Red Peril: Mike Powell questions whether our current fox population is secure from the influx of new shooters

Photo credit: Mark Braggins

Photo credit: Mark Braggins

For as long as man and fox have lived together there has been conflict between the two. It all started, no doubt, when early man trapped and killed the fox, along with other animals, to provide pelts for clothing. As times changed over the centuries the roles rather reversed, and now that natural fur is no longer used – to my mind a shocking waste of a perfectly good by-product of shooting – it is the fox that predates: not on man himself, of course, but on his possessions. In fact, despite the evolution of the tools with which man can control the fox, this wily animal manages to hold its own, although I have a few reservations as far as that statement is concerned.

I spent many years as a young man catching and shooting foxes for an income. Looking back, it still surprises me just how profitable procuring and selling fox skins could be. I remember being offered a job in the mid sixties on a starting salary of £1,000 a year, which was then very attractive. Just before that, winter fox skins were making in the region of £15 to as much as £25 each, although they had to be exceptional to get the highest price. If we say that the average was around £18, sixty foxes would have equalled the salary I was to be offered. Although we only caught them from around late October through to the end of February we normally could expect somewhere around 250. We also bought in snared foxes from farmers and keepers who didn’t want the hassle of skinning and drying the pelts, so all in all it was very lucrative. This continued until the antis managed to sway public opinion and the sale of such pelts declined. It was the end of an era.

Foxing is exciting and challenging – but still, why are so many interested in it?

Foxing is exciting and challenging –
but still, why are so many interested in it?

So what of today? Clearly foxes are not taken for their skins any more, although I do know of a few people who still cure them for their own use. Over the past twenty years or so, however, the new sport of foxing has really taken off. In fact, a whole new branch of the shooting trade has been set up to cater for this activity, which evolved into what it is today thanks to the advent of night vision. Not only does foxing show no signs of slowing its phenomenal growth, but it seems it could be going the way of stalking: I was recently speaking to a farmer friend who said he had been offered money by someone who wanted to shoot foxes on his land!

That conversation raised a question in my mind as to where this sudden desire to shoot the fox has come from. As we all know, shooting sports have never before attracted so many newcomers, and considerable numbers of people are now in pursuit of rabbits, foxes, pigeons and deer, to say nothing of wildfowl. To me, the odd one out in that list has to be the fox. No prizes for guessing why – it’s the only one you can’t eat. I did see someone try it on one of the survival programmes on TV, but it came as no surprise that the lucky chap was less than impressed!

It seems, therefore, that a burgeoning industry has been created around something that has no value whatsoever. Personally, I still account for a fair number of foxes, but the vast majority of these are targeted as being nuisance animals that are predating on livestock. It is now quite a rare occurrence for me just to go out to shoot any old fox I see. Let me make it clear, I am not criticising anyone who goes out foxing, as it is both exciting and challenging, and there is certainly far more to it than shooting a bagful of rabbits.

Why are so many people now interested in shooting the fox? Once shot they cannot do anything with it

It does however raise in my mind the question of why. I am well aware that many will say it is to protect other species, and this of course is quite correct. When I was keepering, I took no prisoners as far as foxes were concerned, as if they were on the shoot they represented a threat to the birds I was rearing.

Another fox dealt with on Mike’s home patch

Another fox dealt with on Mike’s home patch

Shooting to protect interests, whatever they may be, always rather intrigues me, and not just where foxes are concerned. Take the good old woodpigeon as a case in point. How often do we read in shooting magazines that flocks were allowed to build up over a period of sometimes a week or more to ensure guns had a good day’s shooting? Surely, if protecting a crop came first and foremost, the birds would have been moved on as soon as they started to have a nibble.

So why are so many people now interested in shooting the fox? Once shot they cannot do anything with it, and although all foxes clearly have the potential to cause damage, should this be a good enough reason to shoot all you see?

Living close to man

Living close to man

For some people, the fox will be the largest and most challenging quarry they are able to shoot. One niggling thought keeps coming into my mind, and it is this: how sustainable are the foxes in this country? Here I am quite deliberately talking about the rural fox and not the town type, as they seem to be evolving quite rapidly into almost a sub-species of their own.

When I first started shooting and wiring there were only a few others who carried out the same sort of work and yet, as mentioned earlier, today fox shooters must number in their thousands. If, furthermore, what you read on some of the websites is to be believed, there are a very considerable number of foxes being killed.

Are you seeing fewer foxes in your area?

Are you seeing fewer foxes in your area?

Can the country fox survive this? They only have one litter a year and because of their social structure not all vixens will produce. It is hard to say how many cubs reach adulthood each year, but I would hazard a guess that it will average out at about three per litter. With the considerable number being shot, not to mention the ever-increasing number of cars on the road that inevitably leads to higher number of foxes being hit, I can’t help but wonder how long the current population level can be sustained. Certainly areas close to urbanisation will get foxes coming in on a regular basis as a result of overspill, but more remote areas could, in due course, tell a different story.

Opinion is, and always will be, divided as far as the fox is concerned. Some love them, some detest them, and I fall somewhere in the middle! They have certainly caused me stress where my pheasants and poultry are concerned, but I would be truly sorry if I couldn’t see the odd one walking the fields. Like the majority of animals, foxes are of course not all bad.

What prompted me to write this article was the fact that I read, and am told more and more, that shooters and country folk are, in some areas, seeing fewer and fewer foxes. This doesn’t surprise me when I see how many some people are shooting on a regular basis. Perhaps a little restraint wouldn’t go amiss where bag totals are concerned, as I for one would miss my forays after Charlie.

Foxes – love them or hate them, you still have to control them

Foxes – love them or hate them, you still have to control them

This year has been rather odd where fox mating behaviour is concerned: although there is a healthy population in my area, mating has been sporadic to say the least. I can’t remember a year when there has been so little calling. Normally they can be heard during January and February on a regular basis, but this year there have only been a very few nights when both dogs and vixens have been heard. I would be interested to know if this is happening in other areas too.

The fox affords so many of us the opportunity to test our skills against what can be a really worthy opponent, let’s hope this state of affairs will continue far into the future. ν

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