The recent influx of magazines, books, and videos giving advice on how to be a successful shooter has got me thinking about my own knowledge.
The advice in these books mostly relates to two areas: deer stalking, of which I have limited knowledge, and foxing, which I know quite a bit about – or I am supposed to, anyway. I can remember quite a lot of the foxes I have shot – and forgotten a whole lot more, as there have been thousands – but today, do I know much about the fox itself? The honest answer would be no. I still shoot a lot of foxes using experience gained over 60 years, but I have learned how to deal with them in my own way and have never really worked out what makes them tick. Whenever I think I have sussed something about them, they will do something that blows the idea out of the water.
Where foxes are concerned, much is based on hearsay rather than evidence. This is understandable – with a few notable exceptions, when shooters see a fox they are inclined to shoot it rather than study it. It’s a practical approach, I agree, but it doesn’t really further one’s knowledge of the creature.
Many sweeping statements are made as to foxes’ behaviour, particularly when they cause humans problems. One generalisation is that they travel the same routes at the same time each night. Until recently I would have gone along with this, but the advent of ‘stealth’ cameras has now shown that there is virtually no pattern to their movement. Of course, the track from where they lie up will always be used, but when they are away and on the hunt there seems to be little regularity in their travels within a pretty wide area.
Size and gender is another area where I suspect guesswork plays a significant role. True, the very large (over 20lb) specimens are more often than not dogs, and vixens by and large weigh some 15 per cent less than the dogs. However, anyone who has shot a lot of foxes will know that there are some very large vixens and very small dog foxes. Size just isn’t a reliable indicator – that’s why our first action on coming up to a shot fox is to find out what sex it is.
How far does your average fox travel in a night’s hunting? Again it is hard to say – the stamina these animals have is incredible. In the days before the hunting ban, there were many tales of foxes running at about 15mph for hours. Many years ago, there was a bob-tailed fox living three miles from my home. It was instantly recognisable, being very light and sandy in colour. I saw it no less than four times around my home area, and a keeper friend who also knew this fox (and, remarkably for those days, tolerated it) reported that he saw it most days. This animal was clearly prepared to do a round trip of about six miles in a night. There are many reports of foxes travelling much further than this.
Although they are dog-like in appearance, foxes’ behaviour is rather more catlike. Their eyes, their gait and their methods of hunting are more akin to cats than dogs. Their haunting, eerie calls, particularly at mating time, are often described as a vixen’s scream or a dog fox’s bark, but both sexes are capable of replicating these sounds.
One thing is never in doubt: foxes are highly resourceful creatures, taking advantage of whatever is presented. The number of people who shoot foxes has seen a tremendous surge, yet the number of foxes never seems to diminish. They can obviously cope with many of the measures we take to get rid of them.
There are, of course, several sources of in-depth information on foxes. Among them are books by Robert Bucknell (Foxing with Lamp and Rifle and Going Foxing) and David Macdonald (Running with the Fox). Everyone interested in shooting foxes should read these. However, even though I have read these excellent publications, the fox in the field always seems a bit of an enigma to me.
A year or so ago, I was asked to see if I could get rid of a fox that had been taking poultry and a couple of small cats. This was a large animal with a fine brush, and although it frequented an area on the edge of a town, it was extremely wary. Like many of its kind, it was very aware of its surroundings and could sense anything different.
The area concerned backed on to fields, so I assumed it would be relatively easy to deal with this one. Not so! I saw it in the distance on several occasions, and it would be gone at the merest hint of a lamp. I brought night vision into play, but when using it I never saw the fox. It was obviously used to human scent, as humans were always nearby when it travelled, but it seemed to have the ability to separate safety from danger. Of course, this could have just been coincidence – but it certainly seemed like the fox knew something I didn’t. On and off for several weeks, I tried to get on terms with it, and failed dismally. Baiting a certain spot drew in others, but not the chosen one. Calls of all sorts were tried with no luck.
Finally, as the old year passed into the new I had an idea. Mating was in full swing, and I had little doubt that my elusive fox was joining in the yearly love-in.
A vixen had been active in one of the fields that back on to my house, and after spending several cold nights waiting out I finally shot her. As I suspected from her general behaviour, she was in season. I opened her up and removed her bladder, which was reasonably full. I also removed her anal glands and the brush that houses the supracaudal gland. I put the bladder and glands in a plastic bag, together with a piece of cloth, which would soak up the malodorous mess.
A day later, I armed myself with the cloth and the brush and set off for the area where my elusive dog fox had last been seen. In the area there was a gateway where foxes travel on a regular basis and where I have shot several in the past. I dragged the rag and the brush around the field and through the gateway. I must admit, this messy and extremely smelly plan was a first for me – and a somewhat desperate effort – but as I was getting nowhere with conventional methods, I had nothing to lose.
That evening, I set up both the UCaller and the Fox Pro Spitfire, and retired to a spot where I could see the gateway some 60 yards away. I would be using the .17 HMR – at this sort of range, and being near to houses, I find it the ideal choice.
Using the two callers, I planned to have a vixen and dog calling at close intervals. The Spitfire was away to my left, about 100 yards out, and the UCaller was just inside the gate. The idea was that a fox – hopefully the one I was after – would be drawn through the gate by both the sound and scent of a vixen, and most of all by the call of a rival.
I waited for about an hour and saw nothing resembling a fox, so I started playing fox duets on the callers. Within a few minutes, the night vision picked up eyes approaching at a rapid rate across the big field next door. After one more shout from the dog fox call, I got ready. A moment later, the fox appeared in the gateway and started sniffing the scent point. ‘Eau de vixen’ was the last thing he smelled. I was 95 per cent sure it was the one I was after.
In the end, my messy strategy had made things easy. However, to accomplish this you do need an in-season vixen and an extremely strong stomach. Cutting up scent glands and mixing them with fox urine is not for everyone. The scent of fox that followed me the next day was not a problem as I live with my son and there is no lady of the house, but that won’t be the case for everyone.
I would never normally choose this method, but it was all I could think of to deal with a very difficult and elusive predator. The poultry and cat killings ceased soon after – I had hit the jackpot. Once again, I will never really know what the fox was drawn to. Was it the scent, or the call, or was I just in the right place at the right time? Never mind – what matters most is that I got him. Mike Powell