‘Foxspert’ Robert Bucknell says that noticing foxes in cover is all about looking for what isn’t there rather than what is there, and that time taken to train the eye is time well spent
Like a lot of shooters, I spend many hours up a high seat or sitting on the ground over a commanding view, watching and waiting. I was doing that the other evening when I spotted a fallow buck. To be exact, I didn’t actually spot the buck. I spotted part of his hind leg.
What happened was that I looked at the wood and realised something had changed. I looked more intently and saw something that looked like a hazel stem by a clump – but it hadn’t been there earlier. I raised the binoculars and studied it. From its colour, shape and texture, I worked out that it wasn’t a hazel stem at all, but the leg of a fallow. A little while later, my suspicions were confirmed when the buck stepped out of the wood and began to graze.
That set me off thinking about the difference between looking and seeing. It’s something that people who live in the country pick up without realising, although some become better at it than others. Those people are often the hunters.
George, a gamekeeper, told me about an incident shortly after he joined the army. A group of recruits were taken to a range, and the sergeant told them: “Right, you lot, look out across there and tell me what you see.”
“Nothing,” mumbled most of the recruits – but not George. “Well,” said George, pointing, “there’s someone hiding behind that close-in bush there – I can see his eye. And over there, in that low cover, there’s a leaf or two turned over and upside down. I’d say someone has crawled through there recently, and is perhaps hidden there. And there, behind that tree, there’s a trail in the dew that doesn’t come out again. Whoever made it is probably still behind the tree.”
George was right, and the sergeant asked the soldiers to stand up from where they had hidden themselves. Of course, you don’t win any points in the army by being a smart Alec and making the sergeant look foolish. But it does illustrate how a gamekeeper’s eye is tuned in to the little visual clues that most people miss. The object of the exercise was to start to train the raw recruits not to just gaze at the scene but to look and decipher the things that their eyes were showing them, but that they were not seeing. This sort of thing applies greatly to gamekeepers. Most often the keeper isn’t looking for a whole deer or fox – he’s looking for the little things, such as the flick of an ear or a glimpse of fur through a gap in the undergrowth. George had been doing that from as soon as he could walk.
As more people come into shooting and country sports from an urban background, they find they need to catch up on this vital but little-known skill. I couldn’t tell you how many times I have heard the words ‘Suddenly there was the fox/roe/fallow standing out in plain view.’ Often, the practised eye would have detected the creature before it broke cover. Even more important, that would have frozen the watcher into immobility as the animal checked out the open ground before stepping out.
I have a chap coming to shoot a fox with me soon. He ‘bought’ a night out with me in the BASC auction of promises, and is rightly trying to gain experience. In previous years the winners have all been practised fox shooters; this fellow has done his DSC level 1 and shot a few deer, but he’s never shot a fox. I’ve suggested that he arrive earlier in the day so we can run through some of the basic skills. One of the things I’ll be showing him is the art of seeing.
It’s something that animals do intuitively. Whether they are a predator or prey species, they know when something doesn’t look right. I’m convinced that deer have a mental picture of their local area, similar to what we’d call a photographic memory. Perhaps you’ve put up a high seat, or there’s a piece of farm machinery left in a different place. The first time a deer comes into view, it will stop and stare at the new thing, looking for movement.
It’s the same if the deer spots you – so long as you stay totally still, it will check you out before deciding you’re not a threat and continuing with its business. When that happens, I try not to make eye contact, because I’m convinced animals can sense a threat when you’re looking straight into their eyes. I try to look past them.
Beware of the deer’s ‘double take’ trick. It will look away, pretending it has lost interest – but it has taken a mental picture of the scene. A moment later its head will swing back. If the picture is different, it will often stare and perhaps stamp a front foot, telling its mates to watch out. Suddenly, they all start looking. Any more movement on your behalf and they will rush off in alarm. You need to remain absolutely still until it has had several looks, and is properly relaxed. Then move very slowly. Remember, too, that as a prey species, the deer has its eyes on the side, and it can see you move even when it’s not facing you.
It’s different for the fox. As a predator, its eyes face forwards, like ours. When it looks the other way, it won’t see you move – but be quick, and then freeze without making a sound. It’s still easy to draw the fox’s attention if you are careless.
When I’m first waiting in a high seat or watching from a vehicle, I quickly find that certain objects catch my eye. There’s always a patch of darker grass, a different coloured stem or a low branch that makes you wonder, ‘Could that be a fox or a deer?’ You’ll check these out with the binoculars, and soon learn to ignore them and look for other subtle changes in the view.
Be wary of things that draw your eye strongly – a white flint in the field, a bright flower just inside the wood, or even something very black. It’s the old sniper’s trick to place himself a short distance from something that draws the eye, because it makes it harder for an enemy to spot him. Your eye keeps pinging to that object, and finds it hard to scan the area near it properly. Magicians use similar tricks to draw your eye away from the things they don’t want you to see.
It’s very satisfying when these skills pay off. Recently I was watching a wood and saw something that hadn’t been there a short while ago poking out from behind a hazel stool. Looking closer, I realised it was the tip of a fox’s tail – he thought he was totally hidden.
He couldn’t see me as his body was out of sight, so I carefully raised the gun to aim at the other side of the stool. Sure enough, a minute later he took a few steps forward to peer out from his hiding place. I was ready with my finger on the trigger. In a second I corrected my aim and squeezed the off the shot – and the fox was down before he realised his mistake.
This is the time of year when most animals have bred, and there are young creatures everywhere. All the hard work in keeping predators at bay will have paid off and there should be a surplus of quarry, which provides our sport.
Someone new to the sport who buys a morning in a high seat or a day on the peg may at first be blissfully unaware of all the hard work that has gone into that small window of time. Hopefully they start to realise the amount of somebody’s time that went into the making of their special moment.
Many people like to become involved in some of that preparation time. It may be by becoming part of a small game syndicate and using their time as well as their money to help the shoot all the year round. It could be by helping a keeper with his fox control on a big estate, or helping with an arduous cull for a stalker of his unwanted deer to allow only the best to breed. It could also be helping a farmer of small stock or a wildlife warden.
Be warned. Once you start down the road of understanding, life will never be the same. As your knowledge and your skill expand, a comfortable seat in front of the telly will become a distant memory. And all you asked was if you could lend a hand.