Robert Bucknell explains the importance of fieldcraft and looks at the skills new foxers will need to acquire
You can go for weeks feeling pretty sure there are no foxes around, and then suddenly the hairs on the back of your neck start to tingle. It’s a kind of foxing sixth sense – you just know a fox has moved in.
Before long you start hearing the odd report from farm workers and villagers: “I think I saw something slipping down the hedge,” or “There was a fresh fox scat on the track this morning.”
That’s what happened on my farm just recently. I wasn’t at all surprised, as Colin the keeper had just put the partridges out in their pens in each cover, which is bound to attract any fox that’s within scenting distance.
We put our birds down late here, because we like to wait until we’ve done the harvest and finished the autumn drilling. It means we start later than many other shoots, but it suits us.
We haven’t caught up with this fox yet, but it has been seen several times at night in the distance, or just for a couple of fleeting seconds when there hasn’t been a chance to grab the gun.
My instincts tell me it’s probably a town fox that has moved into the area and is living close to the village where it feels more at home – an older fox too, I suspect, judging by its behaviour.
The older ones are more wary in the way they move around the countryside, keeping in or close to cover at all times. A young fox will cheerfully skip about in the middle of a field, hunting mice or whatever, not realising how vulnerable it is until it’s too late.
When you have a fox move in on your patch like this, you have several options. One is running around with a lamp hoping to see something, or you can spend the next few nights sitting out in different spots trying to track down where it’s coming from and what its routine is.
We’ve done that many times in the past. You can end up wasting a good few nights seeing nothing – except they’re not wasted because each one tells you where your adversary isn’t going, which narrows down the possibilities until, like Sherlock Holmes says, “whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
That’s if you’re doing the job single handed. If you’re lucky you may be able to call on a number of helpers. In many places, for instance, the local keepers have a good network, and will rally round to help each other when needed.
Then you can stake out the suspect area on any given night, giving you blanket coverage. That way the fox stands little chance of moving without being spotted by at least one person.
Even if he doesn’t get a shot, with mobile phones they can alert the next person along, so that he can be ready when the fox appears. Funnily enough, I never bother putting my phone on silent when I’m foxing, because they don’t seem to pay any attention to noises from the phone.
All those dings and rings from a text don’t seem to mean anything to a fox, even though the slightest knock of metal on metal will send them running. I’ve even had foxes completely ignore me when I’m having a conversation on the phone.
It seems to help if there’s a steady noise already going on when the fox approaches, whether that’s an engine running or a radio playing. What they don’t like is a sudden noise when they’re already nearby.
I sometimes help out on a turkey unit in the lead-up to Christmas, and if the weather is very cold, I’ll sit inside the truck with the windows wound up, the engine running and the heater on.
Thermal won’t work through the glass, but a good night vision unit is fine, just so long as you don’t turn on the IR illuminator, or that will reflect back off the glass and blow out the picture. It doesn’t seem to bother the foxes one bit that there’s an engine chugging away; they come in as bold as you like.
You still need to be super careful winding down the window and getting the rifle out when one approaches though, because they’re very sensitive to that sound and movement.
It’s a reminder that even with all the technology we have available to us nowadays, fieldcraft is just as vital as ever, and knowing how a fox’s mind works will play a huge part in your success, or lack of it.
That’s a lesson that’s currently being learned by Paul, a new lad who is helping out on the shoot. He’s very, very keen, and he’s done a bit of rifle shooting at rabbits and the like.
Now he’s going down that route that all new entrants to foxing have to follow, learning that there’s more to shooting a fox than just sitting down and waiting for it to show up.
Yes of course, we all get lucky now and again, but 99 per cent of the time it’s down to the three Ps: preparation, practice and perseverance. For someone who has been shooting grass grazers, the challenge of foxing is on a whole new level, but then that’s what makes it so addictive and satisfying when you get it right.
One of the attractions, for me at least, is that by controlling foxes you’re doing a lot of good, whether you’re protecting game, wildlife on a reserve, or farm livestock. People underestimate the damage that foxes will do to livestock, because it isn’t all visible.
Take piglets, for instance. A while back I was helping out at a pig farm, sitting there with the rifle, waiting for a fox to appear. Eventually one came across the corner on the far side of the field and headed towards a gap in the hedge.
Just as it reached the hedge, I knocked it down – very satisfying. Mike, who was with me, wanted to rush out and pick it up, but any experienced fox shooter knows to wait and see what happens. It wasn’t long before a second fox appeared and followed the exact same line as the first.
Again, I waited for it to reach the hedge before it stopped for that last look and dropped it. Eventually, we called it a night and went to collect the foxes, which lay almost side by side – and each one had a new-born piglet in its mouth.
Imagine how many piglets those foxes had taken over weeks and months, and how many more they’d have killed if I hadn’t shot them that night. People like the idea of ‘free range’, but don’t appreciate that putting farmed stock out for off-grid camping often gives predators a pick your own food option.
The farmer may have had his suspicions, but he would never know the numbers, because he isn’t there when the sow is giving birth. He’ll come along next morning to the ark and see nine or ten piglets, and assume that’s what the sow produced.
If one goes missing after that then he’ll know, of course. But a piglet snatched at the moment of birth will easily go unnoticed, even though the impact on the farm’s profits over time could be huge.
So Paul can be confident that he can do good for farming as well as wildlife as he learns his craft. And as we know, there’s a lot to learn, not just about fox behaviour, but also about that fieldcraft. An experienced foxer knows what the animal is going to do almost before the fox does.
He’ll see a fox coming across a field and disappear behind the hedge, and not worry because he knows that as it reaches the hedge – with the way the wind is blowing across – it will come through the cover to be downwind along the near side.
By the time the fox pops through a few yards away, he’s already got the rifle lined up and bang, the job is done – when a novice wouldn’t be expecting it, wouldn’t be ready and would probably move in a hurry and scare the fox back without getting a shot.
At times it will be frustrating for Paul, as it has for all of us on that steep learning curve. But the rewards are huge, and for me at least the fascination never ends – you’re always learning, and no matter how experienced you get, there are always times when the fox outsmarts you rather than the other way around. But then that’s what makes foxing so fascinating and rewarding.
And finally, an update – the evening this article was written, John, who
helps with a bit of fox control, but loves bashing the bunnies, was out here late with his .22LR. He, and brother Ben, had been driving round on the after-harvest stubble when the lamp caught some eyes at long range.
Knowing it was most probably a muntjac, they still pulled up and switched off the engine. Just before that, Ben had picked up a rabbit that was not quite dead, and it had squealed as he grabbed it. It was quickly dealt with, but when the lamp showed the two gleams, he gave his own distressed rabbit cry.
Under the lamp the eyes started rushing in. John was already getting set up with his .22 Hornet from the back seat when the fox presented an easy shot at 45 yards. The old dog fox had been fooled by the genuine bunny. You can only get the luck by being there!