Scanning the stubbles

Hailing the arrival of ‘that’ time of year, Mike Powell discusses harvest foxing tactics and tests two new Pulsar Axion thermal units

Credit: Michael Breuer / Getty Images

Most field sports bring a certain time of year that followers of that sport really look forward to. I refer to such times as the start of the pheasant season, the roe rut, the dark lamping nights, spring drillings attracting the pigeons… the list goes on. I have to admit, these notable times seldom live up to expectation, but that’s all part of it.

For foxers, it’s harvest time that is looked forward to with excitement and hope. Actually, I never hold out huge hopes for this time of year – but still, there is something about harvest time that gives me a buzz.

The sight of the countryside opening up at last after months of being clothed with crops always gives the impression that there are considerable sporting opportunities just ahead.

Where I have had requests to reduce fox numbers, I always check out the situation as far as harvest is concerned.  This year’s harvest was a little earlier than usual owing to the prolonged spell of good weather we experienced. Three weeks into July, my local farmer friend already had the combine ready for action.

As with the silage and hay cut, it pays to get to the freshly cleared cut field as soon as possible, as it doesn’t take foxes long to realise that there could be easy pickings left behind by the combine. Certainly the buzzards know, as they will be circling overhead even when the combine is still working. The next best time to be on the stubbles is when the straw is baled, as even more goodies will be revealed at this time.

The combine is often left in the field after the day’s work is done, and since I know the farmer well, he lets me have the keys to the John Deere. Sitting way up in the cab after dark will often produce a fox or two. It’s also very comfortable!

In many areas – my own included – you really do need to put the time in as soon as the crop is in. Today’s farming practice means that stubbles don’t stay very long. Often the field is ripped within a couple of weeks of the crop being taken, so make the most of what time is available.

If you are planning an after-dark excursion, it pays to be out by 8.30pm at the latest. This will give you time to sort your spot out if you are going to play the waiting game, or decide on how you are going to cover the ground if you are going for a walk round. If you are doing a ‘drive by’, apart from checking gateways and the like, you are good to go once darkness sets in.

An evening on the stubbles – a classic foxing activity and still a productive one

As far as calling is concerned, apart from the usual prey calls, I quite like the pheasant call, as at this time of year there will be a lot of pheasants about. I also use cub calls – the distress and squabbling cub calls will often bring in both young and adult foxes.

This year’s cubs are starting to hunt on their own by the time harvest is in full swing, and for a short time they are relatively vulnerable, not having really learned the ropes. This state of affairs will not last long, though, and by October they will be almost as difficult to deal with as their parents.

As the nights draw in, lamping in all its various forms will come to the fore. There really are some very good lamps about; two makes that are well worth a look at are the Night Master range and Wicked Lights from Scott Country. Both these brands do everything a lamper could want, and are extremely reliable.

Of course, I suspect that most newcomers to night shooting will go down the night vision route. There is a vast array of night vision equipment available nowadays, and my recommendation is to head for one of the specialist suppliers who not only supply top-class equipment but also back it up.

Sadly I hear far too often of people who supply night vision equipment but if anything goes wrong just don’t want to know. Some of the top names, such as Scott Country and Night Master, offer a try-before-you-buy service, which is well worth looking into.

Night vision, especially thermal, can be a bit of a nightmare for the first-time buyer, and some equipment just doesn’t come up to the buyer’s expectation, so the opportunity to try something first is ideal.

For established night shooters, now would be a good time to check through all your night shooting gear and make sure all is well. Batteries seem to go on forever these days – some of my 18650s I’ve been using for years. I always keep these fully charged, which may help, but I’m no battery expert.

Round bales are hugely useful, doubling up as a hide and a shooting rest

When I look at what these small lithium ion batteries are capable of, compared with the good old 12-volt car batteries we used to lug around all night, I realise we’ve come a very long way! I’m sure that with the cost of night shooting equipment as it is, you will always keep it in tip-top condition, but a thorough check never does any harm.

It’s that time of year again full of expectations; let’s hope some of them come to fruition!

Axion assessment

Recently I’ve been trying out a couple of thermal imagers in the Pulsar Axion range of spotters. Thermal spotters have, without a doubt, revolutionised night shooting, allowing virtually everything that appears to be seen long before it is aware of your presence.

Though just about any thermal will do the job it’s designed for, the units can vary substantially in  specification and performance. The two models I was trying out were the Axiom XM38, which is the flagship model, and the Key, the lower-spec version.

The most striking thing about both of these thermals was the size – they really are small. I have had a Pulsar Quantum XD38 for years and it has seen a vast amount of work, and though battered and bruised by now, it still does the job extremely well.

It’s powered by a battery pack, and together, the pack and the thermal are a bit of a lump. The Axion is tiny by comparison and very light, making it a pleasure to use.

The higher-spec model comes with everything you need, and more. As I’ve said before, to my mind many of the facilities these units offer are surplus to a fox shooter’s requirements, but then I’m a bit old school and have no wish to record the foxes I get being shot, or connect my thermal to a phone. But obviously there are many shooters who do want this, and there is no doubt the Pulsar Axion XM will fill all their desires.

In fact, the XM38 does the job as well as anything I’ve come across before. It enables quarry of all sorts to be identified at considerable distances – far greater than night shooting can be carried out at.

As with any thermal device, the only query that goes with it is its ability to identify what exactly you have seen. After some experience, positive identification becomes a little easier.

That said, many night shooters will have come across the odd time when you see something through the thermal but positive ID is difficult due to a whole range of circumstances. These can be weather-related, as thermals are undoubtedly affected by, in particular, high humidity in the atmosphere.

Another factor is what is growing between you and the target – long grass will mask an animal’s heat signature very effectively. When using a thermal just to see what’s about, positive ID isn’t all that important, but once the rifle comes into play, it most certainly is. The Pulsar XM38 really does give a very good picture and every chance of making a positive ID – as always, you just need to be 100 per cent certain in every shooting situation.

Turning to the Key, this is virtually identical in appearance to the other two in the range, but it doesn’t have the same facilities as the other two. For example, there is no built-in video recording facility. The makers claim that it has up to a 1300-metre detection range, based on a man-sized figure at that range. You probably couldn’t identify a fox at that distance, though why anyone would need to is a bit beyond me!

For rimfire shooters, the Axion Key would do the job perfectly well – and probably for a lot of fox shooters too, particularly those who don’t stretch their ranges too much.

The XM38 is the unit with universal capability, and will cater for any shooter’s needs. At £2,059.95, it isn’t cheap, but it does the job. The Key costs £1,269.95 (prices sourced from Scott Country), but as with all forms of night vision, my advice is try before you buy.

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