Frisky foxes

Fox mating season is upon us, and seasoned foxer Mike Powell shows you how to make the most of it

Credit: mlorenzphotography / Getty Images

With one or two exceptions, most forms of live quarry shooting involve seasons. Some of these are self-imposed, others laid down by law, but whichever they are, they all have one thing in common and that’s anticipation.

Whether it’s the roebuck stalker eagerly awaiting 1 April or the pheasant shooter itching to get out in October, the day when you can once again get out the gun or rifle is always exciting.

For the fox shooter, there are two fairly significant times of year when the excitement builds: first, harvest time when the new season’s crop of cubs are out and about, and second, the mating season. Both of these times are, to a degree, movable depending on many factors – mainly weather conditions – but both bring with them that sense of anticipation.

I think for me, though it’s a close-run thing, the mating season is the one that really gets the adrenalin flowing. Possibly the time of year, with the promise of spring not too far away, has an effect – I’m not sure.

What I do know is that when in late November the preliminary and evocative sounds of the first locating calls of foxes are heard, I start getting the well-used gear checked out.

Foxes are fairly predictable where their mating processes are concerned. Though down here in the south-west, things may start a little earlier than in the far north, by and large it’s in the last six weeks of the old year and the first two months of the new year that the mating season is in full swing.

I say full swing, but in reality it is a fairly prolonged process. As I said earlier, preliminary calling can start in November, but that is only the precursor of something that can drag on for some weeks.

Mating seasons in my own area can turn out differently every year, mainly in the amount of calling that was heard. I have noticed considerable variations over the years, not in the calls that are used but in the number of foxes that actually call.

I can’t speak for other areas, but in my own, the number of resident foxes and the incomers that appear at mating time when territorial boundaries are largely ignored, remains about the same, year on year. The 2017 mating season was noticeable largely by the almost total lack of calling that went on. There was a little in early December, but that was about it.

Then, in the 2018 mating season, calling was heard in mid-November and carried on sporadically for a couple of weeks, then seemed to cease altogether until January when it really started in earnest, culminating in actual pairing in the second week of that month. Quite why there are these variations, which don’t seem so pronounced in other species, I have no idea.

I have foxes close to me that I leave alone unless they start causing problems, and watching them over a long period of time really doesn’t answer many of the questions that these enigmatic creatures raise. One such example occurred this January. I had seen a dog fox hanging about on the hillside opposite my home at varying times by night and day.

Eventually the object of his desire showed up in the shape of a small, dark vixen. The courtship ritual began and was carried out over the space of about two weeks. During that time, apart from some ‘geckering’ (a clicking sound they make when close to each other), I heard absolutely no calling from either of them.

This rather confirms that the usual sounds we hear mainly at mating times – the triple ‘ow, ow, ow’ and the scream, usually attributed to dog foxes and vixens respectively, but which can be produced by either sex – are contact calls, which, as the pair mentioned above had already met, were unnecessary. And therefore, I heard no calls.

While I find fox behaviour interesting, I am well aware that many readers will be more interested in shooting them than understanding them in this way. But the more you learn about your quarry, the better chance you have of dealing with them in whatever way you wish.

A couple of nights ago I and my young (compared to me) apprentice Callum set out to remove some foxes that had been causing distress in various ways to a local farmer. As we passed a small field no more than 100 yards from my house, Callum slowed the 4×4 to let me put the lamp across it.

We always do this – quite why I don’t know as we couldn’t shoot from the road, but it’s become something of a habit. In the beam there was a fox no more than 30 yards away, flattened in the grass and geckering away like mad. Clearly there was a vixen nearby.

A sweep of the lamp showed her to be even closer. Suddenly the dog shot towards the vixen and a mad chase ensued, all within, at most, 40 yards from us and in the full glare of the lamp. We had to move as a car was approaching, so we left them to what were clearly the closing stages of their particular mating season.

Later that evening, when I had chosen exactly the wrong place to wait for a fox I was after, we were able to see the behaviour of a pair of foxes whose mating season was over and done with. The thermal had picked up a fox in the next field to where we were parked up, making its way up the hill in our direction. The ICOtec caller was set to a vixen-on-heat call, with no effect whatsoever.

Then another fox entered the same field and wandered to the top hedge where she (I guessed it to be the vixen) curled up and didn’t move for the next hour. The first fox poked about the field doing a bit of mousing, always within sight of the static one. There was no way we could get to them unless we left the field and went round the road until we got below them.

This pair have mated but still stay in contact

Eventually we decided to do just that, and arrived at the entrance. Hoping for a shot from the truck, we slowly drove up the field until eventually we could make out the head of the ‘static’ fox. We stopped and Callum got out, got the rifle from the back seat, loaded it and steadied himself against the vehicle.

As so often happens, just as he was about to take the shot, the vixen disappeared over the brow, almost instantly joined by the dog. Callum walked to the brow, hoping to see the pair below, but they had gone. As we drove out of the field, we saw the pair further up the hill, side by side.

Clearly their mating was over and things had calmed down. We shall return and hopefully remove these two, who had been causing problems at lambing time.

Something else where mating behaviour can be useful in reducing the fox population that I have noticed not only this year, but over many years, is that there appear to be certain areas that reliably attract foxes at mating time.

I described earlier the small roadside field where we saw the pair chasing. That small, one-acre field attracts foxes at mating time, year after year. There is another similar field, again only about an acre or so in size where once more this year we have seen as many as five foxes involved in the mating ritual. Quite why these spots attract foxes I have no idea, but they do.

I mentioned in previous article how there is a run only about 20 yards from my home that is used only at mating times, and once again this year has been heavily used from the first week in January.

Clearly where fox control is required, if you can locate these favoured areas they are ideal places to wait and will almost guarantee results. I have taken more foxes that run than in any other one location in the whole of the area I cover. As always, spending time in getting to know your quarry and its habits will pay dividends in the long term.

Speaking of my young apprentice Callum: he is now the proud owner of his own foxing rifle and his own open FAC, so I feel that the term ‘apprentice’ should be removed.

To celebrate this occasion, I am happy to report that on his first outing after initial zeroing with the .243 Howa 1500 with thumbhole laminate stock, the first shot ‘in anger’ at a fox at a 135 yards resulted in a clean kill.

In my area, the matter of fox control for the next generation of farmers and smallholders is in safe hands.

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