make the most of the added elevation, stand on the tail gate and shoot off the roof without the worry of being outlined against the sky once dusk had finally settled. We sat and let everything calm down and before long nature began to carry on with its business around us. As the light faded I added the Pulsar F155 on the front of my day scope and went from binoculars to thermal to scan the fields. I had my suspicions that the reason the zoo had suddenly suffered fox attacks was most likely due to a vixen feeding cubs or bold cubs beginning to hunt for themselves. With this in mind, I fired up the caller first with the sound of fox cubs playing and fighting.

With both Gary and I observing with thermal spotters, we quickly picked up a heat movement in the long grass as a three quarter grown fox cub bounded in little more than 50 yards away. With his attention fixed toward the caller he never noticed the little red IR come on and stood looking puzzled, when I muted the caller, as to why all his apparent siblings had suddenly gone quiet. A crack from the rifle dropped the cub in a heap in
the grass, soon followed by with a second one that also bounded over from the cover of the longer grass in the next field.

We kept this up for the next few hours and accounted for a dog and vixen around 130 yards away that came out of the nettles. With four in the bag on the first evening and only one other cub seen, we initially thought we had most likely cleared up most of the family. But we weren’t so lucky. The zoo reported the next morning seeing the cub on CCTV in the zoo early next morning so we returned the next evening and again sat out to wait. As before the first fox appeared just after dark, this time from the nettles and as I expected it was a cub. Just as I lined up on the youngster I noticed it suddenly look out into the field. Following its line of sight I could see an adult fox trotting in towards it.As they met a second cub bounded out from cover towards them!

I quickly rolled over the adult fox as it sat side on to me with a chest shot again around 130 yards before swinging on to a cub. This was where I kicked myself, instead of shooting the one furthest from the dead vixen and out of sight of the first cub I shot the first one stood by the dead vixen. On seeing it’s sister and probably mother or another family member fall in the grass to this strange loud noise it was too much for this little guy and he wisely bolted back into cover.

You can never go too far wrong if you’re well equipped and well prepared

We waited another couple of hours before I packed the rifle and night vision back in the truck and collected the dead foxes. No sooner had I done so when Gary frantically grabbed my arm. “He’s back out,” he hissed, “sniffing around where you shot the other two!” I knew instinctively I wouldn’t get set up again before he disappeared and I was right. The next evening we sat and watched an empty field for four hours before wearily turning in without seeing a thing.

The phone typically rang the next morning with the keeper telling me the cub had been caught on CCTV just before 8am, frustratingly triggering the cage trap but with some straw stopping the door from closing properly. This allowed him to escape again… I decided to bait the area in front of the nettles again over the next few nights and try again at the end of the week.

On the second night I put some chicken carcases out at dusk and sat for an hour to wait since it was prime time. To my surprise, an adult fox wandered from the cover. I lined up on this one again, at around the 130-yard mark, and fired off a quick round. The fox shot forward, head down and tail high and kinked over – a good sign of a hit but most likely a little low in the chest. I saw it flip in the long grass a couple of times but try as I might I could find no dead fox.

Returning the next afternoon I found the keepers had acted on my advice and cut and cleared all the grass and nettles and most likely my fox carcass on the field too! With the management putting pressure on to get their birds back on display for the weekend I was beginning to feel like the sheriff from Jaws, pressured to kill the shark quickly to save the thriving tourism trade of the beaches. With the cub still on the cameras each night I was determined to get the result needed that evening, so we decided to try a two-pronged attack. I would wait with the rifle at the back of the grounds and Gary would wait in the zoo on a bridge with a shotgun over a walkway where we were sure the fox was entering the zoo.

I took Gary into the zoo to show him where to wait. It was quite likely we might bump into the fox as the zoo had been shut and empty several hours. Gary slipped four cartridges loaded with BBs into his semi-auto FAC Beretta as we tiptoed through the zoos attractions and walk ways unable to resist a smile at the irony of the situation. As we neared the area away from the zoo’s inhabitants we went on red alert as we were now where we’d most likely see it. It would also now be difficult to take a shot without scaring the birds. So engrossed were we with our task I completely forgot the sensor on the pathway for the amusement of the visitors.

The vixen and one of her cubs that had been causing so much trouble for the zoo

In the silence of the park and fading light the sudden sound of a lion’s thundering roar followed by hysterical monkey shrieks a few feet from us had Gary and I momentarily wide eyed, open mouthed with shoulders round our ears looking at each other and waiting for the big cat to pounce! Then the giggles set in and we went back to normal. In preparation for a low-light shot, Gary cleverly taped a small fishing glow stick to the end of his barrel to act as a bead before climbing up on the bridge to wait. I walked back up through the zoo, less on edge this time, then drove around to the rear entrance of the zoo and the adjacent fields.

I decided to park a little further along the hedge tonight as with the fields now cut I could see twice as far, so there was the potential for a longer shot. I again put the caller out and climbed up on the tailgate. I laid a soft jacket onto the roof of the truck so I could lay gear down on the there without noise if a fox appeared close by and settled down to wait for it’s opportunity.

I gave the field ahead a quick scan with the binos as it was still just light enough to see. As my eyes ran along the far hedge I stopped at what looked like a fox stood broadside by the hedge. I was sure there had been nothing there a second ago, so whatever I was looking at was live. I went over to the rifle scope in time to see it move toward the corner of the field and the rear fencing of the zoo. I could see it was a fox now and with the confirming swish of a white tipped tail it again turned side on in the corner of the field looking for a place to slip through the narrow railings. As it paused I dialled 1MOA adjustment on to the scope to correct for a 210-yard shot, tightened my grip and squeezed the trigger. The bullet seemed to cut the air for ages before I watched the fox go over in the scope. With a sign of relief I lent my head on the scope; glad I hadn’t fluffed the shot in the fading light with my eagerness to deal with the illusive fox cub.

It’s been several days now with no further fox sightings… eight foxes later all is well, at least for now…

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