Faced with a lamp-shy vixen, Andy Malcolm finds his worst fears confirmed as a 2,000-foot ascent and an all-night vigil separate him from his quarry
With foxing season upon us again, it was time to walk my beat. My five colleagues and I met up and we set off sharp. We knew we had a full day in front of us.
I suspected we would find a den. I’d been seeing signs of foxes right through the winter. Despite this, I’d never once had a flash of an eye in the light. This meant either the foxes were keeping well away from civilisation (and my ground has plenty scope for that), or they were as lamp-shy as they get. I feared the latter.
All was going well. We’d checked a couple of major cairns, and the terriers had come up with nothing but an unlucky rabbit. From there we spread out into an extended line to work right out one side of the glen. My place was at the top of the line and I had a long, very steep climb to get to my position.
The steam was still coming off me when the radio crackled with the news that one of the lads had come across a fresh kill. Within yards I saw one of my terriers sniffing at something among the coarse yellow grass. On investigation, it turned out to be a scat so fresh it was nearly steaming.
“Oh, no,” I thought to myself. “Not the top warren. Anything but the top warren!” A chill ran through me that had nothing to do with the brisk north wind and the 2,000 feet of altitude. A while later the slope opened out and I watched in trepidation as two of the lads converged on the hollow where this last outpost of rabbitdom lay. Even from 200 yards away I could see their demeanour change.
“They’re here,” came the announcement over the airwaves. I made my way down to join them and my heart made its way down to my boots.
We tried a couple of terriers in succession down the scraped-out rabbit hole. After an initial enthusiasm they quickly became bored. The vixen wasn’t home. We stood back with the guns and gave it a while, just in case. As we waited, my eyes were drawn, time and again, to the microscopic speck in the distance that was the Land Rover. It was parked at the nearest accessible point – a couple of miles and 1,200 feet away.
When my eyes weren’t lingering on the Rover, they were leaving the sandhole and scanning around, searching fruitlessly for a vantage point that would give a clear view of the approaches to the den. Which was just plain daft, really – it was still the blind swine of a place it always had been.
After a couple of hours it was decided that we best move on. There was an awful lot of ground still to be checked. Furthermore, I would have to be back out at this place by early evening in an attempt to catch the vixen coming in before dark.
It was late afternoon by the time we returned to the Rover. It had been a hard day, and for most of us it was only just getting started. Unusually, we’d found another den in a cairn right at the head of the glen. There would be two pairs of us heading back out onto the hill as soon as we were organised.
Gus drew the short straw and was to come to the top warren with me. We arranged to meet at the farm, and scrambled off to throw our gear into bags and food down our throats. Within a couple of hours we were trudging back out to the glen. On our backs we had rifles, binoculars, radios, sleeping bags, bivvy bags, camp mats, food and drink, spotlight, battery, head torches and any extra items of clothing we deemed necessary to survive the night.
The first half of our yomp followed the centuries-old pony path that winds its way out the floor of the glen. Despite the ease of the walking, our loads ensured we had a rosy glow about us by the time we arrived at the foot of the hill. The evening light made it look dramatic… and very, very steep.
Three quarters of an hour later we arrived at the den, our faces scarlet and bathed in sweat, blowing like a couple of old carthorses. We fell to the ground and, propped in the sitting position by our bulging rucksacks, expressed clear opinions about the place, the foxes and, well, everything else.
With our spleens well and truly vented, we hid the spare gear in a hollow, took our rifles and went off in different directions. Gus went to cover a narrow pass that led to a corrie favoured by foxes. I lay within shot of the warren.
As I settled down I was pleased to note that it was only 6.30pm. There was a good chance that, this early in the season, the vixen would be eager to return to her cubs and come in well before dark. I cranked a bullet into the chamber, got myself really comfortable and prepared for a long, motionless vigil.
Time passed slowly and the temperature dropped quickly. By the time dusk fell I was already wearing most of my ‘emergency’ gear. When I could no longer trust that I would spot a fox with my naked eye, I used my binoculars. When it got too dark for them, I decided to have a shine with the lamp before I moved back to the den.
I switched the lamp on and was met immediately with the electric shine of a pair of eyes, looking over the ridge 100 yards to my left. In an instant the fox ducked out of sight. If I had blinked I would have missed it. I got on the radio to Gus, telling him to stay put in case he scared her off on his return to camp. Then I waited what seemed like an eternity before trying the lamp again.
To cut a long, frustrating story short, the fox didn’t put another appearance in until signs of dawn were appearing on the eastern horizon. Gus had joined me and we’d kept our vigil going through the night. We lay quietly and shone the light around every 15 minutes or so. We got up and searched about on that horrible rounded slope. We tried playing various calls – all to no avail.
When she eventually did appear, she started moving off as soon as the light hit her. She ducked into a hollow, heading left, then inexplicably appeared on top of the rim of the hollow to the right. I couldn’t believe my luck as she stood broadside, looking down the hollow. I was already into the rifle and wasted no time. I placed the crosshairs behind her shoulder and took up the pressure on the trigger.
The muzzle flash obscured my vision for an instant as the shot boomed across the hillside. A fraction of a second later the distinctive ‘smack’ of a solid hit echoed through the blackness. When the crosshairs returned from the recoil, the fox had vanished. I cycled the bolt and watched through the scope as Gus held the beam on the place. After a few seconds the beam flicked left then right, checking that the fox wasn’t sneaking off out of the beam. Nothing moved.
After a minute, I opened the bolt and replaced the spent round. With the magazine full and the breech empty, we made our way slowly up the hill. A biting wind had got up in the night and we were frozen, tired and stiff. I reckoned the range to be about 150 yards; my legs told me 300. Was I ever glad when we found the fox lying where it had dropped. Too tired to speak, Gus gave me a pat on the shoulder. Enough said.
As I squatted to inspect our victim, a couple of things became apparent. The first was how high in her shoulder the exit wound was. I put this down to the steep uphill shot. The second was that she was a he. The more I thought about it, the more I reckoned the pair had been there together and it was the lamp-shy vixen that had headed away through the hollow. And if she was spooky before, having her mate shot within yards of her would have her on tenterhooks now.
We lamped for the rest of the night and spied the surrounding hills through dawn. There wasn’t a trace of her.
Gus and I returned the next night despite of a poor weather forecast. We sat up on that hill and were blasted by wind and sleet and obscured by mist for half the night. The wily vixen never showed once. If I hadn’t had the foresight to have taken a tent, she would be up there picking our bones right now.