Mike Powell’s report on fox populations

Mike Powell provides a report on fox populations, and his own exploits, in winter 2019.

Credit: Michael Breuer / Getty Images

As far this winter’s foxing has been concerned, the headline news is that we took above average numbers here. Last year saw fox population numbers ebb and flow to a degree I’ve not seen before.

Just as it seemed we had the local population brought to an acceptable level, suddenly there would be an obvious spike, and along with the spike would be requests for help.

An old customer who I hadn’t contacted for some time rang me and said he was having fox problems, and as he would be lambing early this year, asked if I would do something about it.

This farm has always provided a lot of foxes over the 50 or more years I’ve been controlling them there, first for the current owner’s father and now his son.

The land is close to two towns and it’s those areas that have become a breeding ground for vermin of all sorts, particularly foxes. In fact, if you drive through there at night you will almost always see a fox or two brazenly walking along under the street lamps.

Inevitably there will be spillover on to the nearby land farmed by my contact. These foxes have become used to humans, and when these predators lose their fear of us they really do become a threat.

The farmer had reported that the foxes he had seen on his rounds had taken little or no interest in him, and even when the farm collie had taken off after one of them, it seemed to take it as a game rather than fleeing. When foxes exhibit behaviour like this, farmers with lambs have a real problem on their hands.

To add to all that, the area where the farm is located is not only within a mile or two of the towns in question, it is also a picturesque village with extraordinarily expensive properties, most of whose owners disagree with anything truly rural such as mud on the road, noisy cows and, of course, shooting.

Last summer there was a litter of five cubs reared in a small copse belonging to a house that’s owned by a wealthy, helicopter-owning couple who feed the foxes – and this copse borders the lambing field of the farm in question.

Night after night we tried to remove them but they clearly knew where safety lay. This sort of situation is becoming increasingly common, not just in my area but across the country generally.

The village has a lot of picturesque properties – which often means residents who are sympathetic to foxes

On the first visit we made this winter, it became apparent just how bad the situation had become. We entered the first field, which is a small, steep orchard. A quick look through the thermal imager immediately spotted a fox about 100 yards away on the side of the hill.

Setting up the Wicked Lights tripod and settling Callum’s Howa rifle in the saddle only took a few moments, and all the while the fox was occupied round an old tree stump.

Callum had a PARD unit on the rifle and for some reason the focus on it was a bit adrift, but after what seemed an eternity, he was ready, the shot rang out and the fox instantly disappeared.

With that, two more foxes came running up to where the first fox had been, and one of those was taken. The remaining fox ran off a short way and was, within a moment or two, joined by another. Again the sound of the .243 echoed up the valley and number three went down. All this had taken no more than two minutes.

We made our way up the hill and soon found the first fox, which had dropped behind the tree stump. The other two followed quickly. I guessed that these were the litter we had seen earlier in the year, but there was no guarantee this was the case.

After a short wait, we were joined by another fox coming through the road hedge, but it saw us and was gone in a flash. Another couple appeared in the distance but no further chances of a shot occurred.

All in all a good start but clearly several more visits would be required before the local fox population is brought under control. This area, as I said, has always held a high number of foxes – after all, it’s the only farm that raises sheep for some considerable distance.

Things are continuing apace – as I write this, the mating season is showing its early signs. To date, though, the weather has proved a hindrance to our activities. With continuous heavy rain and misty conditions, even the faithful Pulsar Quantum thermal spotter has struggled.

Many thermals really don’t like these conditions – something they have in common with foxes themselves, which keep to cover whenever possible. Despite this, if you are offering a service, work must continue and we’ve been making the most of a bad job on many nights.

On the last night of November we set off for a smallholding where the owner had lost a substantial number of chickens to a fox. I know this spot well was looking forward to setting up in a spot that had yielded a lot of foxes over the years.

Though we were some way off the mating season proper, three foxes were chasing around on the other side of the field we were in. Finally a shot presented itself and the .204 dropped what turned out to be a large and extremely smelly dog fox.

For the next hour we watched as five or six foxes kept appearing and disappearing, never once presenting a safe shot. Eventually we decided enough was enough and went to pick up the fox that had been shot earlier. Leaving the rifle on its tripod, we set off across a soggy field, aided by torchlight.

Reaching the fox still with the torch switched on, we heard the unmistakable staccato bark of a fox close by. Swinging the torch down the field, we saw a pair of foxes running straight towards us about 40 yards away.

Despite the torch and two humans being unmissable, they kept coming until they finally stopped about 20 yards away. Even then they seemed reluctant to go.

Finally one jumped the stream and went into the rushes, and in the meantime we watched as the other fox ran across the field and through the legs of the tripod, which was in the gateway. All in all, a surreal experience.

I mentioned the events to fellow Sporting Rifle scribe Mark Ripley and he came up with a possible explanation. It could be that someone had been feeding the foxes and had used a torch to do so. That made sense – I couldn’t come up with another explanation for two foxes running in to us while wandering about with a torch making no attempt at keeping quiet.

Clearly there is much work to be done in this valley with lambing already under way and the farmer with the sheep saying he is seeing a lot of evidence of foxes in the area. Sounds good to me…

Reviewing the Wraith

You can clearly see the control pad on top of the Wraith

We have been testing a new piece of night vision equipment from Pulsar, the Wraith. First impressions have been favourable. Easily fitted to a Weaver or Picatinny rail, it has proved good for both day and night shooting.

At night it has proved good out to 200 yards, which is ideal as we are not keen on shooting further than this after dark. In daylight the picture is excellent with very good colour, which isn’t always the case with digital scopes.

If you are into recording your shooting exploits, the built-in video does a good job of recording on to a micro card. The quality is very good, but there is no audio function.

The 50mm lens and the wide 4-32x magnification range can be useful, although high magnification, as always with NV, does bring pixelation problems. The overall picture can be viewed in either green or white depending on which suits you best.

I generally stick to white, though under some conditions the green screen performs quite well. There is a choice of 10 reticles in nine colours – something for everyone! As with many digital scopes today, you can store up to five settings for different rifles.

Power is provided by four AA batteries for the actual unit and 2 R123s for the IR. I have never been too happy about the life of the 4AA system and there is the ability to use a battery pack.

Certainly the 4AAs will give you enough for a night’s shooting (four hours or thereabouts) but I would certainly suggest you go for lithium batteries as these will certainly last longer than the standard type.

It comes with its own IR, but a separate IR torch will go some way to improve its performance

The IR that comes with the Wraith is pretty good and can be removed, but as with all NV units, add-on IR torches will in most cases give better results.

Any downsides? Like most digital scopes, it is not particularly lightweight, but unless you are looking for a really light set-up, the difference is neither here nor there on most rifles. On the review unit, the focusing ring was stiff to move, but I have no doubt it will free up after more use.

For some, the lack of sound when video recording could be classed as a downside, and the pixelation when on higher magnification is a little intrusive.

I shall report back after the Wraith has been out in the field for a couple of months. It seems to be a very promising piece of night vision equipment and at £699.99 isn’t going to break the bank.

Thanks to Scott Country for the test unit: 01556 503587, scottcountry.co.uk

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