With fox cubs making their first appearances of the year, Mike Powell shares his advice for vermin control during the summer months.
Despite the problems we are all encountering this year, for gamekeepers in particular the summer workload continues. Much of this revolves around the preparation for the arrival of the new season’s poults and all that involves.
Pens and other equipment will have been checked and where necessary, sterilised, and of course the poults will have to be ordered or raised depending upon the system employed.
One thing that is never ending for professional keepers and fox controllers is the perpetual war on vermin. This continues all year round of course but reaches its peak in early and mid summer when the new season’s crop of fox cubs start hunting for the first time. These youngsters tend to present rather different problems to their parents as being that much smaller they can get to places the adult can’t.
However, young or old, all foxes numbers need to be controlled and summer fox control presents difficulties that don’t occur at other times of the year. Midsummer also raises problems for anyone who keeps livestock, especially poultry.
Cubs are growing apace and in some cases are starting to hunt on their own; they all have to be fed and poultry, unless well protected, are always in the firing line.
One of the biggest hurdles that summer fox control encounters is the dense growth of both wild and cultivated plants. The cover afforded by the thick growth of herbage allows foxes to move around almost unseen and this in due course almost inevitably ends up in vulnerable pheasant poults and poultry being taken.
So what are the best methods to get some sort of control of fox numbers? Cubs for the first month or so of their hunting lives are at their most vulnerable, not having yet learned the threat that man presents to them.
One of the best and most effective methods of removing some of these young predators is by calling. The best calls to use are those which they have been used to hearing during the time the vixen was bringing live prey to the newly weaned cubs. These would have consisted of young rabbits, short tailed field voles and field mice all of which produce high pitched squeaks and squeals.
Hunting cubs respond readily to these calls and will, on occasions, come in to them at speed. For this reason shotguns can be a better choice than rifles as sometimes the cub will be too close to see them clearly through a scope. Also they tend to disappear at high speed when they realise the call isn’t what they thought it was, not an easy target for a rifle.
Going back to the problems that heavy undergrowth can cause at this time of year, a high seat – particularly one of the portable types – can be very useful. The keeper may well have a permanent high seat set up adjacent to his or her release pens, but the pest controller is probably best served by one of the portable versions. These of course have the advantage of allowing you to move and set up wherever the chance of a fox presents itself.
Despite the heavy growth there are certain times during the summer months when farming activities can create opportunities to deal with both adult and young foxes. Silage and hay cuts, together with weed topping, open up areas where for some months small mammals have lived in safety.
Not only does the topper in particular make an excellent job of removing the green stuff, it also reveals the occupants, in many cases reducing them to bite sizes pieces! All predators, be they avian or ground-based, love these free meals and in the first couple of days will seek out what morsels are there.
Topping off the weeds reveals more feed for foxes than the silage cut as often these places are in corners or rough areas where disturbance is normally minimal, and modern grass fields have such dense growth even small mammals have difficulty living there.
If you liaise with the farmer and find out when the cut is taking place, waiting out near these freshly cut spots will often get you a fox or two. Some adult foxes are so keen to get onto these free meals that they will on occasions be seen on the margins of the field waiting for the tractor to leave.
If you decide to have a go at a recently cut area it pays to do a bit of a recce first to decide the best place to wait. As a rule there is plenty of cover in the hedges and the best place to set up is where you not only have a good view of the area but essentially a safe back stop.
To this end the portable high seat can, if there’s an available tree nearby, be ideal as you will be firing downwards. If you are familiar with the land over which you are shooting you should have a rough idea of where the fox is most likely to enter the field. This knowledge can make all the difference as you need to be waiting at least fifty yards away from where the fox may appear.
Setting up in the wrong place will often have the fox being aware of you long before you even know it’s there. A good look round the field during the day will give you an idea of where the most likely entry spots are, especially if you can spot a well used run, gateways too are always a favourite point of entry. In situations like these I have found that a caller (I use an ICOtec) along with a jack-in-the-box type lure can work well, if set up with just the lure moving above the cut grass.
Long warm summer evenings are not only a good time to get out with the rifle and quietly patrol your ground, it is also one of the very best times to do some really enjoyable fox control; no icy winds on a dark, wet winter’s night to contend with.
If you have fields that are open and crop free these will be the best spots to look at especially if there’s stock in them. Foxes are always drawn to stock for a variety of reasons, but again they much prefer hunting in reasonably open cover than where dense cover makes locating and catching their prey difficult.
From mid-May onwards the best time to be out is from around 8pm. By then things will have quietened down in the countryside although at the present time there are quite likely to be people in areas where they are not normally found.
Certainly, in my own area over the past few months I have come across people who seem to be taking the right to roam to ridiculous levels and are popping up all over the place. Great care has to be taken. The thermal spotter can be very useful during the day to see what – or more importantly who – is about.
On these warm evenings I spend a lot of time on high ground finding a spot where just scanning the countryside with binoculars can be quite revealing. Where farmers operate on one of the stewardship schemes there may well be headlands around many of the fields and with the dense crops there, wildlife in general will take the easy option and use these as highways. Foxes will be on the move looking out for the young rabbits that will generally be out feeding on these headlands well before the adults.
Sitting in an elevated position which gives as wide a view of surrounding land as possible, and armed with a decent pair of binoculars you will soon spot any foxes that are on the move as their chestnut coats can be seen at considerable distances reflecting the last rays of the setting sun.
During the summer, time spent just watching what goes on inevitably pays dividends more than at any other time of year. Even if no shot presents itself, the knowledge gained from just observing will always be useful. So far this year my local fox population has undoubtedly increased despite the fact that I have been doing my best to keep on top of them.
A good friend of mine who farms in the village is diversifying and now producing chickens for the table as well as breeding certain breeds for selling as live birds. Some of these are expensive and, as we know, foxes seem instinctively to know which are the most valuable birds! So I will be kept busy for the foreseeable future!
As I write this piece things are showing hints of easing a little, let’s hope that there are no setbacks and before this summer is past we may be able to some degree of normality.
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