Mike Powell delves further into the habits of foxes around mating season, and how you can exploit them
There are two main times of year when calling foxes can really work well. The first comes at the end of harvest when the fields have been cleared of the crops that have covered them for so long.
Cubs are starting out on their hunting careers and have as yet to learn the ways of the world; they don’t take that long to pick up the fact that there are things in the countryside that are best avoided, but before the penny drops, their numbers can be reduced if necessary. I say if necessary because not all foxes cause problems, though all have the capability to do so!
The other time when they can be vulnerable is during the mating season. It’s a different proposition for the foxer. After harvest, food is the driving force that you use to draw foxes in, whereas the depths of winter is when the red fox mating season is in full swing and you endeavour to use this to attract the fox’s attention. So how do you go about this to get the greatest chance of success?
It pays to know a bit about the ritual that foxes go through before actual mating takes place. I find that year after year I see reports that foxes have been seen pairing up and have been heard calling as early as the end of September.
While it would be foolish to say that things in nature never happen, general rules do apply, and despite the odd occurrence, fox mating times take place very much at the same time each year.
Much of this is down to the fact that unlike male dogs, male foxes are not capable of mating throughout the year. Those of us who keep ferrets will be aware that the hobs only come into season in the spring and from late summer they lose all interest in mating. So it is with the fox – a dog fox’s testes start to descend usually during November.
This is called spermatogenesis. With slight regional variations, mating normally takes place during January and February. The calls people hear from late September and through October are, more often than not, that season’s cubs keeping in touch with their siblings and the vixen as they mature. Even when they are fully grown they like to keep in touch still – a bit like us I suppose!
There is a good reason for foxes not to mate before the start of the New Year, and that is food. If foxes did mate in October or November, with a gestation period of around 52 days the cubs would be born in the depths of winter when food sources are at their lowest ebb, and nature generally plans things better than that.
Matings during January and February mean that when the cubs are being weaned off the vixen, there is a ready supply of young rabbits and all manner of other creatures.
To return to the mating ritual, as the nights become colder and the year nears its end, foxes can be heard calling nightly. Usually the two calls most often heard are the triple-syllable short bark and the scream. This latter call is usually attributed to the vixen and the triple bark to the dog fox; however, both sexes can produce either call.
The bark is a locating call and you can often hear this call moving through the countryside as the producer covers considerable distances hoping to get a response.
Eventually a dog and a vixen will make contact and the mating ritual proper begins. This is no quick process. Though vixens are clearly attractive to the dogs, they only actually come into full mating condition for about three days. As a result, there is a considerable amount of time spent following and chasing her by the dog.
This can go on for days, and during that time other dog foxes will try their luck as well, which results in scrapping between the rivals, which the vixens can be seen watching with interest (again a bit like us!)
Eventually one dog will see off any rivals and chasing will begin in earnest, finally culminating in mating as and when the vixen is ready. Often if you come across a mating pair, if you look around carefully, more often than not another dog fox will be spotted waiting for his chance.
When the mating pair separate, the vixen will, if the opportunity arises, mate with him too. Once all of this has taken place, the vixen will start seeking potential sites for her cubs to be born in.
So what is the best way for the fox shooter to take advantage of all this rushing about and vocalising? Foxes respond to calls for a variety of reasons at different times of the year.
During the mating season, the driving force is obviously the desire to mate, but linked with this is the problem that many other foxes have the same idea in mind, so aggression and territorial defence come into play. By using the most suitable calls, the fox shooter can make the most of these strong, deep-seated emotions.
Let’s take the defence and aggression aspect first. Normally, foxes range over well-defined areas that are ‘protected’ to a degree by scent marking. This works well most of the year, but when mating starts, it goes out the window and trespassers arrive.
The resident dog fox responds to this, sometimes violently, though from watching foxes for many years I have observed that any outsiders that come in are generally wary and will sheer off should the resident fox appear. However, as the season hots up, caution is often thrown to the wind and confrontation occurs.
Using the triple bark call will really get the resident fox’s attention and often he will come looking for the rival. You will need to be alert as sometimes a fired-up fox will come in quickly. If you’re using a digital caller, it pays to put it between 70 and 100 yards away, otherwise the fox will be too close for a shot.
On occasions, a fox that is a stranger to the territory will circle around checking out exactly what the rival is like and where he is – so it pays to be in a spot where you have a good all round view.
As far as the mating side of calling is concerned, both the scream and the triple call can be used as both sexes respond to either. The vixens don’t like the idea of there being another female in the area but equally will be drawn to the call of dog foxes. Vixens often approach more warily than the dogs, but of course with the aid of a decent thermal you should have plenty of warning.
During the mating period, vixens will often respond to the calls of cubs. Again you can’t help but liken fox behaviour to our own; humans when pregnant will often show considerable interest in others’ babies. Likewise, the cry of a distressed cub will often have vixens coming in.
Finally, always place yourself in the best position, one that gives an all-round view if possible. If not possible, place yourself against a dark background, preferably one a fox can’t get through. This prevents one suddenly appearing right beside you.
While it is usually accepted that foxes don’t respond to the usual food-type calls during mating time, do remember that not all foxes are involved in the mating process.
Alpha vixens will actively strive to prevent other females from mating, and if successful these will turn out to be what are often called barren vixens. Likewise, subordinate males will have a fruitless mating season.
These foxes, which are not heavily involved in mating, will go about their business as usual, and will respond to rabbit squeals and the various other calls that are used at normal times of year.
As for the best time of day to be calling during the mating season, when it is at its peak, almost any time can work. Particularly during January, mating calls can be heard not only during the hours of darkness but during the daytme as well.
Also, the actual act of mating can take place both day and night, so on bright, sunny, winter days a quiet walk round will often reveal foxes out sunning themselves and sleeping off the effects of a hectic night’s courting.
Throughout my life I have spent countless nights at all times of the year dealing with foxes that have been causing problems. I love being out on late summer evenings when the countryside is in full leaf and there is a wealth of wildlife to keep you entertained while waiting for the fox you are after to turn up.
However, for sheer excitement, being out on a cold, crisp, frosty night in the middle of winter, hearing the calls of foxes responding to the most basic drive of nature getting closer and closer, is probably the best time of all.