Mopping up foxes

Anticipating another set of September fox control opportunities, Mike Powell reflects on how the countryside and the foxes that inhabit it have changed over the years

It seems to have been a good breeding season for the foxes – certainly hereabouts there have been several quite large litters and by that I mean around the five mark. I know there are records of some much larger numbers of cubs being reported but sometimes I suspect these are the result of more than one vixen sharing the same earth. Certainly in my lifetime I have not once seen a litter that exceeded six cubs. Anyway, returning to this season, I have come across far more than I have for many years and I wonder why. I can of course only speak for the area I know well and certainly here there are a few reasons that I suspect have a bearing on cub numbers.

Firstly there aren’t too many people who actively seek the fox, sure a few run into the odd one, and some will remove them, but increasingly it seems fewer people locally shoot and this is almost certainly due to the numbers of incomers who either don’t shoot or are actively against such activities. Another factor is the undoubted fact that the countryside in general is ‘going back’ – in other words, more and more areas are being neglected. I have a good friend whose family has farmed the same land for generations and it’s true to say they are very good and efficient farmers – but they are surrounded by land where the hedges are wild and unkempt. Gradually the land reverts to a mass of bramble, ragwort, thistle; all of which promotes not only an increase in small vermin, the staple diet of the fox, but provides ideal places for foxes to lie up and breed undisturbed.

Then of course there are the fox feeders, who certainly in my area have caused foxes to become a real nuisance. Feeding foxes on a regular basis is not a good idea either from the human point of view or the foxes, indeed it almost inevitably causes far more problems than most people realise. Raids on poultry have increased noticeably over the past few years and of course it is almost always down to a fox. Certainly there are other culprits such as mink and badgers but in the main it’s the fox that does the most damage. One of the reasons for this is the increase in the numbers of people feeding them – should a fox get to know that there is a steady and easily accessed source of food, they will visit that place regularly, and should there be some poultry nearby, the fox doesn’t have the ability to differentiate between what is allowable and what isn’t, so after hoovering up the regular scraps it’s quite likely to target the fat chickens next door as to him they’re all the same. As a lad it was unusual to find foxes hanging around human habitation in the countryside, now they are nightly visitors, and who can blame them?

Foxes can do extensive damage to livestock and cause general unwanted hassle

These then could be just some of the reasons why cub numbers seem to be on the increase. Oh yes, and there’s one other, the people and the institutions who buy up land and then proceed to ban all shooting, thereby turning it into a haven for vermin. Anyway, there have been relatively large cub numbers around here for the last few years and they have been causing major problems, especially to poultry owners. It seems that hardly a day passes when I don’t get a call out because there has been a visit from a fox with the inevitable ensuing carnage.

As we know, cubs are still vulnerable at this time of year as they haven’t yet learned the danger humans presence. Interestingly, the old foxes seem to fade away during harvest. Certainly in my case I have seen very few mature foxes over the last couple of weeks (late July/August) but clearly at present cub numbers will be greater than those of old foxes especially where large litter numbers seem to be the norm.

A typical call came in recently from someone who had had a number of free range (not a good idea here) chickens injured by a fox. The damage was definitely that of a cub who wasn’t very good at the killing game as yet and had left a trail if injured and distressed birds behind.

I wasn’t aware of any litters of cubs, but clearly there was; young cubs won’t travel far from home when they first start hunting.

My fox shooting apprentice Callum and I set up one evening in the pick-up about half an hour before dark in a small field that has always been a crossing point for foxes heading towards the village. As is now often the case, the lad was doing the shooting and I was spotting and calling. Using a variety of hand calls, the Best Fox Call and the good old WAM as darkness closed in a head appeared through the thick grass in a gateway seventy yards away. Not certain as to its identity through the thermal Callum checked it out through the Longbow and confirmed it. A gentle squeak had it moving into the field where the .223 had it down in a matter of seconds.

The clear range and the few foxes

Staying where we were and keeping quiet for 10 minutes, I then started calling again and within a few minutes a fox appeared almost in the same place as the first and made its way over to where the first lay. It sniffed the body for a moment or two then started moving across the field. Making sure Callum had it in the Longbow a quick squeak stopped it and number two was in the bag. We repeated the exercise and after a few calls a third fox appeared higher up the hedge line where the truck was parked. The lad couldn’t see it from the back seat and this one was a bit uncertain as to what was going on. Fortunately for us it decided to move out across the field where it was soon despatched.

All in all we had been there for about an hour so we felt well pleased with the result. Collecting the three for disposal, they turned out to be quite young cubs that had clearly only just started hunting and were still hanging out together. The field they had been shot in was only about 150 yards from the farmhouse and the chickens, so it was inevitable that there would have been problems before long. As is so often the case, foxes will bring off a litter close to habitation yet remain undisturbed due to the efforts of the old foxes to keep the earth undiscovered. The farmer here is someone who is well aware of foxes and always keeps an eye out for them but even he had no idea they were close to his home.

Mike setting up for an effective shot

Cubs at this time of year are vulnerable for a short space of time and mopping up as many of them as possible before they become wise will save a great deal of time and effort later in the year, it will also save the sort of damage this trio had caused. Calling cubs is, compared with calling old foxes, a simple procedure and the usual small mammal distress calls are all that are needed to attract these young killers.

The nights are without a doubt drawing in, and as I write this the night vision is coming into its own once again. Recently, I’ve been trying out several new items and in the near future I will be looking at the equipment that’s available and what shows the best results. There is no doubt some are better than others, and though most will get the user some measure of success, selection of what can be extremely expensive pieces of kit is a business that for the newcomer can, end in disappointment.

Of course, good results can be obtained by the old ways and, for someone who has been doing this for a long time, it amazes me as to just how far modern technology has come in the last fifteen years. But, there is a feeling, especially with young shooters, that without the latest goodies you are set to fail. This just isn’t true. I have no doubt that the number of true fox controllers is small compared to ‘leisure shooters’ where they’re doing it for sport, or to help out the local farmer who has given them permission to shoot over his land. Where a fox controller is concerned he has to get results and to that end the gear he uses must give him the edge. The sporting shooter can get good results without having to resort to spending thousands of pounds, but more to come on that…

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