Your first chance to get after the foxes during the harvest is when the combine starts into the oilseed rape or any winter barley. As the combine works across the field in ever narrowing strips, a fox can find itself marooned in a shrinking island of cover. Eventually it will have to make a run for it.
In fact, the shotgun is the best tool for this job. No 1 or BB is probably the best choice out of a heavy choke. The difficulty is in picking the right spot to wait. It’s not something you can do very effectively by yourself, because there are too many ways the fox might run. You could wait ages only to find the fox flees out the other side and gets away. Covering the whole field would take quite a sizeable team, and it’s not easy to find that many people who have nothing else to do at harvest time.
When you get it right, however, it can be a very effective. In my book I mentioned a chap in Surrey (Mr Surridge of cricket bat fame) who had three left-and-rights at foxes, one after the other, each time the combine went round a triangular field.
You need to stay focused on the job in hand, and not be tempted to start banging away at rabbits. Next thing you know, the combine driver will be pointing from the cab that you’ve missed seeing a fox that ran out the other side.
Besides, fox shooting as the combine works needs a different approach to shooting rabbits. For rabbits, you can stand out in the open to cover the ground between the standing crop and their burrows. For foxes you must be sneakier, hiding back in the hedge or ducked down behind a bale, otherwise they will see you and go the other way.
One good tip is to stand just inside the uncut crop (in a tramline, so you’re not flattening it) looking out, but be sure to get the wind direction right. The fox will come to the edge and look up and down, but won’t see you if you are standing “round the corner”. You should get a nice side-on shot as they make a dash as the combine pushes them out. The big problem is that you can wait half the day and only see one fox – or none! If you know there are a bunch of cubs in the crop it is a different matter, as you may get several of them and even their wily old mother.
Anyone with lots of grass where they shoot will have been able to keep searching their grazed land, then as the silage is taken off followed by the hay they can keep hunting. Even so, when the combines get going on the adjacent cereal land the night sky can look like London in the blitz, as weaving lamp beams shine up from so many lampers.
Once the combines have finished, foxshooters look forward to driving round after dark with a lamp, and sweeping up plenty of innocent young foxes. It can work well, but the problem is that you tend to hack round so quickly that you only skim off the easy ones. If a fox doesn’t come readily to the call, or doesn’t present a safe shot because it’s in line with houses, roads or livestock, it’s tempting to move on, knowing there will be another one down the road.
However, that’s a recipe for leaving a hard core of tricky foxes on your land. I prefer to do the job properly, taking the trouble to finish one fox before moving on to the next. Often it’s just a question of patience, staying with the fox you’ve spotted until you get your chance. It’s also a time when night vision comes in handy. Digital kit like the Pulsar N750 works in all lighting conditions and is especially good at last light when the cubs often first appear. With the cleared ground it is also easier to pick them out with NV, as there is no cover in the way.
With a day scope it might mean taking a longer shot than you would choose at other times of year – but harvest is the ideal time for this. The animal stands out well against the cereal stubble, so you can see your target clearly, and you should know the size of your fields as well. If not, a laser rangefinder will give you the range, as it will read off the dark fox body contrasting against the stubble. Provided you know your gun’s trajectory, have a good solid rest and allow for any wind, then long range needn’t be a problem – provided you put in the practice beforehand!
Be careful if you see only see one eye, or the eyes are flickering, when reflecting the light of the lamp back at you in some tall stubbles. That should alert you to the fact that there may be an obstruction. Stubbles cut high such as rape, maize or linseed, can be very tough, and may be enough to blow up or deflect your bullet and cause a miss. At harvest time in particular you need to be very careful with the lighter calibres such as .17 HMR or .204 Ruger, or even ultra fast light ballistic-tipped bullets in .223 and .243. I prefer a heavier 69-grain bullet in my .223, because I can rely on it to work in most conditions. It may tumble, but it will not blow up and fail to reach the target.
Sometimes you have to be patient and wait for the fox to move to a clear spot, such as a tramline, where you can be sure the bullet will do its job. Alternatively you can carry a shotgun alongside your rifle. Foxes feel a lot more confident in tall stubble, so there’s a good chance to call them in really close before firing.
If you can’t get a shot at a particular fox for whatever reason, come back later. It will probably stick within the same territory, and a freshly harvested field is a big draw because of all the small mammals and insects that get chopped up and scattered by the combine. The smell of all that food can be irresistible to a cub that hasn’t yet learnt all the dangers.
Foxing at this time of year inevitably means keeping some very unsocial hours. In the winter, when it’s dark by 5 or 6pm, you can get your foxing done while the rest of the world is watching TV or down the pub, and there’s less need to stay up through the night. Some keepers switch their routine at this time of year, taking their sleep during the middle of the day like a night-shift worker.
One good tip is to keep your body topped up with food and liquids so you don’t run out of steam halfway through the night. We don’t generally go for hours on end without eating or drinking during the day, or we’d expect to feel very tired, yet people will stay up through the night without taking a break for a meal. It’s no surprise they start to feel whacked.
You can take a flask and sandwiches with you, so plan a pit stop partway through the session, just like you’d take a big lunch-break during a full day of shooting. Small meals scattered through the night are best, however. If you have a big blowout you may want to sleep afterwards, just as in the day. Little and often keeps you going.
Remember that at this time of year there’s a considerable window of daylight, after sunrise and before the human world really gets going, when foxes will still be out. It’s another chance to catch up with them on the stubbles and elsewhere, and with the light in your favour.
So, sit in your high seat of an evening – out all night – then go back and wait at first light for the one that gave you the slip! Robert Bucknell