In these days of instant access to pretty well everything you ever wanted to know on the internet, I find it interesting to read the various questions newcomers to foxing ask about the best time and place to shoot them. Does weather have an effect? What circumstances move the odds in your favour?
All my life I have sought out the fox for various reasons, such as control, prevention of damage, and skins. There have been times when, as far as I was concerned, the only good fox was a dead one. Times change, though, and although I still take care of reasonably large numbers, my interest in this creature has grown over the years.
So what would be my answer to the first question: when is the best time to come across Charlie? Clearly there are times of year when their activities are governed by the natural urge to procreate. Mating time, generally in full flow at the start of the new year, is an opportunity to locate dogs and vixens by day and by night. Obviously they are far more active during the hours of darkness, but when the mating urge lies heavy on them, they will not only be seen during the day, but heard as well. In January 2014 when I was out with the ferrets, I heard a dog fox barking. This continued for well over an hour, with him covering a considerable distance in pursuit of a vixen.
This, however, is only a small part of the year. What of the winter and summer periods – will weather conditions play a part in how many foxes are shot? Speaking from my own experiences, I learned long ago when shooting foxes for a living that weather can certainly affect their behavioural patterns. Most animals, I suspect, react to conditions much as we would if we had to be out and about no matter what. They, like us, would tailor their movements to alleviate the unpleasantness of torrential rain, biting winds, or snow. In other words, they would seek shelter to minimise the discomfort.
But foxes have to eat, and on a regular basis, so even on nights of foul weather their stomachs dictate they have to be out hunting.
However, they will make the most of any circumstances that will keep the worst weather off their backs. Those circumstances will vary depending on the country they are living in. In more open country, field hedges and the natural folds of the ground will offer a little respite from the weather, while in more heavily wooded areas foxes will keep to the shelter afforded by trees and bushes. Prey species, too, will be far more likely to be in areas giving protection so the two systems work well together.
Rest assured: even on bad nights, they will be out there somewhere. It’s about knowing your ground and putting yourself in the fox’s place.
Much is said about ‘snow foxes’, and when the land is covered in the white stuff, many go out to seek the fox. I suspect that foxes view snow similarly to how we do: once the original novelty has worn off, it is a pain in the brush. If snowfall is heavy and settles, foxes will often be found out in the open hunting for mice and voles, which continue to go about their business beneath the white covering.
Many people will have seen foxes pouncing on rodents in grass. This behaviour will often be replicated when snow is on the ground, where the colouring of the fox is in stark contrast to the pristine whiteness. For those who don’t have night vision, a decent scope will show up foxes against the white stuff out to 150 yards or even more depending on the moon phase.
When winter has its grip on the land, bitter winds will definitely affect fox behaviour. I can’t think of any creature, including us, that likes to be out in a bitter wind – it dulls the senses and masks sounds, and at the same time everything is moving. I think every predator, us included, would probably say cold, strong winds are probably the worst conditions to hunt in. As with rain, the foxes will be there, but seeking areas sheltered from the blast.
Leaving winter behind, summer arrives with a host of different problems. Fields suddenly become no-go areas when standing crops of grass or cereals mask what is going on. Again, our behaviour will give a clue as to where foxes will be found – we will skirt standing crops and avoid heavy cover. Most animals, including foxes, tend to do the same.
Established runs will stay open – constant footfall prevents crop growth. Bait put out where the runs meet open ground can give success, as can fields where stock grazes. I have found that whenever foxes are on the hunt for food, they will nearly always visit stocked fields in preference to empty ones. Clearly there is food of one sort or another where cattle and sheep are disturbing the ground.
As summer progresses, fields that have been laid down to crops will eventually be cleared. This will free up much more territory for foraging. One particular farming practice will often give results, and that is topping off weeds. I have shot many foxes that were just sitting around waiting for the tractor to finish this task. Many of the fox’s favourite food items can be picked up after the topper’s blades have skimmed across the field. Rodents, beetles and the like will be there in abundance, and Charlie will more often that not take advantage of this.
As the summer season nears its end, sitting out on warm evenings, particularly if you have a high seat, will give you a good chance of apprehending foraging parents or cubs out hunting for the first time. Pick out rides in woodland or spots you know are frequented by foxes. Although they will forage pretty much anywhere, the margins of fields, particularly where the headlands have been left under a stewardship scheme, offer rich pickings.
I have seen a substantial rise in the number of foxes using these headlands. My local farmer friend has headlands around almost the entire farm, most about 15 metres wide. Their inception was only a few years ago, but they are now well established. The difference they have made to the local insect and wildlife in general is becoming increasingly apparent. While I think it is a shocking waste of good arable land, my friend gets well rewarded financially for taking this ground out of production, and it has certainly encouraged not only the aforementioned insects but also the larger species such as roe, rabbits and foxes, not forgetting our friend the badger.
As summer drifts into autumn, the unmistakable hint that winter will soon be with us shows in leaf drop. The evenings will start drawing in and the lamping and night vision equipment will come into its own once more. The countryside opens up and most of the land will once more be clear.
This is without doubt the most prolific time for fox culling. The new season’s cubs will be causing trouble, particularly with the poultry and game. Focusing on these should pay off, but once more foxes will be out and about everywhere. If you live, as I do, in an area that carries a high population of the top predator, you can be pretty sure that almost all the land you shoot over will be visited by foxes during the night
The trick is, of course, to work out the most likely areas. You can make this a bit more predictable by baiting, or if you have the time, studying where your foxes are travelling. Judicious use of stealth cameras can certainly help – I use these at all times of year, and they really do give a good indication of where and when wildlife of all sorts is about.
Finally, we arrive back at winter, and another year spent tackling the fox has passed.
To sum up: foxes are around far more than most people think, and the more you get out on your land, the more chance you will have of catching up with one. Certainly kind conditions are better, but remember they have to eat, and like us, in truly bad conditions their movements will be more restricted. Whatever the conditions, they will be out there. Mike Powell