Ah, October – the season of mists, mellow fruitfulness, game shooting and wandering foxes. I’ve written before about people shooting at foxes on driven game shoots. As a general rule it’s best if they don’t; a shotgun loaded with game cartridges is not the best tool for killing foxes. An ounce and a 16th of number 6 is very unlikely to kill a fox outright, if at all, and if you’re going to shoot anything, it should be done as humanely as possible. Heavy shot around the BB mark is more suitable for use on the 12-16lb mass of a fox-sized animal. If you have no choice, try to shoot into the ribs of a passing fox when they are at full stretch, and you have a fair chance they will succumb. It’s not always instant, but a hole in the heart usually works.
When we’re out shooting game, I always carry a few heavy cartridges just in case, but even then you need to know what they are capable of and what they are not. Anyway, many game shoots ban shooting at anything on the ground due to safety considerations. But there’s one or two I go to where the rule is “No one is to shoot at a fox except Robert” – they know I’ve got the right ammo, and as I was brought up on shooting many a fleeing rabbit, I have the skill. To shoot into a safe spot on a crowded shooting field and have the fox in the right place and angle takes a lot of practice. Just because a fox is within easy distance, you must never give in to temptation and risk shooting if any of the other parameters are not right. But if all is well, it often puts that very wily fox in the bag that has managed to avoid other methods.
By October, the partridge shooting will be well under way, of course. Now, there’s a bird that really doesn’t mix well with foxes. Their habit of roosting on the ground leaves them open to being snapped up by a hungry fox – and even if the fox doesn’t catch them it will send them whirring off in all directions, splitting up the covey and leaving them bewildered and vulnerable. When I’m driving about at night and see a single partridge sitting on the road looking a bit lost, I know there’s probably a fox hunting the fields nearby.
So any keeper who releases partridges has little tolerance for foxes. In fact, one partridge shoot I know gained extra shoot days at the end of the season when the keeper got himself a thermal spotter and scope. He became much more efficient at killing difficult foxes, as people tend to do when they get their hands on the technology. As a result, many more partridges survived – and even more importantly stayed within the shoot boundaries, enough to lay on two more shoot days. Thermal equipment might seem expensive at the time, but that’s quite some return on the investment!
Colin the keeper puts down some partridges so this time of year he’s out most nights on fox patrol. The other day he mentioned to me that he really missed the bale stack that had stood in the middle of one of his best partridge fields last year – it had been a useful lookout post, where he could sit up and get a good view out to every corner of the 50-acre field.
To his surprise, on his next visit the straw stack was reappearing, as if by magic. The farmer had bought in several loads of barley straw in big round bales to feed his cattle, and decided to store them in the exact same spot. Better still, he agreed to leave one of the bales off the top layer at one end to give Colin a spot to build a hide. It’s all very well being high up on top of a stack, but to anything at ground level you are silhouetted, and can stick out like a sore thumb.
A large bit of height is a great advantage though, and not just because you can see further. A call reaches out a terrific distance from a high position, so you can bring foxes in from much further away. The trick is to give a few blasts on a loud call, such as BestFoxCall’s Tenterfield or a short burst of electronic call on high, then wait a good while and give things time to show up. A fox could have heard your call from well over half a mile away, and even if it hurries it will take time to reach you. Plus, you don’t want the fox to work out that you are above ground level. As it gets closer, its ears will detect that you are high up, and it will be more likely to look upwards and spot you. Another advantage of height is that your scent can be blown out over your quarry, so even a fox approaching from dead downwind may not be able to detect you. And as for safety, all your rounds are striking well into the ground.
Just to prove how effective his new high seat was, Colin soon had an old dog fox in the bag. He knew a fox had moved into the area, so once he was in position he tried a call. Sure enough, the fox came out of the fodder beet about 300 yards away heading straight for him, and just kept coming. In that situation the best advice is to line up your scope and just wait. Let it keep coming. You certainly don’t want to get it getting too excited and have it dashing in at full speed. It’s all too easy to miss a fox when it’s rushing towards you, or worse still right under your feet and too close. Colin knows not to make that mistake, of course, so that one was soon dealt with at a comfortable 70 yards.
Incidentally, here’s a good tip if a fox does appear really close – underneath your high seat, for instance. First of all, do nothing. Don’t move a muscle. If you do, the fox will almost certainly hear you – it is designed for picking up the faint rustle of a mouse in the grass, so it will certainly hear the noise from your clothing moving. Wait until it is heading away from you. Like most predators, all its senses face forwards, including its ears. Once the fox has moved a little way off and its head is facing away, you can risk carefully getting the rifle lined up and prepare to shoot. Keep watching the fox all the time though, and be ready to freeze if it reacts to your sound.
I often find that the fox’s sixth sense cuts in. If you stare at it, it will look back and see your eyes. I always look at a spot past the fox and just watch it in my peripheral vision. At night your best black and white detecting rods are more densely clustered in this area of your eyes retina. This allows you to see better than just staring straight at your quarry.
Anyway, back to Colin. A couple of nights later he killed a vixen as well, from the same high seat on the bale stack. That one was on the full moon – people say a full moon is no good for foxing, as your quarry will spot you. Well, it will if you are standing out in the open, but there are advantages. Fieldcraft is always important, even with all the modern aids like night vision and thermal. In bright moonlight, behave as if the sun was shining – find a shaded spot, sit still and watch. You will see the fox more easily, possibly even with the naked eye, if the moon is full and the background is light coloured – like stubble, for instance. Certainly, digital night vision will let you see in good moonlight with no need to turn on the IR light and risk alerting it. But also if you are sitting in that shade the fox has a lot less chance of picking up any movement.
Finally, here’s a little tip for October. If you have a spot where the local residents might be more than a little sensitive to the noise of a gun going off, wait until the end of the month, when everyone is starting to play around with fireworks. The fifth of November is the best night of all, but these days people start letting off big bangs well before (and after) the actual night. If you can use a gun with a modest report, such as a .17 HMR, then so much the better, though I think that even loud unmoderated bangs are tolerated. Also, bright lights flashing about can often be ignored, and with any night vision you are home free. It’s the one time of the year when people who would normally be reaching for the phone to try drop you in it, calling the cops to ‘suspected terrorist activity’, roll over and go back to sleep.