I live in a part of the country where snow is a rare occurrence. When it does arrive, it causes total chaos as no one is prepared for it.
As I get older I have to say I have few regrets about the absence of snow. However, I read with interest about many shooters who just can’t wait for a blanket of snow to cover the countryside so they can really get after the foxes.
Like many things concerning fox shooting, sometimes it becomes difficult to separate fact from fiction. I have no doubt that there are areas of the country where snow helps the fox controller – it certainly shows where they have been and where they are going, but from my own experiences most of the tracks I have followed seem to fizzle out long before I come across a fox.
There was one occasion when the snow did help me to track down a fox that had been giving me grief around the shoot where I was keeper. I had seen it on more than one occasion, but despite spending time waiting out for it in bitterly cold weather, I had no success. I am not sure it was a particularly wily creature – I am more inclined to think our paths just didn’t cross at the right time.
Today, I could scan the cold fields of winter with a thermal imager and soon pick out any fox that is about. It is on these cold nights that thermal equipment really comes into its own, readily spotting any living creature that is out and about on a freezing night.
Back then, things were different. Day after day I would come across the sad remains of a pheasant that the fox had pulled down. It wasn’t as if it was taking great numbers, as obviously by this time of year the birds were well scattered and roosting high up. It was just a steady drip feed of a bird a day or so, but that equated to perhaps 30 a month, and at somewhere about £25 a bird on a shoot day, this was a not inconsiderable loss of revenue.
Despite my best efforts, nothing changed and the fox continued to avoid both me and my best efforts to deal with it. Then the snow came.
As I said earlier, Devon has always been ill prepared for the white stuff, and it usually avoids this part of the world. But every now and then it really gets going, and with our steep hills and narrow lanes, carnage is guaranteed to follow.
A shoot had been arranged as usual for the Wednesday, but mild panic set in as I woke to a white world. Soon phone calls started coming in from the odd stranded gun and beater, but with arrangements as they were and with most of those involved on their way, we decided to go ahead. I set off to put out the sewelling on some of the drives, and as usual when snow covers the ground, tracks of the animals and birds that had braved the elements were there for all to see. Classic rabbit tracks mingled with those of pheasant and, it has to be admitted, more than one set of fox tracks.
Ending up with the last string of sewelling at one of the smaller woods, which happened to be where quite a few of the victims of the fox had been found, I spotted the usual puff of feathers with the main quills neatly bitten off – the typical evidence of a fox kill – lying 100 yards from the edge of the wood. Snow was starting to fall quite heavily, but it was clear from the fast-disappearing tracks that the fox had headed for the wood and some shelter from the bitter north-easterly wind. Perhaps at last there would be a chance to get rid of this particularly difficult predator.
Returning to the shoot room for the drawing of pegs and the usual pre-shoot talk on safety, I explained to the assembled guns that instead of the usual rule of no ground game, I was hoping to enlist their help in getting rid of the fox that was not only causing me some grief but also having an effect on their shooting. To a man they were well up for it. It would be a bit of a change from the normal routine, and as several of them had never shot a fox, it caused a bit of excitement among the ranks.
Next on the list was to get a few of the beaters who had been on fox drives before to gently move through the small wood, hopefully driving Charlie in the direction of the guns. Having been involved in many fox drives I was aware of the safety issues, particularly where inexperienced guns that had not shot on a fox drive before were concerned. Fortunately I had a box of BBs in the truck, and dished out a couple to each of the half-dozen guns who had managed to get to the shoot. Insisting on absolute quiet, we crunched our way through the snow. Heading off into the icy blast, I sent the guns off with my main beater. They were placed about 50 yards apart against a hedge that faced the wood in question.
Periodically dropping off a beater or two as we made our way round the wood, the rest of us finally arrived at the top end of the cover. The guns had been advised to let the fox, should it appear, run through them, and only shoot when it was heading for open country. As usual when driving foxes, there was no need for noise – in fact I was hoping to get through without disturbing the birds that would undoubtedly be there. No dogs were involved. Quietly, three of us entered the small area of woodland.
Already we could see pheasants doubling back past us, but they were clearly reluctant to leave the shelter of the trees and face what was by now almost a white-out. After a few minutes we heard a couple of shots, and the beater with the guns radioed in to say the job was done. The fox, just for once, had done as I had hoped and had been spotted quietly leaving the wood almost as soon as we had entered. It had laid up in some rough cover but had soon made a run for it through the line of waiting guns, where two of the guns shot simultaneously as it broke clear. The usual shoot banter broke out as to who had actually shot the fox – in fact this was never really settled.
Calling up the other beaters on the radios, we soon drove the wood in the normal fashion, and despite the earlier disturbance had a reasonable drive on the pheasants. The snow continued to fall and some warming seasonal beverages were soon the order of the day. Later, on the way back for lunch, I sent my dog Talon off to collect the fox, which he proudly brought back to the yard. All in all a good result, thanks mainly to the snow.
In terms of rifle shooting, though, I have never really found that snow is an advantage when after foxes. Yes, they show up against the landscape, but unless the cold spell lasts and the ground is frozen hard, food is not too hard to find, so they go about their business as usual.
If you maintain bait points, clearly this is a time of year when they can pay dividends. No need to overdo it – just a few bits of offal, a rabbit, perhaps a few dog biscuits, all will attract the scavenging fox. I have my winter bait spots placed in sheltered areas out of the wind, and where I am this is usually at the bottom of a hill, so I can wait on a high spot looking down. Not only does this give a good field of view, it also makes for safe shooting on hard ground.
As I started off by saying, I am sure that tough northern readers will be only too happy to be out and about in the snow. As a soft, ageing southerner, I find that, like the fox, I am increasingly reluctant to leave cover.
Midwinter can be an exciting time and can in fact can offer chances to come to terms with troublesome foxes that may not be so vulnerable at other times of year. Also remember that in many cases, vixens dealt with now can save a lot of trouble in the months to come. Mike Powell