Red letter evening

Every year, February and March are when calls really start coming in on a regular basis asking me to deal with troublesome foxes. This has been going on in my case for more years than I care to remember, but without a doubt the requests for assistance have increased considerably over the past four or five years down to a number of reasons. Top of the list has been the dramatic reduction in the numbers of rabbits. The three-pronged attack on this animal by myxomatosis, VHD and the VHD variant has, in my own area, absolutely decimated their numbers to a degree not seen since the 1950s when myxi first reared its particularly ugly head. I have trapped, shot and ferreted rabbits in this area for 70 years and know the ground intimately. Pre-myxi there were huge numbers hereabouts, probably among the highest in the country. These almost disappeared after the myxoma virus struck but, after struggling for almost 10 years, numbers rose to acceptable levels. However, today field after field that once held relatively large numbers are completely barren – some holding just the odd one or two. The effect this has had on the fox population is becoming apparent, with more and more of them turning to other food sources many of which involve humans and their property!

Free-roaming chickens might enjoy the good life, but they are particularly vulnerable to fox predation

The other factor has been the surge in newcomers to the countryside endeavouring to live ‘the good life’, which almost inevitably involves livestock, mainly poultry. Along with the dream of living off the land, there is also the rather unrealistic idea that their charges must also be free to roam where ever they wish. This idea fits in well with the foxes as it helps fill the gap caused by the reduction in one of their staple items of food, the rabbit. My relationship with some of these people throws up all sorts of bizarre requests, one from last year being, “Can you get rid of the rabbits eating my plants, but only shoot the big ones as the little ones are so cute!” Despite my pointing out that the little ones not only eat plants as well but they also grow at a rapid rate, she was adamant that the little ones should be spared! As the various and rather inevitable changes occur in the countryside it’s interesting to see how the foxes adapt to the newcomers, in many cases far better than the resident locals!

After a newcomer to the area lost nine of 12
birds, they called Mike

In the middle of February last year I was contacted by someone who had bought some land locally over which I had shot for decades. When I went to see them originally to find out what their take was on shooting, I was told firmly that they wanted the wildlife to be left alone as we were the intruders… you get the idea. Not wasting my breath arguing my case, I left my card and said if ever they needed any help to get in touch.

It was about six months after our original meeting that the current visit took place and things had changed dramatically. They had had two visits from foxes; the first time it had taken just one hen, but the second visit a few days later resulted in death or injury to nine out of the 12 birds they had. To their credit, they did admit they had been wrong in their original take on life in the country and could I help please. Asking my usual questions it seemed that when the attack took place the owner went out with a torch and saw three sets of eyes, which he assumed were foxes. As I knew the land very well I arranged that we would go there the following night and see what we could do.

The spot we could wait was in a raised position and there was a variety of farm material parked up there so one more item (my pick-up) certainly wouldn’t be out of the ordinary, not that foxes round here take much notice of cars these days anyway. We got the gear together – the Sauer with the Longbow and Dragonfly IR and the indispensable Pulsar Quantum XD38S thermal spotter. Ammunition was Winchester Varmint-X 55gn polymer, which I have found to be extremely good on foxes out to my usual ranges, which are seldom above 200 yards. With a muzzle velocity of 3240 fps, zeroing one and a quarter inches high at 100 yards puts them spot on at 200, and since using the Varmint-X I have yet to see a fox do anything but drop on the spot.

With rabbits absent from the hedgerows, chickens are an increasingly attractive option for foxes

On the night in question we arrived at the chosen spot as darkness closed in. The night was reasonably dark with a stiff breeze, which is where the 55gn ammo works a little better than anything much lighter. We had only been in position for about five minutes when in the meadow below us the unmistakable shape of a fox could be seen making its way towards the chicken house. A quick shout of “Oi” had the desired effect of stopping it in its tracks, the shot was taken and the fox dropped on the spot. Feeling rather pleased with this quick result we only had to wait for about five minutes when, not 30 yards from where the first fox was stretched out, another appeared. This one must, I suspect, have picked up on the IR from the Dragonfly as it sat collie-like directly facing us. This state of affairs continued for what seemed a very long time, but at almost 200 yards the target it presented was a bit on the small side as I normally like to take broadside shots to make sure. There was some noise coming from a nearby livery stable and my big concern was that it would suddenly get up and disappear. However, it didn’t move and just stared in our direction for approaching ten minutes. Then it got up, stretched, and moved off towards the chicken area. Again a shout stopped it long enough for the shot to be taken, and we had two down in the space of half an hour.

Two barren vixens and a dog fox were accounted for

Some time passed and, except for the odd badger, which got the pulses racing for a moment, nothing appeared until the thermal picked up the familiar shape of a fox working its way down the hillside opposite some 400 yards away. Knowing the ground as I do, I guessed it would come through a run at the bottom of the field we had shot the other two in and come towards us. A few calls had its interest and for a moment it could be seen heading in our direction. Then, in the way foxes will do, it disappeared. I felt sure though that it was still in the vicinity so, after a couple of calls, we just waited, knowing that it would have to show up somewhere. After possibly quarter of an hour there it was; it had circled as they will and had appeared not 10 yards from where the first fox had been shot. In fact it moved towards it, clearly interested in why there was a fox stretched out in the grass. The final shot of the evening was taken, dropping the fox just a couple of feet from the first one. The farmer had seen three and we had three – it really doesn’t get better than that!

I drove the pick up to where the three lay within a few yards of each other, two were barren vixens and the third was a fine dog fox, all were in excellent condition and were about two to three years old. We dropped in to see the landowners who were not only extremely pleased but also impressed! I don’t think there will be any further problems about shooting on their land in future.

Three had been spotted and three had been shot – results don’t come much better

Two nights later we had another two on neighbouring land, so all in all it was a really good week. I was particularly happy with the Winchester ammo, which really seems to suit the rifle. Interestingly, all five foxes, two dogs and three vixens, were in excellent condition despite the dearth of rabbits but the three vixens were barren – making me wonder whether there will be fewer cubs born this year. I remember when myxi first appeared there seemed to be a definite drop in cub numbers when the rabbits all but disappeared, and it would be interesting to hear whether other readers find cub numbers reduced later in the year. I have no doubt in my own mind that should the decline in the rabbit population continue the knock-on effect will not only have an effect on our wildlife but the countryside in general. Those of us who live in the country I am sure are seeing very many changes taking place, few of which seem to be for the better, only time will tell what the end results will be. As usual it seems to be humans that are the biggest problem. I have small areas where I have carried out my country pursuits for decades where things haven’t really changed that much at all, but these are becoming rarer. Let’s hope things improve, though sadly I’m not too hopeful.

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