Foxing in the Snow

Howard familiarises himself with the farm in daylight

There’s an old saying I have that sums up shooting pests: “You’ve got to be out and about to get ‘em.” I always harp on about it, but too many foxers and deerstalkers won’t venture out unless conditions are perfect. Trouble is, if you’ve got a few pesky foxes nabbing precious poultry and generally causing headaches, then you’ve got to be out to catch them out.

Horrendous winter conditions should see many good fox controllers out doing their duty. Prolonged snow coverage and low temperatures will see an increased hunting activity in foxes. A trait of fox behaviour is to sometimes bury an excess of food, but any buried food ends up in very hard ground after a deep freeze. I recall at the start of one year that the local foxes were desperate. Also, vagrant foxes finding it hard on the higher hill ground were coming down to invade others’ territory. The fox situation, like the road system, was becoming congested. I don’t think there was a day that went by when I didn’t get called to one farm or another to sort out marauding foxes. The vulpine menaces were much bolder, coming closer to farm outbuildings and into the farmyards in search of an easy meal. Some farmers had noticed foxes rummaging through gardens or uncollected rubbish bins looking for discarded festive fare, which shows just how quickly foxes adapt to the changing weather conditions. There are few better species survivors in the UK than the fox.

The fox was much easier to target than usual at the start of the year, in the wintery conditions that caused chaos throughout the country. Charlie was abroad at all hours and the snow showed his runs and regular routes of travel.

Even in good weather, no predator wants to waste precious energy reserves trotting across hill and over dale; they’ll generally go straight to the larder (an area where they know there’s likely to be food) and be back in the earth before Eastenders has finished.

The first of the two most memorable fox outings during this snowy period was on a farm I’ve not been called to for a while. The other was on a farm where I’m a regular visitor. Even if it’s new ground, a fox man should remember the basics. Although the farmer may tell you where and at what time he’s seen the foxes about, you should always have a good look around during daylight hours. It surprises me how few take the trouble to do this. I know a lot might say they haven’t the time, but to be successful you’ve got to make time. Although I had walked this ground many times before, it had been almost 12 months since the farmer had last needed me. When he did, the situation was desperate. Foxes, apparently, were everywhere.

Howard’s TOP TIP: Survey your shoot in the daylight, not just at night

I quickly visited the farm and had a good look around from key vantage points with my Meopta binos. If you haven’t been on your permission for a long time, give the farmer a knock after you’ve phoned to say you’ll be down, and just have a few friendly words face to face. It’ll stand you in good stead for future relations – that call has shown you are there and taking an active interest in his fox problem. Some shooters think they’ll be seen so don’t bother, but believe me, just a few minutes’ friendly banter goes a long way. After the pleasantries I got straight out on to the ground to familiarise myself with the place in daylight. Don’t worry about taking the gun or being seen by foxes, just make sure no new buildings have gone up or fields turned into paddocks and suchlike. Even though you may think you have a sound knowledge of the ground, it’s very easy to forget a particular area that might be cause for concern when out at night if you’ve a lot of land to cover.

As the place is quite expansive, I was glad of a good quality pair of binoculars. I didn’t see too many fox tracks on this piece of land so I had an idea Charlie would be using a very old, disused railway line that crosses through the ground, and I headed over there to look for evidence.

Many of us relate to the simplicity of animal behaviour if judging it against how we think as humans. Whenever possible, we’ll take the fastest route from one shop to another; in the fox’s case it’s one meal to another. They also know they’ve got the chance of picking something up on the way, perhaps a rabbit or ground bird, which are also finding it hard in these harsh conditions. Along the rough part of the disused rail lines there are also occasional culverts, other drain holes and the like. These are often used by foxes as occasional dens. On my initial recce I found tracks, and ground that was exposed where foxes had been grubbing around. The fox is a true opportunist predator and doesn’t differentiate between poultry, earthworms, or grubs. I had seen evidence that foxes were working the railway – I could now form a plan.

I returned later that evening. Please note I didn’t say ‘night’, as foxes will be out as soon as daylight begins to fade, often at dusk. But as the days are sometimes dull it’s very hard to differentiate the witching hour – one day there’s cloud cover, the next clear sky. In these cases I won’t initially use the lamp to scan the ground, merely have a good look around and call from strategic areas. Remember, though, that in these conditions you, like the fox, will stick out like a flea on a white blanket.

Snow makes it easy to pick up foxes’ tracks

Let your eyes become accustomed to your natural night vision and you’ll be surprised what you see. On a good, clear night you can see a fair distance on relatively flat land that rises to the hills, and believe me, when there’s snow on the ground you will see even further and with more clarity. Obviously you do need the lamp to pick up eyes and to make positive identification, but in the first instance it can sometimes work against you. As I said before, foxes are far less cautious the more desperate they are to feed. This isn’t reason to become complacent – always ensure you have a backdrop behind you to avoid being silhouetted, or have something in front that breaks up your outline. Keep a check on the wind direction at all times, as the fox will be relying heavily on its sense of smell, along with hearing and sight, to detect danger. In these situations you’ll find that once the fox has found a food source it will go to it purposefully, rather than roaming around as at other times of the year. Knowing where foxes are likely to head and the routes taken to and from that location are the keys to success.

I returned in the early evening and got into a good position with a commanding view. It was a clear night – not great for lamping – but after a good spy around I scanned the distant areas with the Thor handheld light and red filter. Immediately picking up a pair of eyes, I turned the lamp off and squeaked a rabbit distress call on my fingers. My position was a good one; I was well down behind a wooden fence that broke up my outline. One more call on the hand and Charlie came slightly closer, though it was obviously a very wise one as it ducked and dived, eventually disappearing back over the hill and out of sight. Even so, due to the conditions I reckoned it hadn’t gone far, so I played it a tune from my favorite electronic caller – the Digital Callmaster – and it showed itself instantly. Knowing he was a wary critter I didn’t switch on the lamp or call again, as he was obviously committed to his expected easy meal. He came into a range of about 120 yards but I was already rested on the wooden fencing, and the natural light made him clearly visible in the Simmons Super Nightview scope. My .223 calibre Tikka 525 dropped him where he stood. Those 55-grain Ballistic Tip V-Max bullets really do stop foxes in their tracks.

The second fox was much easier in comparison, as it was shot in a place I know well. I had visited the land frequently as I was sorting a rabbit problem there with the .22LR rimfire. The ‘fluffy hopping gnawers’ were wreaking havoc on the saplings that had been planted. This time though, the call was to sort out the foxes that had taken an unhealthy interest in the landowner’s ornamental ducks. It’s a lovely spot in the summer, but in a landscape reminiscent of Siberia, it was difficult to make out the lake. Thankfully, I knew the terrain, and where the bankside is, as it’d be so easy to go over the edge and end up in the water. When the weather was at its worst, the foxes were just nipping out from their den (I had an idea of its location) to trot across the lake and nab a duck or a goose. The landowner had said he’d gone out to spread some feed and noticed a lot of feathers and missing water birds.

The fox paid the price for sticking out against the snow white backdrop

This was a morning job. I simply waited within range of the lake and the ‘duck cabins’, as I call them. Sitting tight near a large fencepost, I was hidden and had a good view of all possible approaches. I knew there was no need to call as Charlie was coming here regularly for the ducks and geese. In fact, calling in this situation may well have turned them away as they were intent on waterfowl. Quiet ambush was the plan and I settled in to wait. Sure enough, within half an hour on the first morning a vixen came out of the far wood, heading straight to the lake. With a good sky overhead, the fox stood out against the snowy backstop of the hill it was trotting down. I was on target immediately and took a steady rest on the shooting sticks. She suddenly stopped for a moment and, standing clear in my crosshairs, my trusty .223 Tikka stopped her dead.

Adverse weather conditions don’t have to be uncomfortable if you are well prepared. The reality is that the harshness of winter can actually make catching up with Charlie a whole lot easier. On this occasion I saw the foxes, but they certainly didn’t see me. Howard Heywood

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