Testing thermal optics during foxing with Robert Bucknell

With uncertain weather wreaking havoc with crops, Robert Bucknell decides it’s the perfect time to test some thermal optics on fledgling foxes 

To say it’s been a strange year would be an understatement

This year is turning into a funny old one; and one we certainly won’t forget in a hurry. As if a virus pandemic wasn’t enough, we’ve had some very unusual weather lately too.

When we should have been drilling the winter crops it was too wet, so a lot of fields didn’t get drilled until spring. Then when we really needed some moisture it’s been hot and dry – all very well if you’re furloughed from your office job and sitting on the patio at home topping up your tan, but not so great for farmers!

It does mean that fox control has continued through spring and early summer without the usual break, however. In a normal year, by April the crops are high enough to hide an adult fox, never mind a cub. Fox shooting pretty much grinds to a halt for a few weeks, other than the occasional stakeout on livestock fields, beside a chicken run or pig unit.

And it doesn’t restart until the grass harvest gets under way and we can see the foxes in the hay or silage fields once again. This year, though, the arable crops were sparse due to late sowing and poor growing conditions. At least, that’s how it’s worked out in my part of the country.

Your local situation will vary, depending on farming and land use in your area. Though I do hear that even on rough areas and moorland the lack of water has kept the growth short.

Meanwhile there’s still a lot of uncertainty over game shooting this coming season. Many of the bigger commercial shoots have simply cancelled this season altogether. They can’t risk a huge investment in putting down birds and looking after them, if they can’t be sure of running the full complement of shoot days when the season comes around.

Even the smaller syndicate shoots are cutting back on the number of birds they’re releasing. What will that mean for foxes, and the countryside generally? The truth is that no-one really knows, but no doubt time will tell.

Inevitably it’s going to vary enormously from one place to another. You’ll have one estate where they’ve kept the keeper or part timer on, and without released game to feed they will be concentrating on wild birds and all kinds of conservation work that perhaps they don’t usually have time for. That may include having an even harder go at the foxes.

Then down the road there will be another shoot where the keeper has been laid off and there’s no fox control at all this year, so the foxes will be having a field day and all the wildlife will suffer.

Robert has been trying out the Pulsar Thermion range, including the XM50 and XP38, pictured

Here on my own patch in Essex we haven’t let up one bit, and the combination of sparse cover and the latest thermal gear means that there’s hardly a fox to be seen.

We still get the odd one of course, usually right on the boundary. Just a couple of weeks ago, for instance, I shot a vixen on the edge of the farm. I was fairly sure at the time that she had a couple of cubs, and so it proved.

I went back the next evening and sat up in a high seat in the willow bed, overlooking an area where there’s an old badger sett and some water. I always say that you should look for fox cubs where there’s water, but that’s truer than ever this year with such a drought.

As I watched through the thermal, I saw something very small come through the hedge and snuffle about. It turned out to be a little vixen cub, all of a foot long. A quarter of an hour later its brother came out – he was a little bigger and moving about more, wandering around the willow bed.

They do look cute at that age, but we all know the damage they can do to wildlife, game and livestock, so it’s no good being sentimental; they both caught a .223 round and that was that.

That little burst of activity was very much the exception, however. I’m still going out most nights, just taking the truck out or sitting in a high seat, but there’s an awful lot of blank nights when I don’t see a foxy thing – and the same is true for Colin the keeper too.

A few days ago, we cut a grass field for hay. That’s always a sure-fire chance to shoot a fox or two. They can’t resist rummaging around for any small reptiles or mammals that have been killed by the mower. So, I sat out watching over the field from 10 o’clock onwards.

I saw three muntjac and four rabbits, two hares came in, had a look round and hopped off again… and that was it. No sign of a fox. And that’s the way it’s been for a long while now. We’ve done a good job, perhaps too good a job! If that’s possible?

Sitting, watching and waiting gives you plenty of time to think, and naturally enough my thoughts often turn to foxes. Recently I read a piece of research where scientists had discovered that dogs’ noses were heat sensitive.

Not just that they could feel something hot if they touched it, but they could detect a heat source some distance away – a rabbit sitting in a bush, for instance. They speculated that might explain why a dog’s nose is usually cold and damp; it could make it more efficient as a heat sensor.

A lot of time spent waiting, but not much to show for it

The researchers from Sweden and Hungary, using a double-blind test, found that dogs could detect heat from an object that was 12 degrees centigrade above the ambient temperature.

To confirm this, they looked at the part of the brain that is connected to the dog’s nose. When they pointed their noses at the heat radiating object, they could see activity in that region. The only other mammal that is known to be capable of detecting heat is the common vampire bat. 

It’s an interesting fact, and it makes perfect sense for a wolf to have evolved a method of detecting prey that’s hidden in cover or by darkness. And if dogs have that ability – and their noses are to the same design – why not foxes?

We know they have extraordinary powers of hearing that can pinpoint a mouse or vole munching in long grass or beneath snow; perhaps that’s backed up by an ability to detect the heat of its body too. Maybe now we know why a fox will suddenly halt at short range and peer at a heat emitting object.

Hot spots

Talking of thermal detection, I’ve been trying out one of the latest Pulsar Thermion XM50 thermal riflescopes – the ‘cheap’ one, at a mere £3,000 or so. And what a revelation! The image quality is in a different league. We used to worry about shooting at a ‘hot blob’ that we hadn’t positively identified as legitimate quarry.

Well with this new scope there is no question – you can see exactly what it is, no question about it. The resolution is superb, and you get a full range of shades of grey, so it’s like looking at a good quality black-and-white photograph. No wonder people are now talking about shooting foxes at much longer ranges at night with this sort of gear.

I discovered one of the advantages for myself the first time I went out with this new scope at night. As usual I was sitting up in a high seat, this time overlooking some willow beds near a river. I heard a cock pheasant fly up off the ground up into a tree.

He sat there swearing at something, and to me that spelled fox – but the cover was too thick to see. Before long though another pheasant got up and I spotted the fox bouncing in the cover, just like a cocker spaniel will do when it’s hunting in thick grass, trying to look ahead and spot its quarry.

Modern thermal imagers and riflescopes mean you no longer have to aim for a ‘hot blob’

I kept watching and the fox leapt up a couple more times, then all went quiet, five minutes later the upper half appeared near the edge of the heavy cover moving left to right. Through the scope, I could clearly see the stalks of undergrowth in the way, so I could avoid hitting them.

I didn’t try to squeak this fox – at this time of year all the adults have heard it all before, and a squeak is likely to send them running. Instead I waited until the fox was clear of the stalks and stems, then gave a loud “Baaa!” That stopped him in his tracks, and my bullet passed through both shoulders at a range of about 60 yards or so.

A couple of nights later I found myself in a similar situation, but with a wire stock fence in the way. Once again, thanks to the high-quality picture in the Thermion scope, at 80 yards I was able to easily thread the bullet through the strands rather than pinging a bullet off the wire.

We’ve said before that thermal was a game changer, and with this leap in quality the game has changed again. It almost makes the job too easy – which I suppose explains why there are so few foxes on our patch, and the other wildlife is doing so well! 

More on foxing from Sporting Rifle

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