Frigid foxing

With the south coast of England experiencing a rare snowfall, Mark Ripley is called upon to deal with not one, but three foxes

The hills glistened with a fresh dusting of snow, and by the full moon I could see as far along the valley as I could in daylight. The sky was clear, and you could have heard a pin drop in the still, crisp air – if you could find something that wasn’t covered in snow to drop it on.

I had my thermal spotter next to me, though I could see almost as well with my binoculars and day scope. The mission was simple: the farmer was keen to keep foxes at bay before the spring’s crop of lambs arrived, and he’d seen three foxes chasing around in the snow the day before.

I watched as the sheep huddled together for warmth against the stone wall. It made me more conscious of how numb my toes and fingers were getting and how wet my leg was from the snow seeping through the barbed-wire hole in my trousers.

I’d been lying in this scrape on the hillside over looking the nearby patch of gorse bushes since late afternoon, which was by now a good two hours ago. I’d expected to see a fox leave cover soon after dusk judging by the amount of tracks I’d seen going in and out of the cover.

Snow can have a big effect on a fox’s routine. With food becoming scarce, it can often be seen hunting at any time throughout the day or night. We don’t get snow that often this far south, and many foxes might only experience it once in their lifetime. Like dogs, foxes can often be seen playing, rolling and chasing around in the snow, seemingly fascinated by this new world they find themselves in.

For me, the cold was getting a little too much, so I decided I’d have a walk around to the other side of the farm buildings. There was a chance that a fox would be mousing around behind the hay barns where the snow wasn’t so thick. I stood slowly on stiff legs, using my shooting sticks for balance until my legs woke up before trudging through the snow.

Crunching footsteps can spell the end of a foxing outing if you aren’t careful

I hadn’t gone more than 100 yards when I clocked a fox crossing the white hill within 150 yards of me, seemingly unaware I was there despite my crunching footsteps. He stood out clear as day against the snow, and though I had a white sheet draped over me like a poncho, I would surely have been visible if he had looked in my direction.

I sunk slowly to my knees in about six inches of snow and set out my bipod with the legs fully extended before lying down gently on the fresh snow. I had the Pulsar F155 mounted to the front of my scope, though I could have used the day scope alone with the light of the moon. The fox stood out clearly against the snow, and there was no need to flick on the IR and risk spooking it. I was going to give it a shout to stop it, but it paused anyway to sniff at the snow and paw at the ground.

The .260 spat its 143gn projectile, and the fox slumped over on its side before rolling on to its back. Even from where I was, I could see the hot air rising from the additional hole in its side. This was a good-sized dog fox with a lovely thick coat, and in prime condition, but nonetheless an unwelcome inhabitant on this hill side.

With another flurry of snow beginning to fall, I decided to head home and warm up with a stiff drink and a hot bath. Any other foxes could wait until the morning. The good thing about the winter months is that you can get out after dark for a few hours and still be home at a sensible time as it gets dark so early.

A clear advantage of the snow is that it will show up fox tracks and tell you where to wait

After warming up and getting a decent night’s sleep, I was out and back at the farm for first light. The sky lightened to reveal fresh fox tracks along the fence line, showing that a fox had recently come through. The prints indicated a reasonable-sized fox, with obvious marks in the snow where its brush had touched the soft snow as it walked.

It’s not always easy to differentiate between tracks made by a fox and those made by a dog. Dog prints are more rounded than fox prints, while fox prints are more pointy, with a bigger gap between the rear of the two middle toes and the front of the two outer toes. With the added swish marks from the tail in the snow, this was clearly a fox.

I decided to watch over another patch of wooded area a little further up the steep hill, as the tracks were heading in that general direction, and it’s often a good place to catch a fox out after the rabbits that always seem to be out on the woodland edge. As I crunched up the bank through the snow, bit by bit I could make out more of the trees, laden with snow. Just as I got high enough, I saw a couple of rabbits dash into the brambles. A quick look along the edge of the tree line revealed nothing, so I thought little of the disturbance and trudged forward with the trees still almost 200 yards ahead of me. I decided I would wait in the edge of the wood for a while and see what came along.

I was busy picking a spot that looked good to wait, when out of the corner of my eye I spotted something stood in the snow that hadn’t been there a second ago. I froze and turned my head, but the game was up. The fox had seen me, and in no real rush slipped into the trees. To my amazement, it simply wandered a few yards up the bank, and turned to sit and watch me.

Clearly it felt its camouflage was on par with that of a chameleon – but it wasn’t. I sunk to the ground and set the rifle on the bipod. Looking through the scope, the fox sat staring back at me, occasionally glancing left or right nonchalantly. At about 140 yards off a bipod, it made for a comfortable shot and the vixen crumpled into the snow.

I recovered the fox and settled down in the wood to wait. After around an hour, my ambush was cut short as several youngsters walked up from the footpath lower down the hill, pulling sledges, laughing and joking loudly as the approached. Not wanting to cause alarm, I walked up through the trees to circle around and back to the farm unseen.

I’d had some good results, but the farmer had seen three foxes and I had two to show for my efforts so far. I knew that unless I could produce three shot foxes, the farmer would be back on my case before long. I decided I would make another visit that evening, but that would be my last attempt for a few days to maintain domestic harmony with Mrs Ripley.

Throughout the day the sun came out, and in no time the snow on the roads and in the town had turned to nothing more than patches of slush. But the hills still retained a fair dusting. Soon, I was heading out again.

Some last-minute luck means Mark’s put three foxes on the ground

The XP38 thermal spotter worked well in the cold weather, with rabbits standing out like brightly glowing blobs everywhere, but I was struggling to find a fox. I had trudged about for a couple of hours and was ready to accept defeat. I headed back towards the warm glow from the farmhouse window, and my truck parked nearby in the yard.

I got back to the truck, and began to bundle everything on to the back seat when I spotted my Fox Pro sat on the passenger seat. I hate to be beaten at this game, and thought I’d just have a quick call behind the farmhouse where the farmer had seen the three foxes previously. Sneaking round as quietly as I could, I peered around the corner of the barn, but could see nothing moving except a couple of rabbits feeding on the edge of the small patch of gorse. I half-heartedly walked forward 60 yards, and dropped the caller into the snow before walking back to stand in the shadows of the barn. I played a distressed rabbit call on a low volume as it was a still, quiet night.

No sooner had the caller started its song when a fox burst from the gorse, momentarily standing and looking round before charging dramatically through snow towards the caller. Surprised to get such an instant response, I fumbled to turn on the NV. By the time I’d shouldered the rifle and leant against the edge of the barn, the fox was on the caller. It reeled back a few yards, puzzled by this box of noises, and stood gazing at it. Sure the fox was about to bolt, I quickly lined up on its chest and knocked it down. Satisfied it was dead on the spot, I paced out the distance; it was a mere 40 yards.

After three visits, by the skin of my teeth I’d managed to pull off a hat trick, and left the dead fox in the yard with the other two ready to go in the dead bin.

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