Mark Ripley finds that, even when invited on a driven game day, he can’t escape his foxing responsibilities…
At the end of the shooting season I’m usually lucky enough to be invited on the beater’s day pheasant shoot on a farm on which I control the foxes. This is an informal shoot where only maybe 20 or 30 birds will be shot, but is always a great day out with good company on some of the most scenic ground I have the pleasure of shooting over.
Aside from the small ‘family and friends’ shoot, the farm is mainly involved in beef and lamb production as well as some arable. It’s during the lambing season that my services are most needed – with the farm running a zero tolerance policy on foxes, I keep a tight rein on them when there are lambs in the fields or poults in the release pens.
The farmer and one of the farm lads also keep a watchful eye, and will usually shoot and trap a few throughout the year. The neighbouring farms also have a similar policy with the ginger menace, so between us, there’s a concerted effort to keep numbers to a minimum.
A few days before the beater’s day shoot, I took a call from the farmer, who said that the farm lad had shot one and trapped another by the farmhouse that day, and had also heard another calling. With the foxed pairing up at the time, I arranged to come over the following morning and take a look to see if I could find the ‘one that got away’.
Owing to the efforts I mentioned, there are never large numbers of foxes around on this farm, but I nevertheless thought a visit might be worth it, as often when foxes are pairing up, if you have a vixen on your ground then dog foxes will come in from surrounding territories.
This makes for a good opportunity to get on top of a lot of foxes within the surrounding area and hopefully reduce the local population and the coming year’s offspring.
Heading over a couple of hours before first light armed with my .223 and the Sightmark Wraith, I was able to add another two dog foxes to the bag, making four dog foxes on this farm in less than 24 hours. That’s a pretty decent number around here, all shot within a few hundred yards of each other around a small wood.
Feeling pleased with myself, I arrived at the shoot a few days later, confident that we would be unlikely to see a fox on any of the drives. Unfortunately, my confidence was misplaced…
The first drive involved pushing a wooded bank on the neighbour’s side along with a small wooded pond. By the end of the drive a fox had been seen to run down the hill between the sheep and make for the small wood at the bottom, which we would shoot in a couple of drives’ time.
Okay, that was one fox, but it was was no real concern and I took comfort in that it had run from the neighbour’s ground so technically not one of ‘my’ foxes. Still, I was keen to be the one to bowl over this fox. This was a particularly dark red fox with stunning markings yet quite small, indicating it was likely to be a vixen.
When we came to the wooded drive, I was pleased to find that my peg put me halfway up the bank at the end of the wood, offering a good possibility of a shot should a fox break cover.
For the whole drive, my attention was barely on the sky and for the most part on the edge of the wood! I had managed to knock down three pheasants and a high pigeon on the previous drive, so I felt I’d already had my fair share of feathered sport, and a fox would be the icing on the cake.
It wasn’t until the beaters were three-quarters through the wood that the cry of ‘Fox!’ and ‘Forward!’ was heard. I cheekily slipped an extra cartridge into my Beretta semi-auto (it really is a very informal shoot) and stared intently at the edge of the bushes in front.
A pheasant flew over my head but I didn’t even look up as a red flash had already caught my eye. The next couple of minutes had me scanning frantically up and down the bank as the fox raced back and forth looking for a weak point in the line to break cover, but with two accomplished guns either side of me it wisely decided to double back.
Head down, it streaked between the beaters and broke out of the bottom of the wood before bolting back up the hill to the safety of the first drive’s wooded bank. At the end of the drive, the beaters told me that this was in fact one of three foxes that had come back through the line.
The rest of the day, amid friendly ribbing about ‘not doing my job,’ I was mentally planning my next foxing foray – for that very night. I sat out at the bottom of the wood at dusk and an hour or so after. No foxes appeared and I was forced to accept defeat.
A few days later I shot a fox just before light on the farm next door – yet another dog fox – before returning to this farm in search of these three foxes.
I arrived just after dark one evening and decided I’d try a little further up the valley, again armed with the .223 and Wraith combo.
Before long I spotted what at first I thought to be a hare stood watching me a fair distance off on the bank. The more I looked with the thermal the more it looked ‘foxy’ despite the fact that it had been sat motionless for sometime. A quick look through the Wraith confirmed that it was indeed a fox, sat looking straight at me but quite a bit further out than I would consider ideal.
The bright moonlight and lack of cover between us was also far from ideal. I knew I was unlikely to get much closer. Could I get a safe shot? I reasoned I could edge another 30 yards or so along a slight shadow created by a sharp dip in the steep bank, then after that I would need to assess my chances of taking it from there.
I crouched down and followed the shadow to its end before lying behind the rifle on its bipod. The fox still looked a pretty small target, and to add to that it had now turned and was slowly nosing around on the bank.
Increasing the magnification on the scope to full power, I found that the fox now looked a lot more shootable. Giving it a little extra elevation, I aimed near the top of the fox’s shoulder and squeezed the trigger.
The fox leapt in the air before dashing further down the bank, doubling back and rolling over with its legs flailing. I chambered another round, but the fox lay still. Using the rangefinder, I was surprised to find the fox had been 220 yards away – not quite as far as I had mentally estimated.
After walking up and collecting the dog fox, I was retracing my steps along the edge of the field when I happened to glance back with the thermal. To my surprise, another fox was sniffing around where I had just shot the last one.
By now I had walked further back by about another 30 yards and cut across the open field. Feeling confident from the previous shot, I lay down and repeated the performance to put a 250-yard fox in the bag. A good result, but it still wasn’t the vixen I was after.
Around a week later I was back. This time I decided to go over just before dawn armed with the .260 Rem, as much to try for a fox as to do a little long-range plinking at first light.
I wandered across the frosty hill just as the sky was beginning to lighten above the wood with the first signs of dawn. At the bottom of the first bowl, I spotted what I again thought to be a hare or rabbit through the thermal – until it moved. Now I knew that it was a small fox.
Unfortunately it cut into the edge of the bank and went out of sight, and I had no choice but to approach the area and hope I didn’t bump straight into it coming up the bank.
Luck was on my side and, as I drew nearer, I could make out a dark shape further up the bank ahead of me through the binoculars. As the sun began to rise, it illuminated a very red fox sitting on the bank, ready to feel the first of the sun’s warmth.
Ranging this one at 185 yards, I lined her up in the reticle as I knelt behind the rifle cradled in its tripod. I steadied my aim, placed the crosshairs on her chest, and focused.
I was so ‘in the zone’, I hardly heard the sound of the shot – but I did hear the impact. The crows lifted from the wooded bank on the neighbouring ground cawing their displeasure as the breeze blew tufts of dark red fur to catch in the frosty grass.
Finally, I had the fox I’d come for.