Robert Bucknell returns following a bout of coronavirus – he investigates the future of foxing as lockdown is eased.
The Covid-19 lockdown has affected fox control in different ways – it all depends on your situation. If you see fox shooting as your sport, something you do to enjoy yourself, then it’s difficult to justify going out when we’re all supposed to be staying at home and avoiding non-essential travel.
Then again if you’re protecting livestock that are destined to go into the food chain, that’s essential work whether you’re being paid for it or not.
It’s getting late for lambs, at least in my part of East Anglia, but there are free-range hens and piglets that are definitely vulnerable to foxes – and with less of the usual discarded takeaways and picnic leftovers to scavenge, there’s every chance that foxes will head out of town looking for easy pickings in the countryside.
Ideally during this lockdown you’d stick to farms close to where you live; I don’t suppose the police would be too happy about people travelling miles to shoot foxes when it could be done by someone local. Everyone’s situation is different, and of course FAC holders tend to err on the side of caution, so some people are still going out and some aren’t.
Many gamekeepers are in a difficult position, not knowing whether there will be any shooting this year. Those who are still employed are getting on with the job. The rules say that if you can’t work at home then you should go to work, so even a part-time keeper can justify going out.
Even if they aren’t planning to put down any birds this year, at least by keeping the predators down they are maximising the chances of any wild birds producing a brood – and helping the other wildlife on the shoot at the same time. As an aside, the same applies to crop protection, so plenty of shooters have been out shooting pigeons and rooks on spring drillings.
BASC give their opinion which is roughly on those previous lines, but they miss out the advice that this could be the very time that those wishing to fill their larder with wild meat, such as pigeon or rabbit, have the best reason of the lot to be out. Much better than joining the scrum down at the supermarket.
I haven’t heard of any shooters being stopped on their way to do a bit of pest control and asked to explain themselves. No doubt the police have been concentrating on people sunning themselves in the park, or heading off for a day on the beach – activities that definitely haven’t been permitted.
Speaking as a shooter, we are carrying on with our game shoot and hope all restrictions will go by the start of the season. As a farmer we have to farm. I don’t even have to leave the land to carry out any necessary pest control, so I’ve been getting out regularly as usual – at least I am now I’ve got over the blasted coronavirus that clobbered me a while back (I had a temperature of over 40ºC for four days).
Not that we have many foxes on the place – we’ve done too good a job in previous months. As for the pigeons and rooks on the larger amount of spring drilling we have put in because of the very wet winter, it’s been very busy.
The other night I was out sitting up in one of the fox boxes I’ve set up around the farm. I saw one badger go past and one hedgehog, and that was it! The hedgehog’s behaviour was interesting. It was making good progress and covering a fair bit of ground – it seemed to know where it was going.
I watched it travel maybe 150 yards then, as soon as it got to where the badger had been across, it suddenly put its foot down and shot into cover. It must have recognised the threat and didn’t want to hang around and become a meal for Brock.
At the same time I was watching protected wildlife, Colin the keeper was out elsewhere on the boundary and managed to get a dog fox. Usually by now the crops would be up and seeing a fox would be difficult, never mind shooting it.
But all across the country farmers were caught out by that weather in the autumn, so there’s a huge area of spring crops this year. As I write it’s greening up now we’ve had some rain, but it’s still only a few inches high. That’s not enough for a fox to hide behind, whether you’re using thermal or swinging round with a lamp.
The lamp is still my preferred method if I’m driving round the farm looking for foxes. You can quickly cover a lot of ground that way, and most of the time you can sweep a field for eye shine without even stopping.
Using the thermal you do really have to park up and scan, so it takes a bit more time to get round. Having said that, I haven’t seen a set of fox eyes on this ground for weeks, maybe months.
So most of our foxing is now very targeted. You see a bit of fox scat or smell where one has been and make a plan to go after that specific fox. That’s what Colin was doing when he got the dog fox I mentioned.
He had gone to that corner of the farm to top up the feed bins and spotted a tell-tale pile of scat on a clod of dirt. It’s always worth checking any prominent feature, as foxes love to scent mark with pee or poo.
There’s a high fox box there – regular readers will remember that we wrote about the job of putting it up on four old telegraph poles with the aid of a telehandler.
The base of the box is 12 feet off the ground, so you can see a long way from it, but Colin chose instead to park up alongside the wood opposite because of the wind direction.
He used an Icotec call on rabbit squeal and the fox came straight to him and was soon in the bag with a 40 grain Hornady inside. Whilst waiting there, he saw a badger disturb a cock pheasant from some brambles in the wood, course it and catch it – they are faster than people think.
Colin is still using the combination of a thermal spotter and a digital Pulsar Photon scope. That works fine for him as he has good eyesight and most of the foxes he shoots are no more than 100 yards away.
But I’m talking to people now who are using the high-end thermal scopes and shooting foxes up to 300 or even 400 yards. The technology is so good now that you can comfortably do that. The top-of-the-range scopes are
Colin’s brother, John, shot a fox at 347 yards the other night, using his Ruger M77 22-250 under a Trail XQ50 scope. Another chap, Tom, has a Thermion XP50, and told me that he’d killed one at more than 400 yards with a .243 shooting a light bullet.
He was with his son at the time, who didn’t believe he’d hit it. “Yes I did, I saw it drop in the scope,” he replied. Imagine that, to be able to see the fox go down through a thermal scope at 400+ yards; that’s pretty impressive and it gives you an idea of the picture quality with the latest kit.
Of course, at those sorts of distances you need to know the range and calculate the bullet drop and windage, but modern laser rangefinders are more than up to the job. It means the poor old fox doesn’t stand a chance of course.
He’s just pottering along minding his own business and the bullet comes out of the blue, with no light or sound to provide a warning. At that distance they’re unlikely to pick up a human scent, and even if the wind is blowing towards them, will ignore it as not being near enough to be a threat.
Safety is often asked about thermal, but the usual rules apply: never shoot at just a shape – just because you think it’s a fox doesn’t mean it is. But with the latest thermals the resolution is so good that positive identification is easy. I always look for that long tail bone. You can even see intervening twigs and branches and squeeze a bullet though a gap.
I hope that by the time this article is printed the lockdown will have been lifted, partially at least, as the authorities get on top of the situation. It remains to be seen whether foxes will have changed their habits. I’ve heard a few people say that foxes seem to be getting tamer, but I wonder whether that’s just because foxes are being disturbed more.
One of the effects of lockdown is that walkers and ramblers are popping up in all sorts of unlikely places. I’ll be sitting quietly watching a piece of countryside and suddenly a group of deer burst from the wood and stand staring back.
They’ve been disturbed by walkers who in normal times would be visiting the local park or nature reserve, and now that’s closed they’re venturing further afield.
They’re often oblivious to the wildlife they’ve disturbed, and have no idea the trouble they cause for those of us who manage the countryside 365 days of the year.
Will those walkers go back to their old habits when things get back to normal? Or now they’ve discovered the joys of stomping through our woods, will they keep coming back? I suppose that only time will tell.
More on foxing
- Ask the experts: Is foxing better by moonlight?
- Top 10 best scopes for foxing 2020
- Foxing during a driven game day
- 8 tips to make the most of winter foxing
- All the kit you need for foxing