New year foxes

I’m sure, like me, you have plenty of demands on your time around Christmas and New Year, but I hope you found time to get out foxing in-between putting up the decorations and sleeping off too many mince pies. As the cold weather started to bite, it was clear the foxes were on the move around me, as usual at this time of year.

I get the feeling there are fewer foxes about since thermal technology became widely available and affordable, and I don’t doubt that the two are connected. Even so, the fox shooters local to me have still accounted for a good number. I act as a collection point for the government’s animal health service, who monitor the fox population for unpleasant diseases such as tricinella. They need 450 foxes from all over the country. A fortnight ago I had 14 foxes in the freezer, and no sooner had they been collected than they were replaced with 19 more – most of them shot, but with a couple of road casualties thrown in for good measure. They came from a radius of 20 miles from us, but most from within five miles.

He’s in there somewhere! Robert ready to face the elements

I’m sure the numbers are partly explained by the fact that many people are only a short hop from a large town, where there are countless sheds and outbuildings for foxes to raise a litter undisturbed, and an endless supply of food put out by well-meaning folk for birds, cats, hedgehogs and what-have-you – not to mention plenty of food bins, take-away leftovers and goodness knows what else.

Now the mating season is getting the hormones coursing through their veins, the vixens are looking for a safe place to raise their cubs and the dogs are travelling far and wide to help them have some. Remember that when researchers DNA-tested one litter, they found they had four fathers. So much for the old tales about them mating for life…

Last month I wrote about an unusual fox that had eluded me a couple of times. It walked with a limp, hunched up, and was missing most of its tail, which meant it was easy to mistake for a muntjac. It seemed to be getting along fine, but it was wary of anything that sounded like a mouse or rabbit squeak, which had certainly helped prolong its life.

Colin the keeper and I had both seen it but failed to get a shot, and then he went out with Matt when it went into cover and came out a muntjac. Matt pulled off a good shot, but the fox had a reprieve. Anyone who has shot foxes for any length of time knows that we have all been caught out mis-identifying something. Still, that did not prevent him having his leg pulled, but let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Colin was now fairly sure it had since moved to just over the farm boundary. As luck would have it, a couple of weeks later we were shooting pheasants in that corner, and I went with Quo to pick up a bird that had dropped near the boundary. The ditch that runs along the field edge had been dug out and the spoil had been spread beside the ditch. The soft, fresh earth was perfect for showing up tracks – and sure enough I could see a fox’s paw-prints where it had travelled along before crossing over on to our ground. We have permission to take foxes over the border but it is always easier to deal with them on home territory.

A tale of two shooting positions: The shooting frame on the truck…

I hatched a plan. If the fox was crossing over at that point, there were really only two ways it could go: along the side of the reservoir, or in the opposite direction through the big cricket bat willow plantation. Along that second route I have a permanent high seat set up against an oak tree, with a good commanding view, so that seemed like the obvious place to start. A couple of nights later I got myself set up in the high seat and settled down to wait. Eventually I saw something come round the corner of the water and move along the bank, but I was fairly sure it was a muntjac. Some while later, another warm blob in the thermal did the same thing. It was still 500 yards away, but I felt this one was moving more like a fox. It looked like I had placed my bet on the wrong route – foxy was taking the reservoir bank.

…and the fixed high seat. But neither would prove ideal

I couldn’t get out for a couple of nights, and my next opportunity was on a bitingly cold night with a strong wind and talk of snow on the forecast. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I decided to go anyway. There’s a box high seat close to my chosen spot but I decided to stay on the truck, standing in the shooting frame, parked up in a gateway that should allow me to cover either direction the fox chose to come. I dressed up well for the weather, with all the thick, warm, waterproof gear I could layer on. I looked a bit like a character from South Park – the only bits that showed were my eyes peering out of the surrounding hood, and I kept the thermal in front of those as much as possible to break the wind.

The distinctive image of the fox shows up in the thermal

I waited for what seemed like ages until, typically, a fox appeared across the wrong (upwind) side of the reservoir behind the surrounding trees. I could follow it easily enough with the thermal as it moved across from my right front, but I knew there was no chance of a shot because of all the branches and undergrowth in the way. It crossed a bit of open field, but still behind some tree cover. I watched the fox enter the release pen spinney and thought that was that – I assumed it would travel through, out the other end and away. But then 10 minutes later it trotted down my side of the release pen, up through the small willow bed and out onto the meadow to my left. Once again I had made the wrong choice – if I’d gone for the box high seat, the fox would now be no more than 60 yards away. Having chosen the truck, though, it was 156 yards – not an easy shot in that cross wind.

I remembered not to squeak at this particular fox, but I needed it to stop so I tried a sheep bleat instead. At first I thought the wind had carried the sound off as the fox didn’t react immediately, but a couple of paces on, it stopped and turned with a quizzical look, as if to say “What sheep is stupid enough to be out in this weather?”. That was the chance I needed and I took it without hesitation. Down went the fox, and the job was done.

I was intrigued to find out more about this particular fox, with its odd gait, hunched-up muntjac-like stance and stubby tail. I went and picked her up – it turned out to be a vixen – and sure enough she was in a bit of a mess. There was a nasty growth at the top of the left hind leg, with a terrible abscess further down. Most of her tail was missing, with only four inches or so remaining. I’ll never know how she’d ended up that way, but no wonder she had looked unusual in the thermal. She wasn’t a young vixen; judging by the worn teeth, she had been around quite a while.

This unusual vixen finally pays the price after eluding Robert for a long time

I assumed there might be a dog fox around, but since shooting her it’s all been very quiet at that end of the farm, with no more tracks in the ditch side mud. We can’t let our guard down though. Already there’s talk of a fox up near the village – Colin the keeper has spotted tracks and droppings, so I’ll turn my attention in that direction next.

Talking of Colin, he was out at the far end of his ground as he had seen sign of a fox in that area. He watched as two creatures exited a badger sett and started to play with each other. Looking carefully, he realised it was a pair of foxes celebrating the acquisition of a new home. One came to the call but stayed in cover. The other just watched a few seconds before making itself scarce. Back the next night he only saw one, which came in well to the call again, and paid the price. Town fox, country fox? It would be good to know where they come from and whether that affects their reactions. But no sign of its mate, so more time after lights out.

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