The Thermal Revolution

This time of year, people with foxes on their mind are thinking very much about vixens with cubs, but it’s important not to overlook the others. There are always the dog foxes that aren’t tied down to a particular spot, as well as a few barren vixens wandering about the place.

I’m fairly confident there are no litters on my patch, but that’s no guarantee we will remain fox-free. Travelling foxes may move in, or a vixen beyond my boundary may be disturbed and decide to shift her litter.

At this time of year, where I sit out is directed by the wind and a clear field of fire. I’ll choose my spot and wait to see what happens to come by. I’ve got plenty of options where I can sit in a high seat or park up in the truck.


Thermal units have become more and more accessible as spotting monoculars…

As it happens, just last week a barren vixen had what they call a life-changing experience when she strayed onto the farm. A visiting shooter had gone out after an early morning muntjac. Roy got into position just before daylight, climbing into one of my tyre seats – four old tractor tyres piled in a tower, with a plank inside for a seat.

Roy owns a Quantum HD38S thermal viewer, so he had plenty to amuse himself while he waited for dawn to break, watching the wildlife moving about. Long before it was light enough to shoot a deer, he spotted a fox moving towards him along the hedgerow. My last words to him were still in his mind: “If you see a fox, forget any deer – that takes precedence.”

With one last glance through the thermal to check the fox was still moving his way, he slipped his tubed night vision PDS14 onto the back of his day scope and lined up on the approaching Charlie. The fox caught a .30-06 bullet in the centre of the chest. By all accounts it was effective.

That one turned out to be a barren vixen of quite a good age, with very dark belly fur. She hadn’t made any mistakes in the past – any lamp, I expect, and she wouldn’t have hung around. But with thermal and night vision, there was no telltale visible light. She had no clue Roy was there.

Thermal imaging certainly gives you the drop on foxes at night, as well as a whole new insight into wildlife and its behaviour. Indeed, some of the things you see can be as absorbing as the fox shooting itself.

The other night I watched a tawny owl after beetles and worms. It covered 100 yards on foot, just strolling along and occasionally fluttering up to pounce on something in the grass. Who’d have thought it? Owls are supposed to flit about silently, diving onto voles and the like from on high.


…and now they’re available rifle-mounted too

One of the best clues that this was an owl was that I could hardly see it in the thermal viewer at all. Owls are very well insulated, so they give off very little heat. I could see it as clear as anything in the Yukon Photon scope fitted to my rifle. The eyes shone as bright as a fox’s eyes, reflecting the Nightmaster infra-red illuminator.

The owl obviously saw the IR as well. It stopped and stared quizzically at me, tilting its head as if to say, “What’s that all about?” It was a useful reminder that animals see in different spectrums of light to us. Birds that are active in daylight, for instance, can often see ultra-violet. Pigeons will see UV reflected off clothing that might look perfectly camouflaged to our eyes. Crows, on the other hand can see into infra-red, and are quite happy flying about at dawn and dusk, in light so dim that we’d be crashing into trees and fences.

A couple of days later I was sitting in my truck in the half-dark and saw a badger bustle out of an active sett. I used the thermal viewer to confirm my suspicions, and decided it was probably a sow needing a break from her youngsters, because it went just a short way before curling up and going to sleep.

After a while, four fallow deer came through: two does with their youngsters of about 10 months old – basically teenagers, with all the inquisitiveness and mischief that you’d expect from the young.

With a thermal scope, one must always be careful to positively identify the target before firing

I watched the youngsters freeze in their tracks as they spotted the badger from 20 yards, and imagined the conversation between them: “What’s one of those?” “Don’t know.” “Let’s play with it.” They charged towards the snoozing Brock. By now the badger was alert. It let them get within a few yards before jumping up and diving back down its hole. The deer looked a bit miffed, but quickly forgot their disappointment as something else caught their attention.

It was fun to watch this little drama played out, with the thermal viewer to fill in what I couldn’t make out with the naked eye. With thermal alone it would have been difficult to work out what was going on – and that’s the drawback with thermal: any animal more than a short distance away is just a warm blob in the viewer. You have to interpret the image that the viewer is showing you.

For instance, if there’s a fox in among some hares at some distance it can be difficult to pick it out. You need to watch how they behave. Hares tend to sit still whereas a fox lives by its feet. It will be shifting along, not sitting still. Unless it’s curled up fast asleep, in which case it’s almost impossible to tell apart from a crouched hare. Swapping from white hot to black hot can help. Black gives a better outline and white better contrast. You can’t just buy a night vision device, stick it on your rifle, and expect to see crisp night-into-day type pictures straight away. Thermal, like other night vision devices, can be a great tool but it must be used judiciously.

That’s the one reservation I have with the new thermal gun scopes that are now starting to come onto the market. Until you learn to interpret what you see, it’s all too easy to make mistakes. That’s fine if you’re using a viewer. The worst that happens is you feel a bit of a fool when that fox you were watching jumps up out of the bushes and turns into an airgunner going after rabbits. But if that was a sight mounted on your fox rifle… It doesn’t bear thinking about.

I was talking to a chap recently who encountered just that situation, although thankfully he’s experienced and careful enough that there were no mistakes. A chicken farmer had asked him to come and deal with the foxes, but forgotten to mention that several airgunners had permission to hunt on that same bit of ground.

Another fox on the ground thanks to judicious use of technology

It’s hard to mistake the heat signature of a jogger or farm worker, but someone hunting after dark is a different matter. Belly-down, crawling through the undergrowth, wearing camo clothing, they have a much smaller heat signature, especially if they’re partially hidden by a tree or a bump in the ground. The warm blob of their head is about the same size as a fox, and of course we’re all prone to seeing what we want and expect to see. It takes a conscious effort to make that positive identification before taking a shot – but it’s something we must do, every time, if we’re to avoid a disaster.

It’s not just airgunners. Over the years you come across all sorts of odd people in the countryside at night, from badger watchers to escaped convicts and yes, the occasional ‘courting couple’ (I can quote two cases shot using the old technology) – although I imagine they’d show up like a bonfire in thermal, generating all that heat!

Seriously, though, thermal riflescopes are on the way and they will revolutionise fox shooting just as tubed and digital NV did before them. They are, however, potentially a disaster waiting to happen, so we all need to be extra cautious until we’ve learned to interpret the sight picture and can be 100 per cent sure that the ‘fox’ in the crosshairs really is one

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