Scent Sense

Robert’s TOP TIP: Learn to understand how foxes use scent to scout their surroundings

 I recall an occasion when I was clearing up a litter of fox cubs around a nine-acre field on the farm.

It was a good spot, and it attracted the youngsters because one side has an acre clump of scrub willow, called appropriately enough ‘the bog’, and it always lays wet, with a couple of small areas of open water. Once cubs are weaned they need a ready supply of water in the warm months of June to August. Being lazy, they tend to set up camp by a reliable source. You will often find that a litter that has moved in on you is constrained in its choice of hunting ground by the need to drink regularly.

For several evenings, I drove up to the field in the pick-up, and parked near a corner that gave me a good view along two sides of the crop of wheat. I could see any fox that came out onto either of the 10-metre-wide grass headlands. They are not conservation headlands, so they can be kept mown to allow wildlife easy passage and give me a good chance to catch any local foxes in
the open.

On one night, it was 10 past 10 and pretty dark when I saw a darker patch 160 metres down the headland on the edge of the crop. I raised the binoculars; yes, it was a fox. I raised the rifle into position on the padded wing mirror. When the fox stopped to smell something, I was ready and dropped it quickly. It was a testament to good optics – I couldn’t have shot that fox without good binoculars and a top-end scope. How many foxes have succumbed because an interesting smell stopped them at some point?

The next evening I returned to the same position, but the wind had changed. It was blowing my scent directly towards the spot where I’d shot the fox the night before. Would that ruin my chances?

Hunters understand the importance of scent. We know that animals rely on their sense of smell more than their senses of sight and hearing. The smart hunter is always thinking about how the wind will carry his scent – it’s usually the first thought before the initial decision of how to proceed. He’ll usually start a night’s lamping at the downwind end of the estate, so he’s always working into the wind. But with a high seat it may work the other way round.

Scent is a complex subject, and we can easily get it wrong because we don’t fully understand how it works. To learn just how complicated it can be, ask a huntsman. He’ll tell you that there are good and bad scenting days. Sometimes the air scent of a fox hangs near the ground, and hounds can follow the line quickly. Another day, he may be able to smell the fox from his raised position on his horse, while hounds can’t find a line at all. On other days all they can find is a ground scent, so things will go slower.

All these factors work equally the other way round, when it’s a fox catching a whiff of human. Sometimes the fox will detect you from far away, and other times he will appear unaware even as he cuts downwind of you. Perhaps the air currents are carrying your scent over his head, or further to one side than you thought. On the other hand he may be aware you are there but choosing to ignore you. It can be interesting to take a child’s bubble bottle out with you and watch how the wind carries the soap bubbles – you’ll soon see that wind and scent don’t travel in straight lines.

Ground scent behaves differently to air scent. It tends to stay in one place. It’s a mixture of crushed vegetation, disturbed earth, and whatever smelly stuff you might have picked up on your boots. Foxes, like dogs, can read this mixture of scents like a book. They can tell the difference between fresh human scent and something a human has touched a while ago. A fox will happily take a dead rabbit that you have handled earlier in the day, while it wouldn’t come nearer than 400 metres if you were standing there with it in your hand. Town foxes have a different comfort zone, of course, and are much less bothered by human scent. Some even come closer to beg for food.

The fox’s curiosity is often his downfall, and that goes for scent too. The scent of a chicken farm or pheasant pen can draw them in from miles away. But it doesn’t have to be food. A while ago I was waiting by a hedge at night, watching through night vision, and saw a fox cut my scent 200 yards downwind. He sniffed the air, looked about, and trotted towards me, quartering across my scent, curious about what he could smell.

He kept stopping, sniffing and coming closer to me until eventually he seemed satisfied, turned and trotted off. Luckily for him I didn’t have a gun with me. I paced it out and discovered he had come within 16 yards. Must change my deodorant, I thought.

Back to my nine-acre field. Many fox shooters will set up facing an open field so the wind is blowing towards them across the field. Their thinking is that a fox approaching across the field won’t scent them. But that’s totally wrong. A fox may come from any angle, but the least likely direction is the convenient one for you – straight across.

Foxes are a lot smarter than they used to be, and it’s rare for one to come piling in directly towards a call. It will want to check it out first by getting downwind. If the wind is blowing across the field, the fox will sneak up through the undergrowth behind. You may not know it’s there until it’s right under your high seat or peering into your pocket to see if you have brought a sandwich. I think you realise this last scenario is very unlikely – it will, of course, have legged it to somewhere much safer without you even being aware of its presence.

But suppose you’ve set up, back to cover, with the wind blowing from you out across the field. The only way for the fox to get downwind is to go out into the field for a sniff. He’ll have to trot across the open ground around you before he can catch your wind – giving you a perfect chance of a shot before he gets there.

In the event, that evening it was a roebuck that cut my scent only 60 metres out. He walked out through the wheat crop on my right, in full view of my vehicle but quite unalarmed until he caught the scent of the truck and me. He barked and ran to the hedge on the left, then doubled back
across the wheat field and barked his way right across to the other side by the hedge 150 metres away, calling all the time. What
a racket!

You might expect that would be it for the evening, but it’s always worth waiting to see what happens. This is especially true with cubs – they may be curious to see what all the fuss is about. Sure enough, a little face popped out of ‘the bog’ right beside where I’d shot the cub the night before.

A fox’s curiosity can often be its downfall

He stepped out and sniffed the air, 160 metres away and seemingly straight downwind. An older, more experienced fox may have vanished again in a flash, but this cub was curious and I was ready. My rifle was to hand. He stood a moment too long – and never knew what hit him. The wind may have appeared all wrong on paper, but it was all right in practice. Robert Bucknell

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