With thousands of lambs to protect, Mark Ripley puts in the hours with his rifle, Nightforce scope and thermal imager to keep them safe.
It was still dark when I pulled up to the field gate, quietly slid back the rusty bolt and unhooked the loop of baling twine from over the post.
A few of the closer ewes stood on stiff legs to lead their sleepy lambs away from any immediate danger as I swung open the gate and rolled into the lambing field as quietly as the rattling diesel engine would allow.
I turned the engine off and closed the gate behind me before sorting out my gear laid on the back seat. As it would be nearly two hours before it was properly light, I attached my night vision add-on and infra-red illuminator to the rifle.
I slipped a full magazine into the .260 and unfolded the stock before firing up the Pulsar XP38 thermal spotter.
I only had a small window of opportunity on this part of the farm, as at first light the farmer’s son would be here with another lad hacking around on quad bikes to check the ewes and lambs born during the night.
The farm had suffered a few losses on this field over the past few nights, and despite several night-time visits and a few foxes shot, were still losing lambs, so we had decided to try a different time slot.
I was on my own on this side of the farm but my usual shooting partner Gary was out on the opposite side of the hill over watching another field of ewes.
Between us we cover a vast area of downland hills peppered with several thousand sheep owned by the biggest sheep farmers in the area along with several other smaller farms with perhaps 300-400 ewes.
Once the thermal came to life, I scanned the surrounding hill and quickly spotted a fox making its way between the ewes and sniffing around in the grass.
I tried to set the rifle up on the bonnet of the truck, but the angle wasn’t right for me to get on to the fox. I tried lying on the track but then couldn’t see the fox as the ground fell away from me.
The only steady option I really had was from the roof of the truck, so quickly getting around behind the vehicle, I opened the tail gate, climbed up and rested the rifle on the rear cab’s roof.
Surprisingly for all my faffing about, the fox was still ambling carelessly up the field and had now come to within 120 yards of me. I switched the night vision and IR on, and soon picked up the fox in the scope. It was still not bothered by the IR and carried on nosing about the field.
I didn’t need to shout to stop it – I simply waited until it paused to sniff something before sending 143gn of heavenly wrath towards the potential lamb thief. I didn’t see the contact in the scope due to recoil – just the mist, fur and debris from the shot drifting on the wind where the fox had stood.
Wandering down with the thermal, I soon found a vixen, very much deceased. I laid her in the back of the truck and drove up to the barn at the top of the hill to lay her by the gate for the farmer to find and dispose of.
He likes to see that foxes are being controlled regularly and adds them to his ‘dead bin’ of livestock to be collected by a contractor for disposal. I was pleased with such an early result – if I didn’t see anything else this morning it would still have been worth the 4am start.
Further down the valley is a very ‘foxy’ looking section of wooded cover where the previous evening Gary and I had sat and watched over in the hope that a fox may emerge as the light faded.
Despite counting over 100 rabbits around the edge of this bit of cover it failed to produce a fox that evening but I felt sure it would be worth watching again this morning being the only real cover for some distance on these open rolling hills.
I walked slowly down the valley towards the cover, stopping regularly to scan the hills and sheep for any signs of a fox with the thermal imager. With so many lambs it’s hard sometimes to pick a fox out, especially when the lambs are actively playing or wandering about.
Fortunately all was still and nothing moved to catch my attention. Sometimes a fox will curl up and watch the flock from a short distance away, so any fox-sized heat source is worth a closer look if it’s too far from any of the ewes.
Occasionally a careless ewe will let one of her young get left alone, but a quick look through the night vision will confirm if it’s a lamb or our red nemesis.
Reaching the cover some 500 yards or so further down the valley, I set up about 200 yards from the bottom of the cover on the opposite bank and settled down to wait. Before long, something moved from the bottom corner of the cover up through the trees and out of sight, but I was unsure if it had been a fox or a badger.
By now dawn was breaking and I was able to make out the rabbits along the edge of the cover through my Nightforce scope without the need for night vision.
The farmer’s son appeared on the far end of the valley and began doing his rounds on the quad bike when I spotted a fox in the middle of the cover hunting the rabbits among the small patches of gorse. By the time I found it in the scope, I was just in time to see it disappear into the lower section of the cover.
I felt pretty sure it would re-emerge soon and kept a watchful eye out. I was still using the thermal to spot as it’s so much quicker to spot a fox with than a pair of binoculars.
Sure enough, the fox was back out in the open, but it had managed to cover some ground unseen, appearing at the far end of the cover to sit and nonchalantly watch the rabbits playing further along.
This looked to be a good-sized fox in prime condition, its red coat bright in the first rays of the early morning sun. I ranged it quickly at 230 yards and dialled an MOA for windage, allowing for the fact I was shooting downhill and just over an MOA for the crosswind of about 10mph blowing down through the valley.
I took my time, gripped the rear bag under the butt of the stock and held the crosshairs on its chest as it sat facing me before pausing my breath and taking up the 1.5lb of trigger pressure.
The rifle cracked and I watched the bullet impact on the fox’s chest, sending a puff of hair drifting in the wind and rocking it slightly back before it curled its head forward and rolled on stiff legs forward then on to its back.
The solid thump came back across the valley a split second later. Though not a particularly long shot, it was satisfying, nonetheless shooting downhill with a stiff crosswind and scoring a humane solid chest shot with little time to prepare.
I walked down the hill and climbed the fence into the next field to retrieve the fox and found a very dead, good-sized dog fox laid close to a rabbit bury. Throughout the morning I’d texted Gary to keep him up to date with progress, so I texted him again to say I’d head back over to the farmyard and meet him there.
On the way back to the truck, the farmer’s son rode over on the quad and was pleased to see another fox down. Looking decidedly knackered, he mentioned they still had another 200 ewes to lamb so we weren’t done just yet!
I drove round to the farm yard to find an equally tired looking Gary. “How many have you had?” I enquired? Four was the answer. “Four? What time did you get up here?”
“I’ve been here all night!” he said. Now that’s dedication for you.
A week later and we’ve had no more calls for this part of the farm, but as usual we’ve had calls from other farmers and have jumped from one to the next, often for just a quick look round for a couple of hours, hopefully shooting one or two before moving on to the next farm in a process of elimination until the right one is shot, reducing potential threats at the same time.
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