It always gives me great pleasure to bring new people into hunting. It is the only way we will survive in the long term, and the more people we can encourage to pick up a rifle, or indeed a shotgun, the brighter the future will be for shooting and country sports as a whole.
My good friend Edan has shot with me for many years, but had always been a shotgun man. After a few years of rabbiting and foxing with his gamekeeper brother and me, he eventually gave in to his desire to own a rifle and applied for an FAC.
Starting where most of us begin, he opted for a rimfire, with the intention of using his new .17 HMR for rabbits, hare and the occasional fox. It didn’t take long for his now cherished rifle to rack up some impressive stats as we headed out week after week to curb the rabbit population – but he was yet to claim his first fox with a rifle. I promised him that the next time we bumped into our nemesis it would be his turn to chase Basil down with some high-velocity medicine. Little did we know that this opportunity was just around the corner.
We had been asked to get to grips with some rabbits on the outskirts of a local town, as the farmer was beginning to see visible evidence of damage. Frustratingly for him, there was a railway line that cut through the centre of the farm, providing the perfect embankment for the coneys to call home. As with most railway lines, the ground either side was overgrown and inaccessible, making any pest control attempts difficult. The only real option was to head out with a lamp and catch them in the act.
As it wasn’t a massive area, we opted for the stealthy approach and headed out on foot. I was lamp man, and Edan took up first gunner with his .17 HMR. The first couple of fields proved fruitful, with only a handful of bunnies escaping the fine shooting on display. This was a systematic search and destroy mission, and we were working well together. There is definitely a big advantage to hunting at night with the same person repeatedly, as you begin to second-guess one another. This was certainly becoming the case with the two of us, and we were having a lot of fun.
At the far end of the farm, a rough overgrown strip dropped down into a den bordering the neighbouring estate. There was a good number of rabbits here, but a forest of dead standing dockings made clean shots difficult. It doesn’t take much for the fragile, light bullet of the HMR to disintegrate, so you have to be conscious of the terrain. An inconveniently placed leaf or grass stem will be enough for a bullet connection failure. However, this does have its advantages from a safety point of view.
Unlike a .22LR, the ballistic-tipped HMR bullets don’t ricochet. This is particularly important when, like us, you are hunting on the edge of a built-up area. It is definitely a safer calibre to shoot with.
We swept the light across the den. A bright flash shone back from the opposite side before vanishing promptly into the darkness. As we scanned down the line of beech trees again, a lone roe deer emerged near the top of the bank, quelling our optimism that we were about to get a chance at a fox.
When we focused the beam ahead of us, two coneys dashed from cover and paused momentarily in full view. Dropping his rifle back on the sticks, Edan nestled into the butt, when the magnesium burn of foxy eyes flashed back once again from the edge of the beam. This couldn’t be a deer – it could only be Charlie boy. At about 70 yards away, it would be a comfortable shot, and, assuming the bullet was well placed, the .17 HMR should be able to close the deal without much trouble.
Drawing aim on the skulking shadow, Edan positively identified the bushy-tailed predator. “Where should I shoot him?” he whispered to me. He was obviously worried about his small calibre, and, having not taken a fox before, was looking for a little reassurance. “Just find a spot behind his shoulder,” I said, “right in the middle of his chest. You will be fine with that. Take your time.”
A moment later, the muted crack of Edan’s rifle broke the silence of night. The returning ‘thwack’ was solid. It certainly sounded like a good shot. In a frenzy, the fox turned and dashed across the stream, through a patch of nettles and over the open ground before disappearing.
Edan turned to me. “It felt good, but he ran a long way. I really hope we find him.” I was confident he wouldn’t be too far away, as the strike had sounded good.
Tracing the fox’s path from the stream to where we lost sight, I paused to survey the ground. There were two options: he would have either headed into the narrow, rough bramble maze on our side, or tracked up the den away from us.
Selecting a search pattern, we began scouring the ground. For more than 20 minutes we hunted for the carcase, but to no avail. I was 90 per cent sure that the fox was dead, so we extended the search across a ploughed field, and higher up the den. Nothing.
Returning once more to where we lost sight, I retraced his steps, imagining where a fatally wounded fox would have run. Then I found him. He was in a shallow hollow on the edge of some overhanging dead grass – a shadow had concealed Edan’s prize. The shot had been perfect, yet the fox had travelled more than 70 yards.
As I am sure you can imagine, Edan was immeasurably relieved that his shot had been a good one. Byron Pace