When not to shoot a fox

While dealing with a fox troubling the local game birds, Robert Bucknell reflects on the reasons why some people don’t deal with foxes.

In wildlife management there are many different reasons to kill a fox, and just as many not to kill one – it all depends on your situation and the desired outcome. Here on my farm, I want to protect the wildlife generally, as well as the pheasants and partridges, so any fox is one too many.

That is especially true in April and May, when the foxes are breeding – but so are all manner of mammals and ground-nesting birds. A hen partridge or grouse killed on the nest by a cub feeding fox 
is not just one bird gone – it’s a whole clutch of youngsters that will never make it. Multiply that by the number of meals a vixen will need while she’s raising cubs, and it’s easy to see that even one litter of foxes can have a devastating impact on the surrounding wildlife.

Conservation organisations like the RSPB are well aware of this, though they’re not usually forthcoming about their predator control because it doesn’t help their fundraising efforts. If you dig deep you’ll find that the RSPB alone admit to killing more than 400 foxes a year on their reserves. That’s without factoring in what must be a much larger number shot by their neighbours, who get fed up with raiding foxes sallying forth from the safety of a nature reserve and sweeping up their prized mammals and birds. And are all deaths recorded?

Robert gets ready for the vigil from his vehicle-mounted platform

Not everyone feels the same way, of course. There are some deluded people who think they love all wildlife equally and want to protect the pretty little animals. Perhaps they’re kidding themselves, or perhaps they just don’t know the damage that foxes do to wildlife, but some will even go to the lengths of ‘rescuing’ injured and sick foxes, nursing them back to health and releasing them into the countryside to do further damage. Three separate people came up to me at the Midland Game Fair this year and described how they have been mopping up foxes released by do-gooders on their permissions. One of them shot no fewer than 11 foxes in one field after an unmarked white van pulled up in the gateway and unloaded its cargo.

In some places, foxes provide a useful service by keeping down small rodents such as hares, rabbits and voles that would damage cereal crops or young trees, so arable farmers and arborealists are very happy to see foxes hunting. There are other people who have good, logical reasons to want a few foxes around the place. One of these used to be the local hunt, of course. Before the Hunting Act, landowners who supported the hunt would forbid their gamekeepers to kill a fox. Even shooting 
a fox on the rearing field was a sackable offence. The infamous Act did away with that, and arguably did the fox no favours at all – though even today you will find old MFHs (Master of Fox Hounds) who won’t tolerate a fox being shot on their land, so deeply ingrained is their feeling that it’s just plain wrong.

There are even some fox shooters who have every reason to let fox numbers build up on their patch. If you’re the sort who sees fox shooting as your harvest-time sport, for instance, you’ll hope for a good breeding season so there are plenty to shoot once the fields are cleared. It’s much the same as a grouse shooter hoping the birds breed well. That approach doesn’t help the gamekeeper or the conservationist, but for the recreational fox shooter it makes a lot more sense than going out at all hours in the early spring to kill the breeding stock before they produce this year’s cubs. But
 on an arable farm it could make sense to allow foxes free rein on crop munchers until harvest time when the crops are safely in.

As ever, spotting then switching to NV for the shot proved effective

There’s another type of fox shooter who’s incentivised to keep a healthy stock of foxes on his patch, and that’s the one who is paid by results – a fee for each fox shot. He is in no hurry to wipe out his source of income. He wants a nice steady supply of foxes that aren’t too difficult to shoot, so
 he can keep the money coming in. So like our recreational fox shooter, he won’t put
 in long hours in the winter months and
 kill off the goose that lays his golden eggs. To combat this, a canny sheep farmer or conservation-minded landowner may offer a structured system of payment, where a fox killed before they are a problem is worth two or three times one shot at harvest time.

So as I said at the beginning, there are many reasons to kill a fox, and just as many not to kill it – at least not yet. Meanwhile, on my patch there is no let-up. We follow our strict policy of zero tolerance and – fingers crossed – we are pretty successful. I’m out most nights patrolling one end of the farm, while Colin the keeper and his helpers are out just as often watching the boundary on the other side. We have all the latest technology at our disposal, so there isn’t much that slips past unnoticed.

Lately I’ve spent many nights sitting up watching and seeing… well, not a lot. Last Sunday night, though, I had a panicked phone call from a fellow shoot owner: “Robert, we were out feeding the pheasants and Mary saw a fox. We were parked by the fir spinney, and it came out of the corner and went across the field to the oak tree.” That wasn’t very specific, so I had to make further inquiries, but eventually I worked out roughly where the marauding fox had been spotted. “A big old dog fox,” I was told – aren’t they always? 
So I drove through his village and parked up on a farm track nearly 200 yards from 
the oak he had described – a big one among many, along a large, deep, dry ditch, facing what I judged would be the right direction. I waited an hour and saw nothing. Then a fox appeared following the reverse of what my informant had described – it came out by the oak tree and crossed the field towards the game cover by the spinney. I gave it a loud squeak, but it just hunkered down in the plough over 200 yards away. The land dropped away slightly, so it was difficult
 to see much of the fox in the thermal. It wasn’t scared of the call but it wasn’t
 that interested either. I could see its head peering over but I didn’t want to risk a shot.

The ‘dog fox’ that was actually a vixen is brought to justice

After a while it trotted on to the game cover, then eventually, half an hour later reappeared heading back towards the oak. As it reached the hedge I tried another short mouse squeak. I was using thermal only, so there was nothing to alarm the fox, and I hoped its curiosity might get the better of it. Sure enough, after a short wait it appeared much closer, having followed the bottom of the dry ditch towards the source of the sound before stepping out onto the plough in an attempt to get downwind.

I had expected it, and already had the rifle up and in position. The fox was only 80 yards away, and when it was a reasonable distance of 20 yards out from the hedge I gave a little click to make it stop and look. Bang, and down it went, shot through both shoulders. As so often happens, to anyone watching it would have looked easy – but only because I had planned and set up carefully, used all my fieldcraft, and knew how the fox was likely to behave. When you do all that, it is easy – but it takes a lifetime of experience to get it right. Oh, and as it happens, it wasn’t a dog fox at all, but a good-sized vixen that won’t be troubling the game birds any more. I waited on for two more hours and saw no more.

Rabbit Reduction

One more thing I heard at the Midland was how successful Hawke Optics are with their scopes optimised for different calibres. They make a whole range, from .22LR subsonic to .308 Winchester. They have a simple crosshair and then short lines on the lower bar marked to the different ranges out to 200 yards in .22
and longer distances in the larger calibres. With the .22LR subsonic, successful shots can regularly be pulled off at ranges that were considered a fluke in the past. Provided a laser rangefinder is used, only windage has to be allowed for to drop a round into a rabbit at 150 yards. That is, of course, if you have rabbits. The rabbit haemorrhagic disease has laid waste to many warrens, and on our farm in Essex we have only a fraction of the bunnies we had just a few years ago.

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