Mike Powell’s masterclass on how to make the most of the various foxing methods available in late summer and autumn
As August and September pass, the countryside changes, and with it the animals that live there. But certain aspects of our top predator’s life remain constant, and the development of the cubs is one of these.
During the summer, following the first emergence of the litter, much time will be spent learning the ways of the world they have entered. Most of these lessons will centre on food, and it is only later that the vixen will start showing the cubs where this food comes from. To start with, the food the parents bring to the cubs will be dead, but as time passes some of the offerings will be alive and the cubs will learn the noises the victims make. This knowledge can be put to good use by those who set out to shoot foxes later in the year.
By August the cubs will be actively hunting on their own or with siblings, and because they still have to learn where the dangers lie, they are at their most vulnerable. This is shown by the numbers that end up in Larsen traps or as road kill. Self-preservation soon kicks in, though, and by September they won’t be anywhere near as easy to deal with.
In those earlier months, should you need to reduce the fox population, calling can be effective. Where cubs are concerned, like young rabbits they are inclined to poke about on and off all day and respond extremely well to a selection of calls, in particular those of small rodents and young rabbits. This harks back to those live offerings the vixen brought to the den a few months earlier.
Early evening has to be the best time to call, as after the heat of the day and with stomachs to be filled, the cubs become very active. Often they can be heard keeping in touch with the vixen or others of the litter – this type of vocalisation will carry on until late autumn. For calling purposes, the digital callers are very good, with many small vermin calls programmed into them as well as the calls of prey species.
For some time now silage will have been cut, and it won’t be long before the combines are out and about opening up areas that have been ‘no go’ for many months. However, just because there are open spaces it doesn’t mean there will be foxes in them. I don’t actually think stubbles are anywhere near as attractive to foxes (or anything else for that matter) as they were many years ago. Agricultural equipment is far more efficient than it has ever been, and so the amount of grain wasted will be nothing like what as it was in the past.
I have found by far and away the best place to find foxes in late summer are on land that is being ‘topped off’. Modern farm machinery is very powerful compared with that of years ago, and a tractor with a topper on the back will deal with a field that needs tidying in no time at all. In the course of the tidy-up many small animals of all types will fall victim to the whirling blades of the topper, providing easy meals for the local fox population. In my area it is quite common for a fox to appear when the topping is still taking place. Some years ago on the shoot I was keepering, I rode on the tractor as a vixen and a couple of well-grown cubs had been reported appearing as soon as the tractor turned up in the field and took absolutely no notice of the work going on, intent on scenting out the freshly killed mice and voles. The ploy worked and all three were dealt with in short order.
In all the years I have sought to control foxes I have never really believed that cage trapping is a practical way of going about it. As I said earlier, cubs will be caught in Larsen traps for a short while, and occasionally an old fox may throw caution to the wind and end up inside one, but by and large they are not that successful unless used in specific ways. It is totally alien for a fox to enter a bare wire cage, particularly one the size most agricultural suppliers sell, if it’s placed in a field. The rare adult may be tempted if hungry enough by a decoy magpie fluttering around in a Larsen, but that’s about it. Immature cubs will go in a cage trap in their early days, but my own experience is that in the main cage traps in a field are avoided like the plague. Badgers are a different matter but that’s beyond the subject of this article.
It is possible to disguise a small cage trap in the way our American friends do, but to find an adult fox inside is a rarity. Some time ago I set cage traps that were completely disguised and caught a few foxes, but overall it was a lot of effort for the reward.
Setting cage traps in and around such places as smallholdings, or anywhere else where there are enclosures, is another matter altogether. The mesh cages blend in and become part of the overall scene. I have known of many successful cage traps and they all have one thing in common: they have been large. The larger the better as I am sure they don’t appear anywhere as near threatening as the small commercial ones. All of these have been home made, too.
Recently Fred, a local poultry keeper and general fox hater (with good reason), made a couple of his own, and they were very imposing structures. A friend of Fred had acquired a couple of the gabions used to build roadside banks. These are extremely large and usefully badger-proof, as Stripey is capable of ripping the usual ones apart. A lot of time was spent working out how to get a smooth-dropping, easily tripped door – in the end a solid aluminium gate was fabricated with a steel bar at the bottom for weight to ensure a fast drop. The release for the door is a straightforward bolt located in a drilled hole. The release mechanism caused a few problems as getting the cable to run smoothly proved to be difficult. In the end a couple of pulleys solved the problem, and after we had a few tweaks overall, the system worked perfectly.
One cage was placed near a hedge where the foxes tend to enter the smallholding. The other was in one of the pens, where it blended in perfectly. On the second night a large badger was caught and no damage was caused to the trap, which was good news. The badger was released and disappeared at a rate of knots.
Cage traps have never been and never will be a quick fix – even one this big needs to be in situ for a long time. The most successful trap I knew of locally was in the same position for about 10 years and caught several hundred foxes. It was in the hedge of a busy poultry farm, and the grass was allowed to grow through it and over it, providing perfect camouflage. The designer sadly has passed away, but his trap carries on doing what it was designed to do. I have little doubt that Fred’s traps too will work, and I look forward to getting the call to sort out the contents.
Although I have snared many foxes over the years, I have never been a huge fan of this method. Certainly as a keeper I used snares a great deal, but nowadays I far prefer shooting or cage trapping. The other problem where traps and snares are concerned has been legislation, but more than this has been the huge increase in the number of people seemingly roaming the countryside at will, more often than not with a dog in tow. This clearly can be a problem where snares are set, but interference with traps too is becoming an issue.
The year as ever moves on. Already the nights are showing signs of drawing in and once again lamping, night vision and thermal will take centre stage. As ever the fox will be out there testing the ingenuity of those who control its numbers. Despite its depredations on livestock of varying types, it would be a sad countryside without it.