I can’t believe it when the alarm clock goes off. There is no way my night’s sleep can be over already – but it is.
I stumble downstairs like I’m auditioning for Dawn of The Living Dead – except that dawn is still over an hour away. My preparations are made entirely on autopilot. Before I slip out the door I’ve just surfaced enough to mumble through my mantra. Rifle, check. Bolt, check. Bullets, check. Binoculars and telescope, check. Radio, check. Terrier, check. Flask of tea, check. Time: 2.45am.
As I step outside, my nostrils fill with that unique scent that you only get by a highland river on a summer night. It smacks of warm peat and cool air, birch woods and bog myrtle. The first flush of the pre-dawn shows a cloudless sky. There isn’t a sound. It’s going to be a stunning morning and I start to feel alive.
As the crow flies, I have barely five miles to go, but it still takes nearly an hour. Crows don’t have to contend with gates or Land Rover tracks. This particular track climbs 1,500 feet, and the precipitous drops mean the only thing tighter than the hairpins is your bum cheeks as you negotiate them. Unsurprisingly, I’m wide awake by the time I reach my destination.
It’s a fantastic vantage point overlooking a vast area. It’s also near where we march with two neighbouring estates. On a morning like this, every keeper for miles around is out. By arrangement we’ve agreed to use a ‘mutual’ radio channel. That’s a lot of keen eyes, spying many thousands of acres of hill. I just know there’s going to be some action.
I’ve timed it well. Although the sun is still below the horizon, there is enough light to start spying the nearest hills. It seems that I barely have time to focus my binoculars before I get a call on the radio. Neighbours have spotted a fox and I might be in a position to help. I fire up the Land Rover and head towards the march.
I take the vehicle as far as I can, then leg it from there. Twenty minutes later I’m settling in just below the summit of Scotland’s most easterly Munro. The sun is rising and the view would be breathtaking, if I had any breath left to take after the climb.
The latest bulletin tells me the fox has joined its mate and they are on the move. I follow their progress on the airwaves and realise they should be coming up onto a face within sight of me. It’s a steep face of scree, long heather and juniper thickets. It’s also a long way from where I’m sitting, and the low sun has cast it in deep shadow. I spy hard enough to make my eyes bleed but I can’t pick these foxes up.
My concentration is broken by a grouse ‘tukking’ somewhere over to my left. I spy in that direction but it’s impossible to gauge how far the sound has travelled in this deathly hush. The grouse goes quiet and I can see nothing bar a pair of hinds. I put it down to a territory dispute and focus again on the gloom of that distant hill.
Minutes later the grouse fires up again. This time I see the hinds glaring intently at some hags. I follow the line of their stares and get the briefest glimpse of a fox worming through the network of peat banks and runners. I send out an alert on the radio and sweep the hags for another glimpse.
Unfortunately, this area of hags spreads for hundreds of yards in every direction, with plenty of hidden exits. After spying for 10 minutes I’m starting to worry that this fox has given me the slip. I lower my binoculars to get the bigger picture. Ed, my terrier, is looking fixedly down the hill. Immediately I pick up the fox. He’s less than 400 yards away and contouring round below me.
For the briefest of moments I consider a long shot, but this fox has a trot on and the distance is increasing with every second. I decide to gamble on getting a better chance. As the fox trots around the slope and out of my sight I’m mightily relieved to hear that Colin, next door’s head keeper, has moved position and has picked it up.
From two miles off, Colin watches the fox as it works its way quickly down the hill. Then it drops into the shade of a vast bowl and he loses it. I’ve also been moving and can now see down to the rim of this bowl. Between us, we feel as if we should have the exits covered. Maybe. We wait, bathed in golden sunlight and nagging doubt.
We hear the other foxes have disappeared amid the junipers. We decide to try to drive the face out, but it’s a big area to cover. Colin puts out a request for help and it’s heartening to hear keepers responding from far and wide.
But now we have to make a decision about our fox. If we knew where it was, I could stalk it. Or if we were certain it was in there somewhere, we could walk it up with shotguns. But we’re not certain and we’re needed elsewhere. I agree to walk it through, despite only having the rifle with me.
I walk down to the rim of the bowl and ready myself. My radio is turned right down and placed in a breast pocket. I check the magazine has its full complement and – unusually for me – I place a fourth round in the chamber and slip the safety on. If I end up shooting a bolting fox, I might be glad of that extra bullet.
With my heart in my mouth I start off down the hill. In this hush, each footfall is placed with infinite care. Every yard I stop and scan the bed of deep heather around me, searching for the slightest tinge of red. I’m dismayed to see how many bumps and deep hollows there are in here
As I make my painstaking way down the hill, Colin keeps radio silence. Finally, I there’s a barely audible “I last saw it 20 yards to your left.” I turn across the steep slope, my eyes darting everywhere.
I get barely five paces when the fox explodes out of the heather up to my left. As I lift my rifle and slide the safety off, I’m all too aware that the fox only has 30 yards to go before he is on the skyline. I pick up the thin line of him visible above the heather and – as he is going slightly left-handed – put the
cross at the point of his left shoulder and pull the trigger.
There’s no sound of a strike, and the fox keeps going. Somewhere in my head, among the sirens and flashing lights, a calm voice says, “He doesn’t need any lead at this range, stupid.” It then adds, “And you’ll have to get it right this time or he’s gone” – in case there wasn’t enough pressure.
Somehow the loaded rifle is into my shoulder again and the crosshairs find the base of the fox’s outstretched neck. He’s now five yards from the skyline. This time, when the rifle kicks there is a deep ‘thump’ to the shot. When the crosshairs settle back from the recoil, only his motionless tail is visible above the heather. Relief washes over me.
Experience tells me to fill the magazine pronto, but this middle-aged dog is very much dead. I sit down while my pulse returns to double figures and my legs regain some substance. Nothing would be nicer than to sit there and bask in the glow – inside and out – but there’s work to do.
I walk for an hour to a point where I can be picked up by Land Rover. From there it’s another hour to the rendezvous point. When everyone has gathered, another hour of driving and walking sees us at the last known address for the pair of foxes.
I’m a walking gun. Halfway along the face, Ed points a juniper bush. For the second time today I kick myself at not having brought the shotgun. When the fox bolts I’m unable to shoot anyway; he tears down the hill directly in line with the next gun. Then, as only foxes can, he finds the smallest of hollows and escapes the net. The other is never seen.
When the dust has settled and the fat has been chewed, I’m taxied back up to the march. Another long trudge finds me back at my Land Rover, 13 hours after I left it. On the passenger seat is my flask of cold tea. No matter, it is drained anyway. That makes two of us. Andy Malcolm