Using thermal night vision for foxing

After a quiet year on the foxes, Robert Bucknell has been itching for the chance to deal with some unwelcome guests on his patch 

Credit: Jamie_Hall / Getty Images

This month I really can’t top the fox story I read by Alexandra Shulman, former editor of Vogue magazine, writing in the Daily Mail. She went into her living room to watch TV only to find a fox curled up in her favourite spot on the sofa.

It ignored her shrieks but eventually her boyfriend persuaded it to leave, back out through the open French windows. She sat down to catch up with her favourite programme. “The itching began on my bottom all of four minutes later,” she wrote.

It got worse over the coming days, spreading all over her body despite all sorts of antihistamines, steroid tablets and what-have-you prescribed by her GP who had no idea of the real problem. To cut a long story short, some ten days later she learnt it was scabies, picked up from the fox.

Getting rid of the infestation was something else again. She had to cancel a planned holiday and everything in the house has been washed, dry cleaned or steamed and her skin is still sore and itchy despite now using the correct cream to treat the mites. Needless to say, she is not a huge fan of urban foxes and would have got a faster diagnosis from a vet!

Meanwhile we haven’t seen a lot of foxes this year on my farm in Essex, as you’ll know if you’re a regular reader. We hit them hard over the winter, and very few came anywhere near the place all through spring and summer, through to harvest and beyond. It helps that the shoots round about are on high alert too, so they’re likely to intercept any fox that’s heading our way. 

It was inevitable that things would change when autumn came – and sure enough we’ve started to get a few new arrivals in the past couple of weeks. We have managed to bag them very quickly, but at least one has eluded us so far and is still at large as I write this.

We’ve had a huge amount of rain lately, so it’s easy to read the tracks and know what’s about. Colin the keeper called me and said he’d seen fox footprints near one of the pheasant release pens – the pens are empty now in the day because all the birds have flown over the top, but we still don’t want a fox sniffing about.

A couple of nights earlier I had caught up with a vixen, on a neighbour’s land a good mile from here. I’ve got permission from that neighbour to shoot there, so I swung by on one of my regular outings. I was driving my truck along the farm track, swinging a 50W white lamp to and fro. I still find that’s the best way to cover a big area quickly.

A deadly combination

You can hold the lamp out of the window as you drive along, covering a huge field in just a couple of seconds. Provided you are not on the public highway the worst you can do is hit some scenery with your motor.

With the thermal you’d have to stop, get it to your eye to pan across the field, then put it away and get moving again – all of which would take a whole lot longer. Driving and viewing would definitely put a dent in your motor!

Over the top of the hedge I saw a gleam back from the lamplight. Was it a water droplet, a bit of glass, or even a discarded piece of reflective cloth from a worker’s jacket?

There are all sorts of things that can shine back. One that really caught me out once was where someone had dumped a pile of road plainings in a field. They’d caught up one of the cat’s eyes from the middle of the road which was sitting in the heap shining back, for all the world like a pair of fox eyes.

In this case the shine I saw could have been any of those things – or it could be a fox. It was just a flash through the top of the hedge. There was nowhere to turn around and I didn’t want to stop and reverse. That’s guaranteed to send any fox packing.

If they hear you arrive, pass by and keep going, then they’re more likely to stay put – so that’s what I did, driving on for 400 yards or so until I came to a gateway to a field where I could turn round and head back up the track.

In fact, I only got as far as a sharp left-hand corner where there’s the field entrance to the right. I spotted a set of eyes looking at me in the gap so killed the lamp immediately and pulled in. Rifle off the spare seat and out of the window using the Pulsar Thermion XM50 thermal scope.

Sure enough, there was the top half of a head peeping over the brow of the hill. So far so good, but was it a fox, or perhaps a muntjac? Either way it wasn’t a safe shot, so I decided to try a few squeaks and see what happened. The picture was so good from over 200 yards that I could see the ears turning as they scanned around, but no safe identification.

After a while it became curious and moved slowly towards me, but even then, I couldn’t be sure because it was moving through some well grown rape that was a foot high, so I could only see the top half of the body. With it heading straight towards me I couldn’t even see a tail to help identification.

Robert’s trusty Alan Ashford Fox Call

I was fairly certain it was a fox by the way it was moving, but 95 per cent isn’t enough. Eventually it gave the game away by sitting down – I’ve watched many a muntjac and never yet seen one sit down on its haunches!

Sitting like that it made an easy target, and it went down like a stone on the spot. Finding it in foot-high rape was another matter though. Laid flat on the ground there was no thermal signature showing through the crop, and the lamp was no help either.

I knew the right direction though, as I always hold the rifle to the line of shot and then raise it until I have a tree or marker on the horizon to walk towards. I was eventually able to find it, although I was almost standing over it before it was visible in the greenery. 170 good paces back to the truck and whilst looking back I could see that the little glint I had first seen over the hedge was a muntjac. Unlucky fox!

It turned out to be a small vixen. A few days earlier, before all the rain, I’d had another vixen. I was doing a sweep of another patch of ground on the opposite end of the farm – again a neighbour’s ground where I have permission to shoot. I caught a flash of eye, drove on and – as explained before – turned around to go back for another look.

This one was lying down in a very dry cultivated field. The trouble with that is there’s always the chance of a clod of earth that isn’t visible but is in the path of the bullet.

Ideally, I wanted the fox to stand up, so I waited giving an occasional mouse squeak. It stood up, turned around and promptly laid down again! This fox wasn’t too far away, maybe 130 yards, and at that range I’m confident of taking a head shot with the Thermion. So I gave a squeak, it lifted its head for a look and I fired. Boom – and a huge cloud of dust exploded in front of the fox! Even with its head up I had managed to hit a clod of earth.

The fox set off, trotting away across the field, but it wasn’t all that scared and stopped at 200 yards, went on for about another 50, then halted for a longer look. I couldn’t be sure of the wind but reckoned that going for the centre of the body the length of the fox would accommodate any effect of the strong right-hand wind on the bullet.

I aimed at the top of the spine and fired… There was a hell of a thump when the bullet arrived, the fox ran a short way and dropped. Sure enough, I’d hit it dead centre, so the scope was still spot on. I get a bit lazy as the Thermion seems to stay lined up, meaning I seldom check it on the range.

Thermal at the ready

I had another one that same night, another vixen, so that’s three in as many days – again it was curled up and comfortable and with the thermal there is nothing to unsettle them. Although it was nose to tail, I was placed a bit higher, so shooting down clear of the scenery and the round removed half of its head.

There is another arrival that has eluded Colin and me so far however when we were out mutually covering the centre of the shoot. I did get a sighting – I was in a high seat and it came through a metal gate on the far side of the field about 170 yards away. It started heading in my direction, then stopped, turned around just as I lined up and went back into the cover.

It turned out the wind had changed direction and was blowing my scent directly towards that gate. Frustrating, but it happens and when it does there’s not a thing you can do about it.

So that one is still out there, but Colin and I have a cunning plan – we’ll get it one way or another, but that’s an itch I’ll have to scratch in the next issue! 

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