From sorting out mating foxes to gauging population levels, Mike Powell lists all the early year tasks foxers need to get stuck into
It seems that I’ve only just put my pen down from writing about the latest crop of fox cubs and whether it’s been a good breeding year or not, and all of a sudden it’s the mating season once again. Apart from the ongoing question about the best way to deal with fox cubs, the one foxing topic of discussion that never seems to go away is the mating habits of the fox. I accept that in a very small number of cases, fairly early or very late litters appear, but in my experience, foxes tend to be pretty regular in their breeding habits, like most otherwild creatures. Deer, for instance, adhere consistently to their rutting seasons; agreed weather conditions can affect the actual starting times, but by and large the roe in my own area and the fallow nearby begin breeding within a couple of weeks at the same time each year.
The fox mating season stretches over a period of roughly six weeks, really getting going as we move into the new year. Reports will come in of foxes mating at random times of year; these are usually prompted because of the vocal abilities of the fox. October is a month when quite a lot of vocalisation takes place; this is probably not breeding, but the cubs of the year that have matured into adults. Family ties are strong in the fox world, and though cubs are becoming more independent, they still like to keep in touch with parents and siblings. Also, as their hunting skills improve, their hunting areas tend to widen, which inevitably brings them into contact with members of other families who are prepared to protect their own territories. This will, at times, result in a lot of vocalisation. Hearing this will often lead people to think they are hearing the mating ritual.
Serious but preliminary mating calling will start in mid-to late November. The triple call uttered by both sexes can be heard frequently as the animals get to know each other’s locations. All this is getting prepared for the serious stuff that comes at the start of the new year. As November progresses, the dog fox’s testes become far more obvious as they come into mating condition; before this they are unable to produce semen. The vixens follow, so by January things really start hotting up, and the chasing, calling and scrapping really get under way, resulting in most cubs being born in March and April. There will be a slight variation between these times the further north or south you are, but by and large actual mating will start and end in January and February, and with a gestation period of 52 days or thereabouts, cubs will be in the earths just at the right time for the parents to take advantage of the increase of food available as spring comes around.
The mating season gives fox shooters an opportunity to get numbers under control before cubs are actually born. The advantage is clear: it is far easier to get rid of one vixen in the mating season than her and her four or five progeny next summer when they are out on the rampage.
One thing that has always fascinated me is just how many foxes there are living in our countryside. I am out on average four nights a week all year round, sometimes more, and I see quite a lot of foxes, but the longer I live the more I believe I am only scratching the surface of what is actually there. It’s the same with most wildlife. Take badgers, for example. Over the past few years, there has been an ever- expanding controlled cull of these animals, which in most true country people’s opinion has been long overdue. Not wishing to become embroiled in the weary and divisive discussion of the rights and wrongs of the cull, I have been amazed by the sheer numbers that have been caught in some areas.
A farmer acquaintance of mine who has suffered badly with BTB over the years was involved in the last cull. He told me that although he knew there were badgers on and around his land, he thought there were very few, as despite being out on his land a lot at night he only ever saw the odd one or two. During the cull almost 60 badgers were caught in his immediate area, and he still sees the odd one or two.
I have little doubt that it’s the same story with the fox. I try to keep numbers in my own area to sensible levels, but year in and out I account for roughly the same number of ‘trouble-makers’.
Some time ago, for a variety of reasons, fox controllers in my area agreed that we should have a real go at the fox population. There had been a great deal of fox predation on lambs in particular – they were getting out of hand. I organised several fox drives after the pheasant season finished, which fitted in nicely with getting numbers down before the cubs appeared. We also went out night after night, and with several people pitching in, a considerable number of foxes were dealt with. From memory, starting in the first three months of the year, we had nearly 250 foxes in the parish, the acreage of which is just under 3,000. Add to these the foxes me and one or two others accounted for in the time since harvest, and it came to a surprisingly large number, far more than I had expected. Even with a pretty good knowledge (I thought) of the local fox population, I was wildly adrift. Later that year, the tally of the foxes I was called out to deal with was almost exactly the same as usual.
In the past I have wondered if the vast increase in numbers of people who now go foxing would have a significant impact on the fox population. And surely it will, but in some areas more than others. Much depends on the geography of the area in question, not only land that for one reason or another is inaccessible, but also the proximity of towns. All very interesting, but there is no doubt that the fox is a true survivor.
As many shooters’ thoughts will be turning to the best way to deal with foxes at mating time, there are a few tips that may help the newcomer, firstly calling. This is the time of year when calling foxes can really work well. Distress, small vermin calls and rabbit squeals can still work, as not all foxes are interested in mating, but they generally take second place to actual mating calls the fox produces. Most good digital callers have dog and vixen calls on their menu, and both work well with either sex. If you hear a vixen screaming, don’t assume she will only respond to a dog fox call – she is just as likely to come in to check out another vixen that is on her patch. It’s exactly the same with the dogs. Though they are more than interested in the sound of a vixen, they will be equally determined to sort out any dog foxes that have the temerity to visit their ground.
Shooting from a static position can work well during the mating period, as foxes will be on the move more than at any other time of the year. If you know your land well, which is always an advantage, pick a spot where foxes are known to travel, and just wait. Put a caller out and use the calls of both sexes sporadically, not continuously. Try to replicate the calls you hear on a still night, and don’t be tempted to call too often or loudly. Another call that works well during the mating season – though I have no idea why it should – is a cub distress or scrapping call. It must be a deep-seated thing within vixens especially that seems to be tied up with mating generally.
There is no doubt that the months of January and February can be very productive for the fox enthusiast. It certainly brings back many memories for me when, as a lad, I started out on my fox shooting and trapping career. Though fox control has changed beyond all recognition since those far-off days, the thrill of hearing the “ow, ow, ow” of a fox trying to locate a mate, or the haunting scream of a vixen responding, still has exactly the same effect. No matter how cold the night or how tempting a warm bed may seem, you just have to hang on that little bit longer to see what may appear out of the darkness.