Foxes aren’t what they used to be

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Foxes are getting cleverer, says foxing expert Robert Bucknell – but so are fox shooters

There are definitely fewer foxes about this year on my patch. As a result I haven’t shot as many foxes as I normally would. But talking to other fox shooters around the country it’s clear that numbers are down more widely, with reports of many barren vixens this spring. Spring came late, and even then the weather was cold and damp, so fewer cubs survived. The head of the local badger-watching group told me it’s a similar story with badger cubs in this area as well.

Not only are there fewer foxes about, I reckon they’re getting harder to shoot with the aid of a call and lamp. I was chatting to Mike Powell, from Devon, about this the other day, and he agreed their behavior has changed. Foxes have become more wary.

Some cubs are still relatively easy because they’re young and naïve, but quite a few are harder than they used to be right from the start. I know people put this down to foxes getting an ‘education’ at the hands of less competent fox shooters, or the travelling fraternity with their lamps and lurchers, but I think there’s more to it. I suspect we are seeing evolution in action, with us fox shooters as the driving force, breeding a new generation of trickier foxes every year.

It used to be that you’d see a fox and straight away start calling to bring it in. Nowadays I won’t call as a first option. There’s every chance the fox will just swap ends and disappear. Instead, I’ll see if I can find a way of getting it without risking scaring it by calling. I tend to save the call for those times when I’ve had a good look round and can’t see one. Then I might as well try the call, but it’s more of a last resort. I find calls can work better in daylight, as there is no lamp to put them off.

Evolutionary theory: We have unintentionally bred a strain of wary foxes, with only the trickiest surviving to pass on their genes

Evolutionary theory: We have unintentionally bred a strain of wary foxes, with only the trickiest surviving to pass on their genes

Sometimes you can use your fieldcraft knowledge to work out where to find a fox without needing any call or bait. The other day I was out trimming cricket bat willows, planted all along the side of a river meadow. The cold, damp night had turned into a nice sunny and breezy day. I was just thinking that, if I were a fox, I’d find a sheltered spot somewhere in the warm sun to curl up for a snooze. Just after that, I spotted one not 20 yards away, fast asleep on the opposite bank of the river.

Of course that usually happens when you don’t have your gun with you. It was a 20-mile round trip home to fetch it, so I just backed away and left the fox to his slumber. No point in upsetting Tod, as he may be there another day – when I come back, gun in hand!

That night another one wasn’t so lucky. I was out with the gun and spotted one with the lamp, curled up in a sheltered spot in the lea of a hedge. Some heavy showers of rain had blown in and the night was a bit rough. It was not an obvious night to be out foxing, with the rain lashing down. I have found many a time that if a fox is curled up somewhere warm it is reluctant to leave its bed and step out into the cold. I’m sure we are just the same when we first wake and feel the sheets cling. This one was so comfortable it didn’t want to move just because someone was shining a light – and it paid the price. I got rained on, but modern clothing is so good the water doesn’t get though.

The idea that we have created a more wary breed of foxes is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Science has shown that foxes can change rapidly in response to selective breeding, just like breeding farm livestock for faster growth or bigger yields.

A Russian scientist named Dmitri Belyaev set up an experimental breeding programme in 1959 with silver foxes, which are simply a grey-coloured form of the red fox, valued for their fur. He picked 130 foxes that were the most friendly towards the handlers, and bred from them. Each year after that, he picked the tamest from each litter to breed from. Within 10 generations the foxes had started to behave more like dogs, whining for attention, wagging their tails when a human approached and enjoying being petted. The opposite happened when they bred selectively from the most aggressive foxes – they produced a strain of attack fox that wanted to tear your throat out! All that in just 10 years.

So, by applying selective pressure on foxes, we know that their behavior can be changed. For decades shooters have been going out with lamps and calls and shooting the easiest foxes. Naturally, the ones that get shot are those that aren’t lamp-shy and that come readily to a call. In effect, we are selectively breeding from the difficult foxes left behind that are wary of lamps and calls.

Taking the high ground: Nowadays we are far more likely to shoot from a high seat or raised box so the fox doesn’t hear a vehicle coming

Taking the high ground: Nowadays we are far more likely to shoot from a high seat or raised box so the fox doesn’t hear a vehicle coming

If that’s what happens in the countryside, perhaps the opposite is happening in our cities. If people look after foxes that come into their gardens and act ‘cute’ – like pet dogs – then maybe urban foxes will lose their fear of humans and become more like feral dogs. It could certainly explain some of the cases we read in the newspapers where foxes become so bold they enter people’s homes and end up biting children.

I witnessed another change just the other day. I was traveling down an urban road and a fox stood poised to cross the road as I drove past. It stood still with only its head moving as it judged the traffic and waited for a gap to safely trot over. As the motorcar is the biggest killer of urban foxes, survivors must pass on their car avoidance skills.
Foxes may be evolving, but so are we. Fox shooting methods have changed over the years. Nowadays we are much more likely to shoot from a high seat or raised shooting box over a bait point, so the fox doesn’t get to hear a vehicle or a call. And with the recent leaps made in night vision technology, more and more foxes are being shot without the aid of a lamp. Many are also increasingly targeted at dawn and dusk, which is why deerstalkers – if they will shoot a fox – can be very successful.

So all is not lost. To deal with today’s more wary foxes, we only need to change our methods. I suppose it’s good for the shooting industry too, because it means more sales of sophisticated kit such as night vision equipment and infrared lamps. I spoke to a fox shooter recently who was happy to spend upwards of £3,000 on a thermal imager so he could spot the foxes to then shoot them with his top-end night vision scope. Now that’s a man who takes his shooting seriously, and luckily for him he has the money to support his habit!

Calling it off: Foxes that come in easily to the call are most likely to get shot

Calling it off: Foxes that come in easily to the call are most likely to get shot

It’s extraordinary how equipment that was strictly military-only just a few years ago has become everyday gear – not just image intensifiers and thermal imagers, but even technology like personal global position indicators that were Andy Macnab territory during the Gulf War. If the trend continues, we can look forward to some fabulous aids in years to come. Current military night vision is becoming miniaturised, so you can wear it easily on your face, like ski goggles. It will soon combine IR and TI so you see not only the heat signature of your target, but also a realistic picture of the surroundings. It is super-sensitive, so it can see in starlight with no need for IR illumination. To take a shot, you simply raise the gun and look through your day scope in the usual way – the goggles multiply whatever tiny amount of light is already passing through the scope. I can’t see the foxes evolving fast enough to deal with kit like that!

In the meantime, night vision kit is becoming better value almost by the day. Yukon’s Photon 5×42 digital riflescope is taking the market by storm, and for £400 you can also afford a good IR lamp like the Nightmaster to lift its capabilities into centrefire territory.

After all of that, you may be asking why do I still bother to go out with a lamp? The fact is, it still remains the best way to cover the ground fast and see what’s out there. But watch out for that thermal, it looks the next way to go!

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