Thermal imagers in foxing

Having successfully kept his fox numbers down, Robert Bucknell explores the other applications of thermal imagers and foxing kit.

Credit: aaprophoto / Getty Images

As I write this in early July, we still have very few foxes about the place. As I’ve explained before, we did a good job over the winter, cleaning up everything on our patch, and nothing much has moved back in since – which has given a real boost to the local ground-nesting game and wildlife.

If I want to shoot a fox at the moment, the best way is to go to the boundary and try for one on a neighbour’s land. I know that sounds like a bit of poaching, but it isn’t – the neighbours are more than happy for us to tidy up their foxes for them.

I can sit in a high seat, or on the back of the truck, guarding the border as it were, and if necessary, reach out to pick off foxes on the other side.

Even with very few foxes and a blank night, it never feels like I’m wasting my time. While I’m sitting there not seeing any, I can watch all the other wildlife – and that’s a constant source of entertainment. You learn a lot by just sitting and watching.

For instance, it’s amazing the number of times rabbits will make a mistake. One of them stands up, then another, and you think, “Ah, there’s somebody nasty coming out of the hedge,” so you get the rifle lined up, and… it’s a muntjac.

I suppose that when viewed head-on from a rabbit’s height, a muntjac looks very like a fox. Height and colour are similar – do I ignore it and wind up as dinner, or take no chances?

If you can’t spot a fox, take time to enjoy the wildlife

We’re coming out of lockdown now, so I’m hoping that with a bit of luck we won’t get quite so many people walking or cycling around the place. We had people popping up all over, in places they never normally reach. As a result, we’ve had many more decoy birds let out of our Larsen traps too.

Surprisingly perhaps, we haven’t had a single trap smashed up; they just let the bird out. Of course, the magpies usually put themselves straight back in again, as they don’t want to miss a meal.

The crows are also wing clipped anyway, but they will be trap shy from now on. They will get a charge of shot when next seen hopping about – and you stick in a replacement.

Countryfile confusion

It’s frustrating, but I try to be charitable – or at least understanding – and think of these people as unenlightened do-gooders. They mean well; they simply don’t have a clue about wildlife and the countryside, because the media only shows what Chris Packham tells them. One survey found that 93 per cent of country-dwelling people believe the BBC is biased against them.

Anyway, back to the foxes. I did get one cub the other night with the aid of a little mouse squeak – that’s deadly for cubs at this time of year. I had seen this cub once already, but wasn’t able to shoot.

It was downwind, 300-400 yards away, and straight in line with a herd of beef cattle, so that was no good. So a couple of nights later, I arrived at the field and got myself all lined up so that the cattle, on their favoured end of the field, wouldn’t be in the way.

There are a range of useful tools in the foxers arsenal
Compact thermal units give you the upper-hand
Trail cameras help reveal what’s about

Typically, it wasn’t long before a fox appeared upwind, and from a totally different angle! It gradually worked its way towards me through some tall grass. I let it come, and eventually at about 120 yards I give it a little low squeak so I could see it better.

Nothing – then all of a sudden you could see the lightbulb come on. It looked up, and came thrashing towards me as hard as it could go. It stopped for a look at about 60 yards to the ‘baaaa’, and down it went. That was one of this year’s cubs, starting to explore a bit wider and straying a bit too close to our boundary.

With steady all year-round attrition going on, it must make a big difference over quite a wide area. There’s always a steady supply from the local towns, where the foxes can breed unmolested and wander 20 or 30 miles until they reach hostile territory.

One tagged by Mike Short of the GWCT last spring did 25km, then another 20km a few nights later to find a gamekeeper protecting his waders in the Avon Valley.

As I’m writing this, the harvest is just about to begin – a few people have already begun harvesting their oilseed rape around here, and from what I hear there’s quite a bit of land already cleared on the lighter ground to the north of us.

Then it will be the winter wheat and barley, followed by spring-sown crops. With the unusually wet weather at the back end of last year, a lot of farmers missed the chance to sow in the autumn, so there’s a lot of spring wheat and barley this year. That will give us an extended harvest, so there will be plenty of opportunity to get out on the stubbles.

If you’re only shooting them at harvest time, you’ve arguably left it too late. They’ve already scooped up a lot of game and wildlife through the nesting season. But even if you cleared the foxes off your patch earlier in the year, this is when they start moving again, looking for fresh territory.

So you’ll get foxes coming in from further afield, and left alone they will take up residence and become a problem in the winter. You might as well take advantage of the early mornings and long evenings for foxes that have learnt all the tricks of the trade. It’s a time of year when you can account for a good many in a short time without having to sit for hours in the freezing cold!

Harvest is traditionally when night foxing is relatively easy, with dry, hard ground to allow access everywhere, but of course, with the aid of thermal, it’s easier still. There’s no longer any need to go bombing round the fields three-up in the truck, shining lights all over the place.

You can sneak round on your own to the best foxy bits and get the job done very efficiently. I like the fact that you can drop a fox out near a spotted roosting partridge covey. Then, because the birds have shown up in the thermal, you can leave the body for the next day for least disturbance.

Fox dogging

Sneaking about the countryside at night with a thermal viewer does lead to some, er, interesting sights. My friend Nigel was out the other night, sitting quietly by the side of a chicken farm waiting for some fox cubs to appear.

After a while he saw someone walking up the footpath and stop by the hedge 400 yards away. Shortly after, another smaller shape followed, and the two met. Before long they were lying down, and there was what he describes as ‘vigorous activity’.

While that was going on, one of the cubs popped out at the other side of the field. Should he wait until these two had finished? What would you have done? Nigel didn’t hesitate.

The Quantum XQ50 is just one of the indispensable Pulsar range (credit: Black Grouse Media)

The shot was safe, so he took it! Glancing back with the thermal, he could see the two figures were now upright and appeared to be hurriedly pulling their clothes on before scampering off down the path!

Many fox shooters will have similar tales, but it does highlight an important point. When thermal first appeared, it was feared it could lead to accidents with people shooting at a ‘warm blob’ thinking it was a fox, when in fact it was someone or something out late at night.

In reality though, thermal has quickly become so good that you can positively identify a fox way beyond the range you should consider shooting at.

Not only that, but thermal will often show up a warm body that would have remained hidden behind cover from a lamp or tubed night vision. If anything, it reduces the chance of an accident, because if there’s a badger enthusiast lurking in the bushes behind your fox, you’ll know about it – not that you’d shoot without a good solid backstop anyway, of course, but you can also see that.

Thermal also buys time. You often pick something out sooner, and there is not the pressure to get a round off before a fox spooks to a lamp or badly timed call. Another thing it stops is the temptation to shoot at ‘a pair of eyes’.

We often talk about how thermal has been a game changer for fox shooting – check out some of the best on the market on page 70 – but there’s another tech that has had a big impact too: trail cameras.

Like so much technology, these have become better and cheaper, to the point where any foxer can afford one or two – and they are invaluable for learning what’s around on your land. Not only that, they can tell you what time of day or night is best.

Target acquisition is so simple with modern kit

In my experience, foxes don’t stick to the same routine month after month, but they will often follow a pattern for a few days. So if your trail camera spots a fox at 10.30pm tonight, and again tomorrow, there’s a good chance that it will be back around that time 24 hours later – it’s well worth a wait, anyway.

It’s not just foxes either – a friend of mine, Pete ‘the Squirrel’, set up his trail cams here to watch his peanut bait points, which told him the best time for the freeloaders was around 6.30pm.

They’re in a little spinney that gets its wheat feeder shot over fairly often, so I didn’t rate his chances much, but he turned up a bit after 6pm and set up – in no time at all he had shot three. Waiting on for another hour, he got three more, a total of six in under two hours, all thanks to his trail cam. Perhaps his nuts are the best! 

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