A few years ago, in my part of East Yorkshire, foxes started to pair early, from mid-October through to mid-January. On one occasion the following spring, I was out on a foxing foray covering a small farm pheasant shoot, and successfully shot three small foxes out of a narrow belt of trees.
They proved to be two dogs and one vixen. Generally speaking, at that time of year cubs are about to be born, but this vixen showed no signs of having cubs or being in cub, despite being in obvious good health (before being shot of course).
But for the foxes who do birth cubs, feeding a litter of hungry mouths is a full-time occupation, and the parents’ continuous comings and goings can be their undoing. This regular activity often betrays their presence and points towards the earth’s location. When the cubs are active, signs of occupation are obvious – fur, feather and assorted old carcases strung about the earth makes it easy to confirm where they are living. However, do not approach too close – any disturbance of the area normally results in the vixen moving the litter post-haste.
Conversely, when the cubs are first born, often in a benign-looking rabbit warren just big enough for the vixen to squeeze into, there will be no trace of fox activity. Sometimes the vixen will choose a badger’s sett, where excavation of soil, changing of bedding, and badger latrines confirm the excavations as brock real-estate. The vixen may give herself away by leaving signs of passage in the soft, newly dug earth at the set entrance. It is not uncommon for foxes to use the same sett as badgers – fortunately they don’t know our laws protecting badgers and their setts, or we would find Charlie squatting in every sett I’m sure.
During early summer, the arable crops are high enough to conceal a fox, especially at night, rendering the lamp less effective. Therefore at this time, I tend to change tactics to early morning and evening. With hungry cubs wanting to be fed, the dog and vixen are active both sides of dawn. One or two well-positioned high seats can be a good asset at this time of year. If you are able to view over a large area with the binoculars and rifle in hand, it is surprising how many opportunistic fox shots you can tally up. However, the real advantage is observing the comings and goings of a fox through a certain gateway or tramline, possibly with a rabbit in its mouth, indicating the general direction of the maternity den.
Another thing to look for is a fox sat upright on guard duty. This is often the vixen positioning herself within a couple of hundred yards of the earth on the lookout for any threat towards her cubs. Ideally you need to take out the vixen and then the dog fox before dispatching the cubs as humanely as possible, but if only it was that easy. In reality it is often very different.
By April, most cubs will be at an age where they can survive on some form of meat alone, but still will not be able to fend for themselves, and would certainly starve to death without parental assistance. Therefore, if I have accounted for the adult pair, I tend to feed the cubs with rabbits at the sett entrance, enabling me to sum the size and number of the cubs. Positioning a high seat within 50 yards of the earth wherever possible, I can sit out well before dark with the .22 rimfire and lamp to wait for the cubs to come out above ground.
On a nice evening, cubs will venture out well before dark, allowing a silenced .22 rimfire with subsonic ammunition to take care of them with very little disturbance. The job can often be done before dark. If not, having the lamp as back-up will allow you to carry on into the night until you are satisfied all the cubs have been dispatched.
There are situations where it is not possible to place a high seat, but using a vehicle or simply getting into a good position where you can see the entrance to the den will suffice. As long as you keep your movements and noise to a minimum, the cubs will venture out.
I remember an occasion when I was repositioning a high seat in some woodland when I noticed a clump of pheasant feathers. Investigating further, I found two more places where a fox had mauled even more pheasants. They were all hens, so it was clear that the culprit was nailing the pheasants on their nests. Pheasants are known for not being the brightest of birds – when it comes to their self-preservation, they are practically suicidal.
Although I had been keeping an eye on the earths in the area, I’d seen no sign of cubbing. This pointed to the fox travelling a greater distance from the cubs as some nursing foxes do, setting their sights further afield and deliberately not hunting the area around the earth.
Over the following couple of days, I sat out with the rifle in various positions around the wood during the morning and the evening – but to no avail. The third evening, I headed away from the woodland and took position on some silage bales, using them as an opportunist high seat. A railway five fields away had embankments on either side covered in four feet of tall brambles, and an obvious haven for foxes. I got into position a good three hours before dusk.
With the woodland behind me, I used the top bale of the stack as a blind and a solid rest to shoot the rifle. Once I’d clambered up the bales, I loaded the .243 with Remington 75-grain Accutip bullets and laid the rifle close at hand. It was one of those late spring evenings with a cloudless sky and a light westerly breeze into my face. I diligently searched the hedges and fields through the binoculars towards the railway. Over the next couple of hours I was entertained by the nature around me, including a mature roebuck seeing off a lesser rival – but no sign of a fox.
As the sun began to set, a cock pheasant slinked past the bales towards a small copse of trees some 200 yards away. As the light faded, a mist closed in, limiting my view to 300 yards. Nevertheless I could hear the pheasant chirp, as they do before fluttering up to their chosen roost for the night. But as I listened on, something was not right, as the rooster began his alarm call: ‘Kok…kok…kok…kok…’
Visibility was dramatically decreasing. I tried to focus the binoculars in the pheasant’s direction, and slowly scanned around the copse. Momentarily, I saw some movement down the hedge running towards me, before losing whatever it was. Slowly lowering the binoculars, I grasped the rifle to see if I could make out what was through the illuminated Zeiss Duralyt optic. I spied a greyish-red patch, belonging to a fox. As it turned in my direction to come down a tractor’s wheeling on the edge of the field, its white chest dispelled any lingering doubt. I kept him in the scope and followed him down with the illuminated dot as more of him was revealed. Target confirmed, I waited for him to stop for the shot.
At around 70 yards he halted, looking in my direction. I centred the dot on his chest while pushing off the Zoli’s safety, and squeezed away the trigger. The fox slumped to the ground, instantly dispatched. If he had been 10 minutes later or the optics had been of lesser quality, I would have probably have been none the wiser to his presence.
As suspected, he proved to be a dog fox. It was a welcome result, and I now had a good idea where the cubs and vixen were residing. A bird in the hand is always worth two in the bush, but never lose sight of the bigger picture, and always try to locate and deal with the cubs. Good relations with neighbours are often essential to achieve this – an annual bottle of malt is a good way to maintain necessary relationships with neighbouring landowners. Mark Nicholson