A good sheep farmer knows two very important things: when to get the ewes to the safety of the lambing sheds and what constitutes good predator control. In relation to foxes, that’s having a man or men he can trust to respect his land and get the job done quickly and discreetly.
I’ve learned a great deal about fox behaviour on sheep farms – its ways, routes, and the places it favours to hide or bask in the sun. It’s hardly surprising, then, that I’m known as the foxman of these parts. I earned my reputation by a lot of hard work, chasing Charlie on bitter cold nights over frosty, windswept landscapes; that is, until Charlie can’t resist the lure of the rich pickings in the lambing sheds and on the lower fields that lead to them.
In terms of foxing, spring is my busiest time of year. The lambs are easy to take, the foxes are always in abundance and they’re more likely bolder than ever before. The foxes seem to lurk in every valley; they can be found hiding in any dip, hollow, clumps of reed grass and often run unseen alongside every other drystone wall.
As you’ve probably gathered, I’m surrounded by sheep farms. The majority of farms in my area use my services and on some, usually the farms with most land, I have to strip down my kit to the basic essentials as I often need to cover large plots of land on foot. I’ll linger longer than usual at vantage points, overlooking areas where I know foxes come off the moor to head for the weakly adult sheep and even more vulnerable lambs.
I had come back from a trip to Scotland to a constantly ringing phone. It’s good to have the land to shoot over and equally beneficial that the farmer trusts me to do the job, but it does get tiring. However, there is a price to pay for this kind of sport and if that means going without sleep, dragging myself out after a hard day’s manual labour, then so be it. If you’re not prepared to do so then I suggest you take up knitting, or perhaps photography, as I’ve been advised to do.
Each spring brings the same challenges, yet none presents itself in the same way. Although I know the land I shoot like the back of my hand I still need to be cautious on certain areas. I say this as a reminder to fellow foxers who, in their eagerness to get out and into position, forget to beware of dips, sudden drops, large stones and, of course, the dreaded electric fencing. Even after the length of time I’ve spent on familiar land I’m surprised how quickly the farmer can erect fencing – almost overnight. If you don’t see the wire and posts while scanning with the lamp, you can become so engrossed in chasing fox eyes you’ll trip on a rock or walk straight into an electric fence. I’ve had enough jolts over the years to know I don’t intentionally go out to get another, so watch for them day and night no matter how absorbed you’ve become in the pursuit of your chosen quarry.
Although most foxers are grateful to the farmer for allowing them to shoot on his land, ask yourself: ‘is that bottle at Christmas enough?’ As you are already on his land, there are far more practical ways to show your appreciation. It takes very little time to check fences as you walk alongside them. If you see a sheep in trouble and you’re unable to help it yourself, tell the farmer straight away. Sheep are daft animals. They’ll frequently run into fences and if they don’t bounce off unharmed you’ll be surprised how many get caught up on barbed wire. I was walking a fence line in the early evening once, looking and calling for Charlie when I noticed a sheep in trouble. It had got its leg tangled in the top wire of some corner fencing and was tugging and pulling to the point where it was not going to free itself unaided. As I approached it I could see the poor thing was beginning to tire, occasionally slumping down and hanging from one back leg. Now sheep won’t kill you (joke!). They’ll occasionally come over and spoil your shooting or a frisky pent-up tup might nudge you away from his ‘girls’, but on the whole sheep are docile, timid creatures.
It was as I untangled this sheep that I noticed a fox lying down not 60 yards away, half hiding behind the reed grass. Foxes, crows and buzzards are opportunistic creatures. They’ll hang about close by, waiting until the sheep has tired to the point that it will just lie down and give up. In the case of the fox, sometimes alone but more often in groups, it will then come in for the kill. Crows are even crueller, pecking out its eyes and throat while the sheep is still alive. Inexperienced shooters might think that bizarre, but some of the tales I could tell of foxes around any livestock are even more incredible.
A number of fellow shooters have expressed an interest in learning how to go it alone on moorland farms; being able to walk up on foxes in what can be at times inhospitable terrain. Even though I love my night vision, I now most often use the lamp off the rifle when lamping alone, because continually lifting the rifle to scan an area isn’t the most conducive way to search the ground with a light. You can also lift the lamp higher to reach seemingly hidden areas. Moorland foxing is very different to what many foxmen are used to. There are so many dips, hollows, cut-throughs and walls that it would be impossible to shine the light around an area without having to lift the gun or point it at some strange unsafe angles. The very first scan of the lamp can yield crucial information. If you see sheep bunched together in one area and others bunched together lower down the field, this suggests a fox is around.
A question I’m often asked when I’ve been out foxing with a newcomer is why do I initially call so quietly and infrequently? A fox’s hearing is possibly its most acute sense, so even though louder calls are sometimes needed, consider one could be close by. Also, rabbits and rodents don’t squeal for minutes on end when attacked or grabbed by something. The fox’s second most powerful sense is smell, and as for sight, I’m now convinced that the fox isn’t overly lamp-shy, if lamp-shy at all. If you’ve kept your approach quiet, low and down wind when you switch on the lamp from its position that’s all the fox will see – a bright light shining in its direction. Why do you think so many hold in the light trying to work out what it is? They see lights on tractors, workers going about their business and sensor-operated security lights, so it isn’t always necessarily the lamp that has them spooked. It’s more likely a noise you make getting into a shooting position that says two things that mean the same to a wild fox – ‘human’ and ‘danger’. Howard Heywood