What happens when things go wrong

Not everything in a shooter’s career goes perfectly. Mike Powell admits some past mistakes and explains how he dealt with them

Sometimes, I think we shooting writers can inadvertently give the wrong impression. Readers will see our features and think that the people who write them – me included – go out night after night (where foxes are concerned), leave a trail of dead foxes behind them and have everything under complete control, with literally nothing ever going wrong.

But of course, it’s not. Firstly, ‘night after night’ is a massive exaggeration. In my case as a fox controller, the foxes I shoot are almost without exception the ones causing the damage – so they are never large numbers, and you always seem to get called into action at the most inconvenient times. And as far as things going wrong, they do, and never at the right time.

Blank outings

Just before writing this article I spent an entirely fruitless evening waiting for a fox that had been seen on frequent occasions making its way down from the surrounding hillside to the farm where night after night one or more chickens or ducks went missing. And that’s not the only blank I’ve drawn after this fox. It’s been going on for a couple of weeks and the death toll is rising. In fact, in common with so many people who come into conflict with foxes, the farmers are starting to attribute this one with capabilities that I honestly don’t think any foxes actually possess.

A vehicular approach works wonders – if you turn up early enough…

As an example of this, another farmer who farms free-range poultry on a large scale credits some of the foxes that periodically remove his birds with mystical powers, saying how skilful they are in avoiding his frequent patrols with his .17 HMR, and how they seem to have the knack of arriving just after he’s gone. The truth is really far more obvious: the foxes are well aware he’s there and simply wait for him to go. I have learned over the years that if you are going to wait for a raiding fox, it is pointless going there after the fox starts out on his nightly travels. Foxes are extremely observant creatures and will be well aware if something suddenly changes in its territory especially if that something is a human carrying a .17 HMR (which isn’t the ideal fox round anyway).

So whenever I set off out after a specific fox I always do my best to be there an hour before it’s likely to show. This particularly applies to vehicles. Driving to the scene of a raid on poultry or lambs a couple of hours after dark will work occasionally, but not often. But should that vehicle be parked up for an hour before dark, in most cases it will be ignored by foxes.

I have used this method with success for years now and never fail to be amazed how foxes will totally ignore a vehicle that’s been in situ from well before dark. Only recently I had a fox emerge from the hedge that I was parked against and took absolutely no notice of me or the vehicle. It was one I had seen several times before when out but was always in the wrong place; it had been hanging around some late lambs and the farmer wanted it gone. After poking about for a few minutes, it moved off across the field and when at a suitable distance with a decent backstop I dropped it. At one stage it had been no more than 15 yards away. I have no doubt that had I driven up while it was there, instead of being there already, it would have been off in seconds.

Rifle troubles and user errors

I have mentioned in previous articles that I live next door to a free-range egg farm that seems to get treated like a McDonald’s by a never-ending succession of foxes. Unfortunately, some of these foxes become all too aware that they are capable of jumping over the electric netting fencing that endeavours to keep the birds both safe and contained (it does neither very well).

I was, as I often am, called to deal with one of these raiding Charlies. A couple of nights earlier I had been out on another job, and while getting settled in for what was to be a fruitless wait, I knocked the rifle over. As it landed on thick grass, I didn’t pay much attention to it and eventually called it a night.

One of the foxes caught jumping the fence

Fast forward to two nights later and I was parked in a suitable spot overlooking the aforementioned poultry farm. Time passed and about 11pm a fox was spotted happily jumping over the run fencing higher up the field. It then spent some time having a look round the house that holds around 500 birds to see if were any left out after shutting in. As there weren’t, the fox lay down and waited for a rat to appear. I’ve seen this happen many times – foxes will sometime spend considerable lengths of time waiting for one of the rodents, and when hunting like this they actually have a high success rate.

After a while it stretched and made its way across the run, which gave me the opportunity of a shot. As it was no more than 60 yards away, I was thinking, job done. The 50gn V-Max reload was sent on its way – whereupon the fox hardly picked up speed as it jumped the fence and was gone. Not really very good, I thought (or words roughly to that effect). I was a bit baffled as to why I’d missed what was as near to a ‘sitter’ as you could get.

Next day I took the rifle down to the range and was amazed to find it was firing six inches to the right. Clearly the drop in the grass was harder than I thought. Getting it back on zero was a quick job, but I’ve still committed myself to another cold night out after this fox because of my error. Hopefully the miss was so bad that the fox didn’t even notice and won’t be deterred from taking the same route.

Comedy of errors

I mentioned earlier about the poultry farmer who wondered why foxes always seemed to be around when he wasn’t. He was still losing birds and was getting rather desperate, so I said I would get up on the farm and see what I could do. I asked what time he was shutting in, and arranged to be set up just as he was doing so. Having watched the shutting-in process through the thermal, I didn’t have to wait 20 minutes for the first fox to appear on the track below the first of the poultry houses.

At just over 100 yards, the shot was taken and the fox dropped. I also noticed that the lights in the lower poultry houses went out at the same time. A funny coincidence, eh?

After another short wait, fox number two turned up and was soon sorted out. Time was getting on so I thought I would give it another half an hour before packing in for the night. Just before my self-imposed deadline, number three turned up but wouldn’t keep still enough for a shot and totally ignored the calls or shouts aimed in its direction. Finally it paused for a fraction of a second. The shot was taken… and missed.

I wasn’t too down about it. As Meatloaf famously sang years ago, “Two out of three ain’t bad,” right? It had been a good evening up until then.

A red fox considers its next move

I drove down to pick up the first fox. Arriving at the spot, I found the fox stretched out. When I lifted it up, there was a small crater in the grass below it, with a fractured electric cable at the bottom. Well, that accounted for the poultry house’s lights going out. Now what were the odds on that happening?

So that was another turn for the worse… but there were more turns to come. Driving to get out of the lower gate, I was wondering how the farmer would react. On the plus side, two foxes; on the downside, having to repair his electrics. Which would be more important to him?

Arriving at the gate, I found it was locked. Now this particular spot isn’t the easiest to negotiate, even in daylight, with my Hilux, which has the turning circle of the Ark Royal – and it’s considerably more difficult on a pitch black night in a pitch black pick- up. Anyway, I negotiated the 25-point turn, and in the process a concrete trough buried in the grass sprang out and had a dust-up with the rear wheel trim, which my friendly local garage man later quoted a modest £300 to repair. That’s one of the joys of trundling around the countryside off road in the dark.

Next morning, happily, the farmer reckoned two foxes against his electrics was a reasonable trade-off.

Loads of embarrassment

Another situation where embarrassment was caused, and my professional image could have been tarnished even further, involved ammunition, or lack of same.

A lady had asked me to remove a few rabbits that were invading her garden. I knew both her and the garden well as this was generally a yearly event, so I felt well prepared and confident. I told her when I would be there, and she told me she would have a friend with her and they would watch progress from the lounge window. They took their front-row seats and I settled down to wait.

I was getting the FAC air rifle I use for this sort of work ready when I realised that I had left the magazines and pellets behind. Fortunately I was behind a large group of bushes and unseen from the window. Perhaps what I should have done was admit my schoolboy error and leave, but “stinking pride,” as my mother would have called it, prevented this. So I stayed put and fired a couple of ‘blank’ shots and gave thumbs up from the security of the bush and got a cheery wave back in return. Fortunately darkness fell and I was able to slink away. I returned a few nights later far better prepared and finished the job.

The poultry farm attracts foxes from far and wide, and it’s left to Mike to deal with them

Light headed

On the theme of kit errors, a farmer I have known for years asked me to go out with him one evening after a fox that had been giving him grief He had tried lamping it but it was very wary so he thought my night vision/thermal set-up would be able to do the job.

The night in question arrived, and earlier that evening I had set up the .22 Hornet with the Archer as the area we were shooting over was quite near some houses so he wanted to cut down on the noise. We had been out for about half an hour when the fox showed up in exactly the place it was expected at around 70 yards – ideal. Switching on the Archer, I found that there wasn’t enough ambient light to use that alone, so I deployed the IR torch. Well, I thought it was the IR torch, but it turned out to be my Nightmaster conventional torch with the red LED – an extremely good torch but not designed to work in conjunction with night vision.

The fox, which would have been a sitter, trotted off to fight another day. Sadly I had to endure well-deserved ridicule for some time after that, but I did get the fox a few nights later using correctly matched equipment.

The point of telling you all this isn’t to give you a good laugh. It’s because it’s important to admit that we all make mistakes, even those of us who write about their sport or work. The key is that we all learn from them and make sure they don’t happen again – where rifles and live ammunition are concerned, we have a duty to do so.

So, yes, I make mistakes. Over the many years I have been doing fox control and the like, there have slip-ups along the way, including some I didn’t mention here. But I think I’ll keep those to myself for now…

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