As the year gathers momentum I have been trying to ascertain the number of breeding vixens there are on my patch.
Last year could well have been described as bumper: not only were there more litters, the number of cubs per litter was larger.
As a result, when the inevitable crash of the huge rabbit population came towards the middle of the summer due to VHD and myxi, the damage reached its climax around September.
I had more requests for fox control than I can remember for years. Poultry was by far the hardest hit, but late lambs and pheasant poults on the local shoot were also well and truly hammered.
I decided earlier this year to try and get a far better idea of the fox population in the area I cover, and to this end I invested in a thermal imager. To use one of these, no matter what the make, is a revelation.
Take rabbits as an example. After the diseases had more or less run their course around the end of last year, although myxi was still present in small pockets of the populations, I was hard pushed to get the number of rabbits required to fulfil my commitments.
Two factors were involved: the dearth of rabbits and incessant rain, which made it impossible to get a vehicle on the land. However, a trip round the land I ferret, a couple of hours after dark with the Pulsar Quantum, showed me exactly where the rabbits were and how they had been hiding themselves.
Unlike conventional night vision, the TI will reveal everything that is out and about at night providing there is no obstruction. One field in particular, where I had assumed the rabbits would have been hit hard, turned out to have a very large population. This helped me make up some of the losses.
While out checking on the rabbits, I spotted a fair number of foxes (far more than I had imagined there would be). The huge advantage of a thermal imager is that a fox travelling along a hedge 400-500 yards away will be seen no matter which way it is heading.
Although this may not necessarily aid you in shooting it, it certainly tells you it is there. I thought I knew fairly well what the local fox population was, but the Pulsar told a very different story.
Clearly this type of equipment will, to a degree, run out of steam from May onwards as the light evenings arrive. By then however, I intend to have a good idea of my local fox population and can plan what steps are needed to keep on top of it.
On the subject of thermal imagers, I had a rather interesting occurrence at the end of a really cold spell. I was taking an enthusiastic young shooter out who had shot a few foxes but wanted to learn as much as he could.
We drove to the poultry farm next door to my home and parked on a steep hillside that gives a good view of the whole area. I left him in the passenger seat with the rifle and got out, walking round the back of the 4×4 to get into the back seat.
When I shut the door, the interior light went out and I got out the thermal imager. About 90 yards away was a dung heap that glowed white as I scanned the fields.
Something about the heap wasn’t quite right, there was clearly something on top. Jamie looked through the Longbow and confirmed it was a fox curled up on the heap, no doubt benefitting from the generated warmth.
I wanted to reduce the fox population here as it was far too high, so I gave him the go ahead and the .223 did the job well.
All of this had happened a few minutes after arriving at the field. Why the fox had not moved upon our arrival, especially with me wandering around, was a mystery, but the job was done.
I suggested that we went back home, as normally after such early success it seldom happens that others turn up.
With the enthusiasm of youth my suggestion was kicked into touch, though a couple of cold hours later no more foxes had showed up to avail themselves of the centrally heated dung heap facilities.
Returning to the present time, and armed with a much better idea of how many foxes there are in the parish, signs show that there is a fair amount of breeding activity in my area.
For a while, sightings of foxes dropped away as vixens were confined to the den and seldom moved far from the newborn cubs.
I have already found some occupied earths, and without a doubt the local grapevine will be sending me reports of others.
The next question is what to do with this knowledge. Much will depend on where the earths are situated – there are many hereabouts who are more than happy to see cubs on their land.
I can understand this, however, I have learned that each one of these attractive little creatures will soon be more than capable of causing grief in the countryside. Some will be dealt with soon and some will be left until they start to wander.
I had a long conversation with a dedicated shooter recently, and the topic of technology versus fieldcraft cropped up.
As someone who started shooting shortly after the World War (the second one, before you ask), I can say that most who dealt with foxes in those days used fieldcraft in spades.
Such equipment that was in use was primitive, the guns of choice were almost invariably shotguns.
The situation today is totally different. I now have all sorts of equipment that I use without giving it a second thought.
Night vision, a dedicated night scope, thermal imagers, range finders, LED torches in white light, red light and even infrared, digital callers, rifles and 4x4s, the list goes on.
I do have a need for most of this as I run a fox control business – but I confess to giving in to temptation when items are sent to me to test.
How has the abundance of technological goodies affected our fieldcraft skills? Personally, I have no doubts.
The effect has been enormous, but this has been the case throughout history, and it will doubtless continue into the future.
It is now a rare occasion for me to go out all night walking miles in search of a fox: We now have the ability to locate where quarry will most likely show up by using a night vision unit such as a trail camera, 4x4s can take us and our gear to a suitable spot where we can wait, scanning a wide area for our chosen quarry.
High powered rifles accurate enough to hit a beer mat out to 200 yards and more have removed the need to learn ways of getting up close and personal with them.
This is progress, and the day will surely come when people will smile at photos of the “old boys” posing with their foxes shot with primitive equipment.
The changes I have seen in our chosen sport, and business in some cases, have been nothing short of amazing. Possibly the item I find sums this up best is the thermal imager.
Had I, as a shooting mad lad in the early 1950s, been told there would be an instrument you could look through on a dark night that would allow you to see rabbits 300 yards and more away with no visible light emission, I would have thought they were mad. Now I go out with this gear most nights and take it for granted.
Do I wish for or miss the old ways and days? Not really; I’ve been there and done it, but I was a lad back then and had a huge love for shooting and trapping and everything that went with them.
The wet, bitter nights were hugely exciting, but now that certainly isn’t the case. I still go out, but make sure the 4×4 comes with me.
Do I get more foxes than I used to? No, but I don’t wish to. I am more than happy to go out early, get a fox and go back home.
I think it is absolutely fascinating to see where shooting is today and where it is heading in the future, and I don’t mean the constant attacks on our sport but what new technology will appear, and how gamekeepers and vermin controllers will use it to their advantage.
Undoubtedly night vision in one form or another will see the biggest changes, with digital devices becoming smaller and more sophisticated.
A word of caution, though, from one of the aforementioned “old boys”: With so many new and tempting items on the market, I always recommend trying before you buy as many of the items are not cheap and some are better than others.
Whenever I test any of this equipment I give my honest feelings about it, though individual sight and perception of a product varies, so have a go before you part with your hard-earned cash.
Many firms such as Scott Country and Starlight will allow you to test certain items, and I would certainly take advantage of this offer.