Ha! That will teach me to be smug about clearing out all the foxes on the shoot. Since last month we have shot four on the place. Not only that, but Colin the keeper is now the surrogate parent of not one but two litters of cubs that will need tidying up before long.
But this is on well over 3000 acres of ground. Ask anybody who studies foxes and they will tell you that on low ground next to towns that this land could easily support anywhere between one fox to every 250 acres, to one on every 25, especially with the large amount of food available on a shooting estate or where there are goodies to be gained from adjacent householders. That’s a potential low of 12, to a top end of 120. As we kill over 200 a year, to take out four and not be able to find any more at the height of the breeding season is doing a good job. It will leave a lot of ground-nesting birds in peace. Hopefully the weather will now be kind this June, as too much water will kill eggs and hatchlings quicker than any number of predators.
So how did four more go in the record book? In my last column I mentioned that I knew of a litter in an old badger sett at the back of one of the houses in the village. The owner phoned me up and told me there was a fox in the hedge right next to his chicken run – what was I going to do about it? I explained that, yes, I knew all about the fox and its litter of cubs, and I’d been watching it. The trouble is that it’s not the easiest place to get at, and all the houses nearby restrict your angles considerably. On top of that, for a while after the cubs are born, the vixen hardly ever shows. She will slip in and out now and again, but with extreme caution and is unlikely to present a decent chance of a shot.
Nevertheless I had tried sitting up watching near the earth at different times of day and night, but with no luck. It was turning into one of those foxes that seem to be uncannily lucky, somehow managing never to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. You can do everything you think is right, but you still need a slice of luck to make it all come together.
By now, however, the cubs were five or six weeks old. At that stage they are growing sharp little teeth and the vixen quickly tires of having her teats nipped and pulled about, so she spends a lot more time on top or hunting.
We decided enough was enough, so Colin the keeper, Ben and I hatched a plan to surround the earth. At last light I went down the willow beds, while Colin and Ben each took a different route in, all ending up in high seats between 200 and 400 yards away and all more or less ok for wind. We hoped that whichever way any fox went in or out; one of us would get a chance of a shot.
Now it was just a question of waiting for as long as it took. I sat watching through the thermal viewer, enjoying all the usual wildlife such as muntjac, hares and rabbits. Then as luck would have it, on the other side of the ditch and hedge at right angles to my front, I could see something crossing behind the cover. It reached a gap in the hedge and – yes, a fox! As always the rifle was pointing in entirely the wrong direction, so as it moved on behind the hedge I rearranged everything as quietly as possible and awaited developments.
It could hardly have worked out better. Just as I made ready, the fox came through the hedge and ditch and stepped out into the field I was in and stood looking at me from about 60 yards, as if to say, “Will this do?” I wasted no time and down she went. Seconds later a text arrived from Colin: “Did you get it?”
We hung on for a couple of hours in case anything else turned up, but there was nothing. Sure enough when we went to check, it was the vixen, which had been on her way back to visit the cubs. She must either have been lying away during the day or have been out hunting in daylight. Since then Colin has been feeding five youngsters and watching to see if they draw in any other foxes.
So that was one vixen dealt with. I decided to cast around and check for any others that might have slipped in unobserved. There’s another old badger sett right on the edge of the ground which we hadn’t looked at for a while. Occasionally it contains badgers, but being 10 yards from a road, they often pick a fight with a ton of metal and it will be empty for a while. You never know what will be in – if only they put up a name board saying who was in residence. If it’s a badger sett, one has to tread carefully. I parked up in the only safe spot with a clear field of fire with the wind blowing away. This left me only 50 yards from the nearest hole – I would have to stay very still, sitting in my fox-shooting frame on the back of the truck with a good view all around.
As usual there was plenty of wildlife about and I had the odd false alarm, spotting half a hare and wondering if it was half a fox. Then I saw something in among the brambles over the sett, which might have been a badger, but after a while I could make out – no, it definitely was a fox. Rather than take a risk by shooting through the cover, I waited. It went back over a small bank, then reappeared and stood in some tallish grass looking at this strange new shape on the horizon. That was too good an opportunity to miss; I fired and the fox went down. As I fired, in the scope I saw two little cubs leap in the air and rush off – yes, it was another vixen with a small litter, so that’s two litters Colin is mum to, and two earths we can watch over to see if any more foxes turn up.
A couple of nights later, Kevin – Colin’s dad – was sitting up near the first earth and thermaled what he thought was a dog fox travelling along – but too far for a shot, so we knew there was one more around. I picked a spot where the grass in the adjacent meadow was short enough to see a fox, and set up a portable high seat. The first night I saw nothing, so I moved the seat a couple of hundred yards to the top of the meadow for the next night. I was 300 yards or so from a caravan site – I find town-bred foxes are quick to pick up on human habitation as a source of food, indeed they seem to prefer it to working for a living. Eventually I spotted something heading out of this site, although I could only see the top half above the foot tall grass at 300 yards. I pulled out my Best Fox Call Tenterfield whistle and gave it five calls, varying in length and pitch. Three or four minutes later, the fox appeared heading straight towards me, and it was quickly in the bag at 83 yards – a big old dog fox as that old keeper Kevin had said.
So that was three foxes accounted for in a short time, then a few nights later I was out on a neighbour’s farm, driving around and using a lamp to sweep the few fields where the crops are still short enough to see clearly. I pulled in to a gateway and shone the lamp over a strip of pheasant cover – and saw a flash of eye. Stopping, I climbed up into the fox-box with the rifle, taking care not to clunk metal on metal, a noise that’s guaranteed to send any fox running in the opposite direction.
In the thermal I could see something in the tall wheat leaves about 250 yards out. Though I couldn’t identify it properly, I tried a little mouse squeak. It immediately exited the wheat, trotted towards me over the open ground and kept coming. I gave a click to stop it for a shot but it wouldn’t, so I upped the ante and tried a sheep-like “Baa!” That did it – the fox pulled up, only about 60 yards away and giving me an easy shot. It turned out to be a tiny barren vixen. I have no idea where she had come from, because there has been no sign of a fox in the area. Perhaps she had just moved in. I will never know – but that’s all part of the fascination of fox shooting. It reminded me you can never assume the job is done and let down your guard – or that’s the moment a fox will appear out of nowhere and start causing you trouble! Colin is still out most nights and has not seen a fox.
No one’s killed a fox sitting in an armchair.