It’s coming to that time of year when it’s relatively easy to sweep up foxes on the stubbles, but Robert Bucknell makes a plea for stopping out and seeing the job through
First, I have an update on the fox that got away last month: his luck ran out. I was waiting in my truck, in the same place where I saw him last month, only this time I had my .223 foxing rifle instead of the .22 rimfire. It was laid out ready, lined up towards where I had last seen him.
I had sat watching for an hour and a half, and it was late evening, just as the light was going. Suddenly 150 yards across the field to the left I saw a bit of brownish fur for a second. Was that a hare or a fox? Looking at the spot through the binoculars produced nothing. I scanned slowly to the left, and there was his head staring straight at me 70 yards away from a tramline in the wheat. I couldn’t move or pick up the rifle without spooking him, so for a long couple of minutes we just stared at each other, him trying to work out whether my truck was a threat or just part of the scenery.
After a while he decided not to risk it, turned around and started running away. That allowed me to pick up the rifle and get everything lined up. Last time I had called out too loudly in my eagerness to stop him. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again. I had the crosshairs roughly on him and ready as he reached the edge of the cover about 150 yards away; he made that usual fatal mistake of stopping for a last look. My bullet caught him squarely across the chest and that was the end of one canny fox.
Harvesting the foxes
August is what I call ‘Smash and grab month’ when everyone goes out and shoots lots of foxes, then tells all their friends how incredibly well they have done. It’s the time of year when even a relatively inexperienced shooter can make some big bags. As the crops come off, the foxes are much easier to see, and there are plenty of naive cubs around that haven’t yet learned to keep clear of engines, squeaks and lamps. You can roar around the stubbles in a pick-up, swinging the lamp and squeaking, and you should get quite a few inquisitive youngsters coming in looking for an easy meal.
If you’re shooting foxes for sport, that’s fair enough, and it’s a good way of getting the numbers down before they start doing their own smash-and-grab on your pheasant poults when they go to wood. Of course, it’s too late for the ground-nesting birds and other prey that the cubs and their parents have scooped up in the meantime. A wild partridge shoot, for instance, couldn’t afford to let the cubs last long enough to provide some harvest-time sport. The keeper has to track down every den at the earliest possible stage and wipe them out before they start hammering his nesting partridges. Big bags of foxes on the stubbles would be a sign of a useless partridge keeper.
This year the weather was a mixed blessing for gamekeepers, at least in my part of the country. On the one hand, the heavy rains drowned out a lot of fox dens. I peered down one hole that’s produced litters of foxes in previous years, and it was full of water. Any fox down there would have needed flippers and a snorkel. Even in dens that stayed dry, the vixens were coming back soaking wet, so the cubs were more prone to diseases such as pneumonia.
So the foxes’ breeding success is down this year – but on the other hand many wild game birds found their nests awash too. I’ve seen duck and even pheasant nests literally full of water. The poor hens have been standing on the headlands absolutely soaked. Any game shoot that relies heavily on wild stock is looking at a poor season this year.
The most common mistake people make during ‘smash and grab month’ is to pick off the easy foxes and move on. It’s easy to see why that would be tempting when you’re just shooting for sport. But the result is a lot of ‘educated’ foxes that will be doubly hard to shoot next time around. If I go out and see five foxes, I want to come back with five dead foxes, even if it takes me all night – not hurry to shoot two and upset the others before rushing back in time for last orders, leaving three out there that have learned to be wary of lights and engine noise at night.
It’s not just that you’re educating this year’s cubs. You’re applying a kind of unnatural selection that means the more wary foxes are the ones that breed next year, and the wariest of that generation goes on to breed the year after, and so on. There was an experiment in Russia that proved it only took seven generations to produce either a completely tame fox or an extremely wild one, depending on which type of selection you applied. With so many people around the UK shooting foxes for sport rather than necessity, no wonder we’re seeing some very wary ones these days.
So I’d make a plea to all those fox shooters around the country: don’t leave the job half done, or you’re storing up problems for all of us. Think carefully how you will catch up with the trickier foxes that don’t come easily to lamp and call on the stubbles. Driving round at night will give you a good idea of what foxes you have in any given area, but if they’re proving difficult, you might do better to wait up in a high seat, perhaps even baiting to get them in the habit of visiting your chosen spot.
With patience and determination even the wariest fox can be outwitted eventually. If it saves you having to track down that fox’s even warier offspring next year, it’s well worth the effort.
The badger cull trials are drawing nearer – if the Badger Trust’s appeal fails, they will begin in the autumn. There’s a lot of ill-informed comment about how the cull will be carried out, with one newspaper even suggesting that badgers would be shot with military rifles fitted with thermal imaging scopes.
I don’t live in one of the cull areas, but if I did, my preference would be to bait the badgers into a carefully prepared spot, where I could shoot from a high seat using my fox rifle and a lamp. It’s a safe, effective and humane way of doing what needs to be done.
There’s just one drawback: Defra will want all the bodies bagged and tagged, with details of exactly where they’ve been shot. This is because they will all be tested to see how many actually are TB carriers. When this information finds its way into the public domain, the antis will quickly see where your baiting points and high seats are located. Then you can guarantee your high seat will be vandalised at the very least. Already a dairy farmer who spoke out in favour of the cull has had his barns burned down and his milk poisoned. I’m willing to bet there will be death threats made against badger shooters.
Chasing around the countryside after badgers with a lamp is going to create a whole new set of problems – not least that once the cull gets under way there will be a badger-hugger under every bush with binoculars or night vision, watching to see what you’re up to. Not to mention the police, Defra and others crawling all over the place.
In the cull areas, even if you are only after foxes it will pay to be extra careful. It’s an accident waiting to happen. It’s always vital to identify your quarry positively before you fire, but during the badger cull that’s going to be more important than ever if we are to avoid a tragic accident.