The night shift

Credit: Dgwildlife / Getty Images

With lamb attacks increasing, Mark Ripley and two fellow shooters plan to hit the foxes hard over one long night…

As was usual for the springtime, my shooting mate Gary and I were busy on all the farms trying to reduce the fox numbers as the first of the lambs were already being born.

It wasn’t long before we got a call to say a lamb or two had been taken. Despite shooting a good number of foxes in the run-up to to the lambing season, the smell of fresh afterbirth on the grass soon pulls foxes in from further afield, and the inevitable happens.

One of the farmers had also sent over a picture of a dead ewe – it had died of natural causes but she had seen a fox on it already stripping away flesh from its neck, showing they were clearly paying close attention to the livestock.

We decided to have a concentrated effort on them one Friday evening and called in the help of another friend Mark, a good shot and level-headed foxer, to help maximise our chances.

This particular evening was nice and mild with very little wind, though a little too light to be ideal. On the hill ground that makes up most of our permissions, with so little cover, it means you are easily spotted by sharp-eyed foxes from a good distance away. This proved to be the case as we trekked around the hills and valleys in search of our vulpine nemesis.

To cover more ground on the first farm, Gary went off alone while Mark and I covered the far end of the farm. We watched a couple of foxes through the thermal spotters as they made their way in between the sheep, but clearly they knew we were there and kept their distance from us in a frustrating game of cat-and-mouse.

Several times we came up on a fox curled up watching the flock or nosing around in the grass, only for it to disappear as soon as we flicked on an IR or set the rifle on the sticks.

Gary was the first to have some success, calling a fox out from cover almost to his feet before flicking his Wicked Light lamp on. The vixen bolted back 80 yards into the cover of some nettles, but not out of sight.

After a few games of cat and mouse, Mark is able to draw a bead on an unsuspecting fox

Clearly feeling safe, it turned to look back, at which point Gary sent a 105gn Geco bullet through her neck from his .243. Mark and I had no success, and meeting back up with Gary, we headed on to another farm that had lost lambs recently. 

This farm is made up of several steep-sided valleys filled with expectant ewes with only a few early lambs born. It wasn’t a good sign that they had already lost one or two. We decided to sit Mark over a bait site, expecting this to be most productive, while Gary and I wandered further on down the first valley.

Not long after we left Mark, we spotted a fox that had come down the side of the valley behind us and was clearly aware that we were there. It sat on the bank at first, but once I got the IR on it, it decided that it didn’t like the situation and ran down on to the footpath at the bottom of the valley. It paused for a moment as I watched through the nightscope around 150 yards, but it was slightly behind a water trough and I wasn’t happy with the shot.

The fox moved off again towards a fence, which if it went through would obscure a chance of a shot. Fortunately it stopped just before the fence and turned for a last look. In the open valley the .223’s cough seemed quiet, effectively dampened by the MAE moderator, and just as the fox began to turn to go through the fence, the bullet thumped home.

Unfortunately, owing to the fox’s last-second movement, the round hit it further back than I had wanted. It went straight down with no movement but we approached with more caution than normal. That caution was warranted – as we walked over, it made it to its feet and began heading up the hill. I quickly got back down on the bipod and put a finishing shot between its shoulder blades, dropping it instantly.

Unbeknown to me at the time, Mark was also lining up on a fox and was just about to squeeze the trigger when my first shot rang out. That sent his intended victim running for a nearby patch of cover.

The fox paused to look back before going through the fence – and paid the price

We walked a little further along the valley and spotted a second fox making its way along the top of the valley to our left. We spied through the thermal as it sat down to watch us. Clearly it could see us in the valley below and most probably wanted to drop down to where we were. As it was, it was at a fair distance and was also skylined from our position at the bottom of the valley. 

You will often find foxes will, if they feel safe, watch and wait for you to walk on so they can go about their business. With that in mind, we decided to carry on walking down the valley another 100 yards to see if it would drop down the bank behind us.

This fox was a little more cautious and decided, after coming a little further down the bank, to curl up in the grass and watch us. We weighed up the shot for a while, wondering if it was on. It was a fair distance and would have to be taken off sticks owing to the lie of the land. 

I decided to have a look through the scope, and found I could clearly see the fox curled up with just its head and neck visible above the grass. We estimated that the shot was probably around 150 yards, and I could see there was some ground above the fox for a backstop.

Behind this valley the ground falls away to the sea anyway, so the shot was a safe one and I lined up on the fox just below its chin, giving me the biggest vertical margin for error, and squeezed the trigger just as the fox looked to its left. At 175 yards the bullet found its mark perfectly, hitting the fox just behind the jaw and killing the good-sized dog instantly.

Seeing nothing else, we headed on to another farm, and while Gary sat over a bait point, Mark and I walked out into another grassy valley full of ewes. We soon spotted a fox just in front of the sheep milling around, and once it got into a clear spot, Mark got his rifle on to it – but again the glow from the IR was too much, sending it trotting down the valley among the sheep.

We headed down after the fox, but the ewes were jumpy and bounded away further down the bank, sending the fox, along with another we hadn’t seen, running up the opposite bank out of range. Following it further along the valley, we stuck to the higher ground so we wouldn’t have to trudge back up the hill on already aching legs.

A long and tiring night pays off

It wasn’t long before we again spotted a fox curled up close to some ewes some 150 yards away. Once again it was already watching us, and as soon as Mark had his rifle on the sticks, it had had enough and was off. 

We watched it wander in between the sheep and disappear into cover so we sat on the bank for a while to see if anything else showed. Before long, the fox was back out around the edge of the cover and we again tried to close the distance. Feeling safe on the edge of cover, the fox sat and watched our approach. Using all of our fieldcraft, we headed towards the fox but also diagonally down the bank a little in a ruse to make the fox think we were in fact walking away.

When we felt we were as close as we dared to get, Mark got down on the bipod and lined up on the fox facing us on a small ridge that ran up alongside a crater on the bank with a small patch of young trees behind it. Despite a few patches of gorse and nettles around the fox, we could clearly see it sat there.

I watched through the thermal for what seemed like an age as Mark methodically prepared for the shot before his .223 let out a soft crack. We held our breath for a second before a solid thump sounded out and I saw the fox lurch up before flopping on its side without so much as a twitch as the bullet connected with a good neck shot. 

We paced it out and found Mark had made a decent 175-yard shot – ending the evening with another satisfying shot and four foxes in the bag.

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