Stubble trouble

It’s the time of year when anyone can have foxing success with no trouble – right? Robert Bucknell says that, after a heatwave, the post-harvest period might be a little different this year

Now is the time when everyone is out after a fox. The arable fields are clear at last, the ground is hard and nights are warm. All excuses for staying in have been worn out, and lamps shine as fuel is consumed covering the open ground.

This year’s cubs are well grown but still have a lot to learn of their environment and other dangers. They have no clue that the purr of a truck engine and a bright light swinging across the field could spell an untimely death. They’re inquisitive about everything that might spell food, and will happily come trotting in to even the most incompetently blown call. They haven’t yet had a chance to learn that it’s not just small, vulnerable, tasty mammals that make squeaking noises, it can be ‘orrible big hairy ones with rifles too.

So it’s a time of year when the ‘professional’ with all his fancy night vision gear, thermal viewers and exotic electronic calls has no advantage over the lads on their annual outing, stood on the back of a pick-up with a big lamp and a bit of polystyrene to spit on and rub against the window. Except fieldcraft, that is.
Meanwhile, the farmer isn’t worried about you damaging his crops by driving over the fields, and if it’s reasonably dry, even an inexperienced off-road driver is unlikely to get into trouble – though some people still have the knack of putting a wheel into the only ditch for miles, or, some might end up wrapping their bodywork around a post negotiating a gateway you could drive a combine through without detaching the header…

A half-grown cub still unaware of the dangers humans might pose

You most likely don’t even need a 4×4 – with a little care, an ordinary road vehicle can get around the stubbles just fine. I started my mobile fox lamping career, many years ago, in a Mini pick-up. We did get stuck now and then, but the little Mini was light enough that we could all hop out, heave it out of trouble by sheer brute force, and quickly be on our way again. I recently bought an old Mini almost identical to that one and have restored it so I can relive those youthful adventures – but that’s another story. The Mini is rather low-slung – anything that can give you height for a better view and a safer backstop is often far superior to any other option.

Farming has changed since those days, too, and the weather varies from one year to the next. Once we would leave the stubbles for weeks before cultivating and sowing the next crop, often burning the straw in the meantime. Now of course we don’t burn the straw, and it’s a race to get the next crop in the ground as quickly as possible. The stubble may be left for no more than a few days before it’s tilled and drilled – and then it’s out of bounds to vehicles again. It can leave fox shooters with a very short window of opportunity.

The cracked, hard ground means safety concerns should be foremost

But this year is likely to be different. As you’ve probably noticed, it’s been a tad warm and dry this summer. Indeed in my part of the south-east we’ve broken all sorts of records for temperatures and lack of rain. The fields are like concrete. Now, before you tell me how you got drenched to the skin at the Game Fair so summer is over, I can assure you we will need more than a couple of short, sharp showers to moisten the ground enough to plough, or even scratch the surface so we can drill the seed for next year’s crops.

So depending on how the weather goes over the next few weeks, you could well find that the stubbles remain untouched for some while. Which is not good news for the farmers, but it’s great news for fox shooters. Just at the time when the foxes are easiest to spot and call into range, you could have a nice long spell when the farmer is happy for you to scoot about the stubbles doing your thing. That’s particularly handy for the amateur, who probably has not only a day job but also a missus with an opinion about how many nights a week it’s appropriate to be out with your mates ‘til all hours.

Something else that could work to your advantage is the colour of the stubble, and the soil itself, when it’s really dry – they’re generally lighter in colour, so a fox will show up as a dark shape against the lighter background, making it easier to spot at a greater distance. You may even be able to see a fox by the light of the full moon, without turning the lamp on at all. Plus of course moisture in the air tends to reduce visibility. Mist and fog are an extreme case, but any amount of moisture hanging in the air will throw your lamp light back at you, and reduce the distance you can see. When it’s really dry you will spot foxes further away, and in big fields you again may get the chance of some long distance shots – so put in some practice.

One word of warning about the stubbles. The long dry spell has left some ginormous cracks and deep tramlines in the ground in places. Clay soils can be particularly bad for this, and I’ve heard people talk of tramlines that are deep enough to bottom out your truck. The wet spring allowed tractors to drop right in, and some field entrances will justify a slow approach. One of those holes could bring your foxing outing to a sudden halt, and leave you with a hefty repair bill too. It’s worth doing your own reconnaissance in daylight to make sure there are no nasty surprises hidden in the stubble.

A successful outing from a previous year’s post-harvest period

Another thing to consider is that hard ground is more prone to ricochets, so do take extra care not to send a bullet wanging off towards the nearest village. On a few occasions when I’ve watched tracer ammo, I’ve been astonished at the various angles it can take after hitting a hard surface, and the speed it retains too – there’s plenty of kinetic energy left to do some real damage. So in dry conditions, pay special attention to your safety angles, and add a little extra margin for good measure. There’s no fox that’s worth the trouble that will ensue if you put someone’s window out and leave hot lead on their living room carpet.

Here on my patch, foxes are still in short supply. As year-round foxers with wildlife and game birds to protect, we hit our foxes at every opportunity. We also have a good team with six shooters fighting for any spot where there is even the remotest chance of a fox. As a result, I can guarantee no litter of cubs survived on our farm this year. That won’t stop me making the most of the post-harvest opportunities, though, because by now this year’s neighbouring cubs are starting to wander.

Sooner or later those that started life under some town-dweller’s shed will bumble onto our land, where they’re a threat to our pheasants and partridges as well as all the wildlife that we hold dear. So, like you, once the harvest is in I will be out with rifle, lamp and call, sweeping the horizon for a flash of eyes – just like I did 43 years ago in my little Mini. There’s a lot to be said for modern technology, but sometimes the old ways work just fine.

Some last thoughts: Always keep in touch with the guy in charge of the land. He will like to know who is out there and not some lowlife nicking the diesel out of an idle machine. Always keep an eye open and report anything suspicious. Even if someone claims to have a right to be there, jot down their registration details. And close the gate securely after you!

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