As I have said, once you’re tuned in to the countryside, you don’t need to see a fox to know it’s there. You can read the signs and know what’s going on behind the screen of foliage.
This was drilled home for me on an occasion when I was watching over a litter of cubs. I could have shot them many times over, but I wanted to get the vixen first.
One evening I was sitting in my mobile high seat, quietly watching. Far out to my right front, I heard a cock pheasant complaining. ‘Ah, that’ll be a fox moving down the track the other side of the hedge,’ I thought.
A rabbit 100 yards in front of me stood up and looked away from me at the hedge. It stamped its hind legs on the ground to warn its friends. The wind blowing through the greenery had brought the smell of something unseen on the other side. If it was the same thing the cock pheasant had seen, the fox was moving across my front to my left.
A little later, I heard a vixen call quietly from the same track further to my left. It was a single call, like a triple mating call but quieter and lower. She moved into the willow bed moving round me, more to my left. Another cock pheasant started calling, “Fox, fox, fox!”
She went down the headland of a field of rape, still hidden from my view and even more left, but a blackbird on top of the hedge was calling “Pink, pink!” to his mate as she passed. They call differently for an owl or a cat.
At last I saw her emerge behind a house 100 yards away to my left, where someone was talking loudly on his mobile phone in the back garden. She was used to the house being occupied, and just glanced round and continued on her way, passing within 60 yards of the house.
At first I thought she was a cub as she was so small. But once I got a clear sight of her, I realised she was the vixen I’d been waiting for. She was a small fox anyway, but her coat was worn from frequently going underground and suckling the cubs.
She approached the earth, making a sweep downwind. Her caution was her undoing, however, because that presented me with a safe shot. I wasted no time putting a round in her. I had only seen her for the last 80 yards of her approach, but I had followed her progress for 500 yards or more just by reading the signs.
This is vital pre-harvest when visibility is low with the height of the crops.
Before harvest, it’s often best to sit in a high seat or vehicle and wait for the foxes to come to you. Once the fields are cut, you can scoot about and find them, covering a much wider area. It only takes a minute to sweep the lamp across a field. The harvest itself provides opportunities – you can wait for a fox to bolt as the combine clears the field. It can be difficult to predict where they will run, but if you get it right, the results make it worth the effort.
I remember watching one chap get it absolutely right here on the farm. He guessed where the fox would go, and lay down with his shotgun in the middle of a 40-acre field. Sure enough, the fox broke cover and ran straight towards him. When it got close enough, he rolled upright and shot it from a sitting position.
If you do need to go after litters, remember that typically there will be four or five cubs that are starting to explore and hone their hunting skills. The litters tend to hang around together, so with persistence and patience you should get them all. A good tip is not to rush out and collect a fox you have just shot. Leave it there and wait a while. There’s a chance other foxes are nearby.
Even after the harvest, it’s surprising how foxes can remain hidden in a dip in the ground or a few inches of rape stubble.
Remember that in summer you have extra daylight at both ends of the day. Plenty of people go out in the evening because it fits around the other demands on their time. But if you always follow the same routine, you’ll only catch the foxes that are vulnerable to that method. You’ll never see the other fox that is active first thing in the morning. Vary your times and methods, and you stand a better chance of cleaning up all the foxes. Robert Bucknell