Return of the fox

Robert Bucknell’s quiet spell is over as he engages no fewer than nine foxes on a single night-time excursion

Credit: Richard Packwood / Getty Images

In recent months I’ve had to report that once again there are very few on my patch, but recently with the harvest, I am starting to see some cubs about.

They tend to be moving through rather than resident, though. Several times I’ve got excited because someone has seen a fox, gone out after it, and it’s moved on. 

I did have an interesting time over at my brother’s the other night, though. I was getting bored at home with little about, so I phoned the shoot captain on his ground and asked if I could come over and do a bit of ‘poaching’. He hadn’t had a chance to get out at the foxes, so he was happy to let me have a go. 

I drove over with my current kit – the usual Quantum XD38 thermal viewer and one of my .223 CAM rifles fitted with a Pulsar Apex XD50 thermal scope. I’ve added a big EPS5 battery on the side of the scope so I just turn on and forget it, as it will run for over 24 hours. 

I’ve written before about how thermal imagers have transformed fox shooting, and I have had great success using the Quantum as a spotter and then switching to an IR night vision scope on the rifle when I’m ready to take the shot.

Some people even use a lamp and a day scope in conjunction with the thermal spotter, and that can work well too. But now I am using the thermal scope, it takes it to another level.

I still like to use a lamp to find the fox in the first place. It allows me to cover a great deal more ground, driving past a field, swinging the lamp round looking for a flash of eye.

Then I can instantly kill the lamp and do the rest of the job covertly, and the success rate goes up a notch. If I am stationary using the vehicle fox box or a high seat, I just use the thermal viewer as it attracts no attention from either two or four-legged observers. 

I arrived just after dark, and within two hours I’d got two foxes. That would have been a good result, but in the few hours that followed I shot another seven, for a total of nine.

I suspected there would be a litter of cubs living near the pond hole cover in the middle of the shoot, owing to water availability in the dry weather. I pulled up at the corner of a spinney where I could watch over it, about 300 yards away. It was next to rape stubble, which always makes things difficult because it can so easily deflect a bullet. At least this rape stubble was fairly light, and so had been cut quite short. 

Eventually one of the cubs came up through this stubble towards me from my left to a mouse squeak, and at no more than 50 yards it made a nice easy shot. So that was the first one in the bag. A little while later a fox came out of the far end of the spinney to my right.

The field was the aftermath of a late cut ryegrass hay crop, so was nice and low. It paid no attention to my call but just wandered out into the field, making a straightforward shot at 123 paces, and that one got a bullet too. 

After that it went quiet for a while. I saw two foxes come out of the pond hole where the first cub had appeared, but they weren’t interested in my calls. They made a circuit of the lower field and went back in to where they had come from. 

Some time later a badger came out near the same spot, closely followed by a fox. They pottered around for a bit, then the badger went off to the left while the fox stayed sniffing about the field. I watched it for a while, then thought, “Blow it, it’s a bit closer, that’s not much more than 200 yards,  I can hit it from here.”

An opportunity presents itself from the fox box

I fired and suspected I had hit, but it started off across the field. It stopped and stood there, then flopped down. I made a quick estimation for the wind and range, aimed off accordingly, and launched a round away.

To my satisfaction, the fox went straight down. In the rape stubble it disappeared from view, not showing up in the thermal, but I was confident it had dropped on the spot, so I didn’t feel the need to go after it straight away. It was a good couple of hours later that I went down and found it.

Using the laser rangefinder back to the corner of the spinney where I’d been sitting, I measured it at 257 yards, so I was pleased with that shot. 

I took a spin round the grass field and disturbed a fox in the bottom hedge. It started heading up across the hill back towards the first spinney. It hesitated at a distance of about 140 yards – a fatal mistake. Another one in the bag. 

Next, I went to investigate a field of about 18 acres where the barley had been cut. The headland had been baled, but the rest of the field had straw laid in swaths. I got right around the field without spotting anything. Then all of a sudden, I saw a flash of green eye.

I couldn’t be sure whether it was a fox or perhaps a deer or something else, but I didn’t muck around. I opened the door, swung up into the back of the truck and stood on top of the fox box. Looking through the thermal, I saw a fox coming down between two rows of swathed straw on my right.

It kept coming, closer and closer – and when it got to 40 yards, I put a bullet in it. That one was a little vixen cub. 

After that I went back up to where I’d started, and a fox came out in exactly the same spot as my second one. I knocked that down, then another one came out.

I hit that one hard, but it managed to make it back into the spinney 20 yards away. I knew I’d never find it in the undergrowth in the dark, even with thermal, but I was confident it would quickly die. 

I thought about packing up after that at 2am, but things were going so well it seemed a shame to stop. I moved onto the other side of the farm – all part of the shoot and included in my permission, so no poaching involved! The rape stubble here was much thicker, with stalks maybe an inch in diameter.

It was cut high too, so it wouldn’t be easy to see a fox here – and the stems could easily deflect a bullet. I find that my 69-grainers tumble but don’t break up, so usually still hit somewhere on the fox.

No chance with 40 grains from a .22-250 – but a 140-grain from my fellow scribe Mr Ripley would be even better! 

I decided to drive across as I could see something in the stubble but couldn’t make out what it was. I stopped the truck and climbed up in the fox box and using the thermal I could make out a fox, partly hidden by the rape stubble at about 125 yards.

I launched a round off which hit the fox but didn’t kill it outright. The fox staggered back a bit and I quickly got off a second round which knocked it down stone dead. That one was an old vixen, so I was pleased to have shot her. 

Moving on I could see several badgers working the field – I counted six, but there might have been more. It made a busy picture in the thermal, with badgers appearing and disappearing as they dipped out of view and reappeared again.

Despite all the distraction I could clearly see there was a fox in there too, so I waited patiently and eventually got a shot away at about 160 yards. 

Watching through the thermal, I saw it move off through the rape stubble and then simply disappear. The only sensible explanation was that it was mortally wounded and after a few yards dropped dead out of view – even with thermal searching in the thick stubble.

Frustratingly I’d now shot two foxes that I’d hit and not picked up. The trouble is with so much thick cover you won’t to be able to find your victim unless you know where it is to within a yard or two. 

Finally, I swung round the farm again, came through a gateway – and there was a fox just yards in front of me. We were both as surprised as each other but it rushed into some standing wheat. Call as I might it wouldn’t come out, so I called it a night at 4am.

I had seven foxes in the back of the truck, plus the two that I hadn’t picked up. Then there were another two that I’d seen and hadn’t shot at – that last one that I surprised and a suspected cub down by the pond hole. 

The next day, I reported back to the shoot captain and told him he’d got two foxes left on the place, but he was definitely seven down and with two probables.

He was slightly horrified to learn how many there had been around, but at least that came with the good news that their birds were considerably safer now. 

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