The heat of the night

Credit: Richard Spiller / EyeEm / Getty Images

In between foxing outings, Robert Bucknell remarks on how to get the most out of thermal imaging and how this technology has opened up a whole new world.

Once again there’s little to report in the way of foxes on my patch – we’ve done too good a job over the winter, and of course now we’re well into the breeding season foxes tend to stay where they are.

The vixens are holed up around their dens looking after cubs, and the dogs are sticking close by. With no litters on the ground, and all the resident foxes dispatched, I don’t expect to see more than the occasional wandering fox until harvest, when the litters start to break up and foxes begin moving across the countryside in earnest.

The only exception is when a vixen moves her litter when wishing her cubs to enjoy a safer spot, or one with better access to food or water. Only by constant monitoring of all likely – and occasionally unlikely – sites will you deal with them as soon as they arrive.

We have had a singleton pop up locally. Colin the keeper told me he’d seen signs of a fox in their favourite spinney up by the village. I went up that same evening and sat up nearby. Across the other side of the 40-acre field I could hear a vixen yodelling as they do.

Thermal will reveal creatures you didn’t even know were there

I toyed with the idea of calling back, but decided against it. Calling at this time of year often pushes them away as the survivors do not trust any squeals, from past experience. If the vixen was moving around, by keeping quiet I hoped she would pass me by fairly soon.

I couldn’t see the vixen but I could easily follow her progress from the direction of the sound. She moved across to the right, then back the other way and round the back of the industrial units half a mile away, and came further round to my left.

She called out every few minutes to give a good line on where she was and how fast she was moving. I thought perhaps she would do a circuit and arrive in front of me, but no, she turned again and went back in the direction she had come, back towards the wood a mile away. All this took half an hour and now she was getting out of my earshot – a decision needed to be made.

Nothing ventured nothing gained, I thought. I’ll nip round and see if I can put myself where she’s heading. Taking my truck with its fox box on the back, I set off to a likely spot. Once I’d pulled up, I decided I might as well try calling.

With this being a vixen, the obvious call to use was the dog bark – with luck she would be sufficiently interested in a potential mate to come and have a closer look. I was using the Icotec GC 350 on ‘single bark’. The problem with this call is that the barks are too close together. I let it call once, pressed pause, then waited for two to four minutes before repeating the single call again – much more like real life.

I called for a while and nothing happened, then my phone rang. It was a chap who lives on the far side of the airfield. He had seen a light swing round and wanted to know if it was me. Probably my headlights, I told him, and pointed out there were lights going up and down his house track. “Yes,” he said, “I’m just off to check it out; I’ll report back.”

I watched his car lights head off in that direction, and 10 minutes later my phone rang again. He had found the intruders – a learner driver was using the track as a quiet spot to practise. As we chatted, I absent-mindedly had a quick scan with the thermal – and right in front of me was a fox! It had come round the little spinney in front and was angling across to my left, 100-odd yards away.

It was oblivious to the phone conversation, which was coming to an end anyway, so I let my friend hang up and made ready. Looking through the Apex XD50 thermal scope, I saw it was a little vixen, looking a bit tatty.

I gave a small rodent squeak and it almost stopped, but then moved on. Then at 120 yards it obligingly stopped sideways-on to double check. Bang, down she went, shot through both shoulders.

Robert gets to grips with the thermal scope

I set off walking across the field to pick up my little vixen. As I approached I could see that it was indeed very tatty. It had clearly had mange but was getting over it, and the fur was beginning to grow back. I grasped a back leg and turned her over… and it wasn’t a vixen at all, it was a tiny dog fox!

It’s times like this when you wonder whether you really know anything about foxes at all. This little dog had been roaming about squealing like a vixen, and come trotting in towards a dog fox call.

I did wonder if I’d been confused and there were actually two foxes out that night, so waited on to see nothing further. We have also been back multiple times and seen and heard no more, so I can only assume the fox I shot was the one making that vixen-like sound.

Since then I have been out several times on my home ground with nothing to report. It’s always educational and fun to sit watching the wildlife through the thermal, so I never feel it’s time wasted. The other night I saw a barn owl approaching flying down the track towards me, following the grass verge.

It passed silently barely an arm’s length away, and turned, carrying on across the field. It spotted, or perhaps heard, something in the crop and did that rock back on its wings before dropping to the ground with talons extended. The wheat was five or six inches tall so I couldn’t see what it had grabbed. 

Thirty yards away, a hare ran in, stood up for a better look and didn’t like what it saw. It ran round the other side and stood up looking again, a little closer this time at 15 yards.

Next minute it dropped to all fours and charged straight at the owl, which only took off just before the inevitable impact. The hare didn’t give up, and ran underneath looking up at the owl whose talons were empty, as if it was shouting “Come back here, I’ll ‘ave yer – yer coward!” (It is an Essex hare).

I can only assume that the owl had stooped on a small leveret, and the mother was defending her young – but I’ll never know for sure as the crop was too tall to see.

It’s a real privilege to witness little wildlife dramas like that, and thermal technology has made it possible to see undisturbed things you’d never see any other way. It helps pass the time for sure, but it doesn’t alter the fact that there’s been neither sight nor sound of a fox for days.

Foxes are mostly occurring as ‘singletons’ on Robert’s patch

My best chance of shooting a local fox seems to be through a smallholder who is keeping pigs (actually I hope pigs are keeping him). If you’ve got outdoor pigs it’s not long before you’ve got rats, and there’s nothing a fox likes better than a nice young rat.

That’s up near the next village, so off my ground, but I hear that the foxes there have latched on to this new takeaway – perhaps I’ll give him a call.

I am increasingly smitten by thermal. Having used it for spotting over the last three years, I have now acquired a second-hand Pulsar XD50 thermal scope.

Fitted to a .223 CAM, I went out to sight it in. I arrived at my 100-yard dirt mound to remember that a paper target is not easily seen by thermal. As it happened, an untidy person had left a small drinks bottle lying close by.

A small amount of pee in the bottom inch works a treat and three rounds had everything soon lined up. The combination produced a group of just over on an inch so I am confident out to over 200 yards.

I have heard some people say that thermal does not give so good a picture of your intended victim as tubed or digital NV. This can be true under certain conditions.

When everything is the same temperature, as happens after a heavy rain, you can lose definition when viewing things at a distance. I have found this is more that made up for by the fact that it is very easy to get foxes to come in close because you do not need any form of light to enhance your picture. Although this can make things difficult if you have a fast-moving fox at very short range, the speed of acquisition makes it worthwhile overall.

With tubed or digital scopes, you often have to rely on eye shine for that instant alignment, and if you are not being looked at, this can be difficult. With thermal set on white-hot you can quickly pick up the whole animal in varying shades.

Often you can even make out the hot bone inside the fox’s tail. Most of my shots are now from 50 to 120 yards. Not only is confidence 100 per cent, but also at the shot, seeing bits of fox fly out the far side from your expanding bullet and watching any blood trail appear before it goes down makes retrieval easy.

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