The Crucial Shot

Byron Pace’s persistence pays off in the end

Thinking back to 2011’s foxing forays in the vicinity of our pheasant shoot still makes me wince. Having lost a substantial number of birds to my toothy adversary that year, I became determined to get ahead of the game every year as soon as the stubbles were laid bare and I could cover my ground.

One year rain had plagued the farmer’s efforts in the first weeks of the harvest, but by the end of August I was free from the obscuring sea of grain-laden stalks; the fields were open for business once more. I had made a pact with myself to put what precious time I had available into fox control.

My day job limited my ability to partake in night-time vulpine quests, and left only small windows of opportunity each week to complete the task at hand. However, I had resolved to take every opportunity and not make any excuses. My right-hand man and lamping buddy Edan Annand was as anxious as I was to get out with the lamp as often as possible, but it was the same old story with work – earning a living doesn’t always leave time for the things we live for. So it was imperative to make the most of the outings we had, exploring the shadows of every gully and ditch and not letting any opportunity pass.

The preceding weeks had also seen a concerted effort on the rabbit front: scouring the grazed grass fields for the twinkle of rabbits’ eyes before sending 40 grains of .22LR on their way to provide food for the pot and keep the farmer ‘on side’. During this time I had surprisingly failed to get much of a glimpse of Charlie. I naively thought that the neighbouring estates must have conducted an efficient den clearance and snaring campaign, leaving my small area unmolested. It was indeed as unlikely as it seemed – as the weeks went on, the fox menace increased.

Byron’s bean bag proves its worth for Edan when shooting off the bonnet

It was after 10pm when the crunch of gravel outside signalled the arrival of the evening’s hunting party. Edan, my usual shooting partner, was joined by a mutual friend of ours who was much newer to the whole experience. Mark had accompanied me on a single trip the previous year, but it had been a fruitless affair, and so he hoped to see more action this time. He was not to be disappointed.

A final series of checks ensured lamps, ammo, rifles and the other usual kit were accounted for, along with my trusty sandbag for shooting from the bonnet. I had originally used this not out of choice, but because my only bipod was too long to shoot comfortably from the vehicle. Now, however, I find that even though I have the appropriate benchrest size, the old-school sand bag is more comfortable. Whether taking a shot from the roof or bonnet, it just seems to nestle the rifle the way I like it.

Our first task was a quick spin around the pheasant shoot to see what we could come up with, before heading up the hill to bag some bunnies. We hoped that by showing Mark some quick action, we would re-kindle his interest in vermin control.

The initial tour of the farm produced a few glaring roe eyes and a handful of bumbling hares, but Mr Fox remained unaccounted for. The hurl up the hill was much more productive, with Mark and Edan efficiently dispatching a bagful of coneys.

Edan scans the fields for signs of Reynard

With the hour hand now well past 12, we entered into the foxing zone. Almost all the foxes I had shot on this farm had been between midnight and 3am, so now was the time to focus.

Creeping up the rutted farm track, Edan swept his searchlight across the land, parting the darkness to uncover what the night tried to keep hidden. Barren stubble stretched from side to side as I drove on in the Isuzu pickup, willing the piercing, fiery glow of a fox’s eyes to shine back through the darkness.

The initial loop once again showed very little, so we decided to visit a neighbouring farm, where I had been given permission to lamp earlier in the day. The short drive around allowed us to view where we had just been, along with a further two stubble fields and an expanse of potato crops. On clearing the horizon, Edan immediately zoned in on a dung heap 300 yards or so away, where a movement had caught his sharp eye. Sure enough, a moment later a fox stared back through the night, clearly perturbed at being disturbed from his beetle hunt. Even at this distance we could see he was a big fox, but being in the limelight was obviously not his cup of tea – he quickly made a beeline in the opposite direction, into the unharvested potatoes and out of sight. This fox had obviously seen a lamp before, and quite possibly heard the crack of a rifle to boot. We cursed our luck for not having the chance to put a bead on the scoundrel, and headed back to our pheasant shoot for a final lap of the farm.

As we neared the woods by the primary release pen, the lamp picked up distant eyes periodically flashing as another fox made his way along the periphery of the field. He didn’t seem to be in any rush, stopping to mouse about and pick up the odd slug – which gave me time to dismount the driving seat and set up my battle station on the roof of the pickup.

I knew from the off that it was a long shot, but the darkness hampered my ability to accurately account for the distance. I figured it was somewhere in the region of 200 yards – well within my ability – requiring an aim point just above the centre line to drop the 70-grain bullet through the engine room. I squeezed off the shot. I succumbed to the muzzle flash thanks to the lack of a moderator; as my night vision recovered, I was able to follow the perfectly spritely-looking fox striding diagonally towards us. I had made two rookie mistakes. Firstly, as I discovered the next day, my range estimation was wrong (it was more like 300 yards). Secondly, I had picked up 100-grain bullets and not 70-grain, resulting in greater drop than expected. Both were big mistakes. I was baffled enough by the first error as my range judgement is normally pretty good. However, to pick up the wrong bullets was inexcusable, even though it is an easy mistake to make.

To our amazement, Charlie swiftly zigzagged towards us, passing around 100 yards in front but intermittently obscured by a thick strip of long grass. Edan swept the beam right to intercept the fox’s path, honing in on a safe clearing between the two gates where the fox had been headed.

With my .243 Win locked and loaded, I rotated 30 degrees and firmly fixed my crosshairs on the gap, ready to unleash the bullet the moment Charlie-boy dared to show himself once more. As he broke cover, however, his speed made it clear that he had ideas of living another day, and didn’t relish the concept of having another high-velocity projectile lobbed in his direction.

Edan, on the ball as always, hollered at the fox and caused him to pause momentarily. It was all I needed. A moment later I redeemed my earlier mistake, as the crack of the rifle signalled the end of another predator hungry for poults.

Night one of Byron’s sortie ended in a full bag

I was satisfied to have ended the night with a fox in hand, although my initial miss had tarnished the proceedings. Fortunately, I was able to explain my misplacement; had that not been the case, the seeds of doubt would be set, and I would have needed a trip to the range to restore my self-belief.

The following night – the last before the grind of work recommenced – Edan and I set out once more, this time with the right ammo packed and a conscious mental picture of the distances we were covering. I was reminded that a rangefinder should move to the top of my ‘to buy’ list, hopefully to prevent a repeat of the same mistake.

Unlike the previous night, the first circuit of the neighbour’s field yielded a fox crossing towards the stream. While I organised my gear once more, Edan squeaked with his wigeon whistle to keep Charlie’s attention, bringing him in closer as I positioned the rifle on the bonnet. With a rock-solid rest, and the distance less than 150 yards, the 70-grain ballistic tip found its mark easily and rolled the fox over to his final resting place amongst the stubble.

With two successful outings completed, I ended the weekend with a sense of achievement. My work would undoubtedly save a good number of birds from meeting a premature end. Byron Pace 

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