Even when there appear to be no foxes around, judicious use of the thermal imager can identify hidden predators, says Robert Bucknell
Foxes have been in the news lately, as usually happens at this time of year. It’s silly season for the media anyway, and with this year’s cubs roaming about like unruly teenagers it’s inevitable that one or two will get into a spot of bother.
The one that caught my eye was the Camden fox that had a chew on a young lady in her bed. You can’t really blame the poor fox and most red-blooded males could sympathise with the idea. The only problem is that foxes have sharp teeth and will eat anything that smells appetising. The lady in question had left her patio doors open in the hot weather, gone to bed and left an arm dangling over the edge. The fox must have thought Christmas was early – the doors wide open and a nice bit of fresh meat hanging there at just the right height. Naturally enough it grabbed hold and tugged, and when it didn’t come free it tugged harder.
Imagine its surprise when its meal sat up and started screaming. Fortunately the young lady’s boyfriend valiantly drove off her attacker by throwing pillows, and she was rushed to A&E to be jabbed for rabies, tetanus and anything else the fox might have infected her with.
Of course the papers made a meal of the story (there’s a pun in there), describing it as a ‘savage attack’ as if this was some sort of rogue animal with anger management issues. Nope, just a fox, being a fox. It’s the same mindset we see all the time from the uneducated public, who seem to think wildlife shares our sense of kindness and fair play. A well brought-up little foxy-woxy wouldn’t dream of taking more than it needed to eat. Try telling that to the smallholder who has just found all his chickens dead in their run.
Ah well, that’s the world we live in today. Meanwhile, those of us with vulnerable wildlife, livestock or game birds to protect just quietly get on with the job. That’s what I’ve been trying to do lately, but with no luck, as there are no foxes. I’ve seen all the usual fascinating wildlife through the thermal, though with VHD there are far fewer rabbits than I used to see. I’ve spent plenty of time watching bats zooming around, and even spotted a polecat the other day, but not a sight – or scent or sound – of a fox.
I suspect the increasing numbers of polecats we see may also account for the lowering of rabbit numbers. I was sitting in a portable high seat on ground where the owner hates rabbits. As I watched over an area of meadow a small polecat came out of the adjacent hedge and moved out to a rabbit stop, 80 yards out. It went to ground, but surfaced quickly and moved off across the field. Half an hour later, a rabbit came out of the same hedge and slowly crossed to what I guess was its stop. It waited some while on top before entering to see if its youngsters were at home. All gone was the answer, as I suspect the polecat had killed and removed them some time before.
With all the practice at surveillance I’ve refined my technique of spotting heat spots with the thermal. Even with a healthy refresh rate of 50 Hz, you can miss things if you just swing across the landscape. I find it better to hold the viewer still and use my eye to scan around the picture, then pan to the adjacent area, hold the viewer still and check that patch thoroughly. Essentially, I’m scanning the area in a series of overlapping views rather than with a steady sweep. That way I can cover a wide area quickly – certainly far quicker than I could with binoculars in twilight – and be fairly sure of not missing even the smallest thing. With thermal, in daylight, you’re looking for heat sources, which show up very well, whereas with binoculars it’s easy to miss something if it’s partially hidden or doesn’t happen to move when you’re looking in that direction. Just a pair of ears at some distance will not be missed using this thermal method.
As I’ve mentioned before, we did too good a job over the winter, and there’s little sign of any new foxes moving in yet. We had a couple of earths near the boundary, but as I described in the last couple of articles, we have dealt with those.
Colin the keeper has got so bored he’s going off trying to find other people who have some foxes. He’s had a call from a game farmer with several thousand young partridges, who has a litter of half-grown cubs in the area. Any fox worth the name won’t be able to resist all that game cooped up in one spot, and so far he has accounted for three cubs and a dog fox.
That’s one of those places where you need to do the job quietly. A loud bang in the vicinity of all those birds could cause them to panic and hurt themselves. Noise is a problem fox shooters encounter more often than you might think. As I’ve mentioned before, we recently had to deal with a litter of cubs at the back of the village, where we had to be subtle about it. And of course urban fox controllers can’t go round town loosing off a .303 or even a .223.
The public talk about ‘silencers’ but there’s a reason we call them moderators. They moderate the noise, but they certainly don’t make it silent. Over the years there have been a few almost silent guns developed for military use. The Welrod pistol is the classic example – a heavily suppressed rear slide-action pistol produced during the Second World War for use by resistance groups and special forces. There have been a few others, such as the SD version of H&K’s MP5 submachine gun, a silenced Stirling and the awesome De Lisle carbine. They all have to use a pistol cartridge to keep the bullets velocity below the speed of sound.
You might struggle to get one of those on your FAC for fox control, though, so pest controllers tend to go for a subsonic .22LR or an FAC-rated airgun in one of the larger calibres. Both are excellent for the job so long as you stick to sensible ranges. Perhaps surprisingly, a moderated .17 HMR can work well too. The trick is to shoot at relatively close range, so the high-velocity bullet doesn’t get much time to make that loud supersonic crack. It could still be enough to make near neighbours spill their tea, though, so you do need to be careful. But thermal allows you to call in an unsuspecting fox to very close range.
Meanwhile, Nigel came round to borrow my bottle of Bestfoxcall’s Fuchs Lockmittel. He had been asked to deal with some fox predation on some free-range chickens, and he wanted to give the scent lure a try. He set up next to the four-and-a-half-foot tall ‘fox-proof’ fence. A mains-fed electric fencing line topped this netting. Some lure was judiciously placed outside the run. The first thing he saw just after dark was a fox scaling the fence from the inside to get out. It landed clear of the fence to rapidly catch some fast lead, centre chest.
Nigel realised something was not right. Checking with the owner before venturing out, he had been assured that all was in order and the fence was on. When confronted later with the facts, an admission was obtained that the owner had neglected to turn on the power. Nigel’s comment to me was short, to the point and not to be recorded in print.
Matt, one of the lads who help Colin with the keepering, has been busy. He has a permission on a dairy farm in the south of the county, where he’s been going regularly. There’s no shortage of foxes there, and each time he goes he gets a shot. At the last count his tally was 88 this year, and there are plenty more. Recently he shot an old vixen with only one canine tooth, and even that was worn down to half its normal length, so they are still moving in.
Harvest will change things of course, and by the time you read this it will be well under way. As I write, plenty of farmers are taking advantage of the hot weather to get the hay cut, and even before June was out I’d heard of someone starting to harvest the barley. Before long we’ll be able to scoot round the stubbles and spot any foxes that have managed to evade our efforts so far.
The hot weather brings out people who think that being a long way from a house is a licence to do some very odd – and not-so-odd – things. One chap was viewed through a thermal, skinny-dipping in a carp lake at 2am. He had covered himself in a layer of mud and seemed somewhat bemused to be asked what the hell he thought he was doing frightening the fish. The mud had distorted the image in the thermal and at first view the user said he wondered just what he was looking at.
So beware – check twice and again for positive identification. No bullet sent will answer a recall.