I was out with two mates hunting bunnies when a text message arrived. It was a beautiful sunny day, and while the boys were knocking the problem rabbits over with their HMRs, I was enjoying teaching my one year old Korthals Griffon puppy more about how he should behave under such circumstances. I assumed it was the Long-Haired General issuing further movement orders – either that, or Len – a local chicken farmer, telling me that yet more of his precious birds had been killed by foxes. Consequently, I waited until I’d reached the top of the hill before fumbling inside my fleece to retrieve the ‘phone.
On reading the SMS I discovered that I was wrong on both counts, for although the message did concern a vulpine-poultry interface problem, it had happened somewhere else entirely. The issue was that some beloved hens had been slaughtered at a smallholding over in the Dartmoor direction. I’d been there once before about two years ago, when a mate (Cyres on here) was house-sitting for the owners while they were away. On that occasion we’d cast about for some time before I spotted a large dog fox heading straight towards us. Needless to say it didn’t survive the encounter, but that had been it until now.
It took a day or so before I’d spoken to Nick – the owner, and he’d cleared matters for me to also shoot on the adjoining farm. The drive over through the narrow lanes took me half an hour in my old Land Rover Discovery. It should have taken somewhat more than this, however, I chanced to pull onto the road right behind a lunatic in a Ford Ranger pickup who clearly knew the way extremely well. It would not only have been rude of me to have dropped back, but it was much safer keeping him in sight. Since it was single track for most of the way, he had to slow down for any on coming vehicles, which saved me the trouble of craning my neck around every corner.
I’d agreed with Nick that I’d arrive just as it got dark, and found him in the drive ready and waiting. We had a chat about all the relevant issues – land boundaries, etc. as well as a few that weren’t. Sorry Nick – I’m like that…
Although my intention was to cut through the young plantation where the chickens are located, I realised almost immediately that the wind was completely wrong. Had there been a fox downwind of me, I’d have found the field empty when I reached it. Instead, I walked out to the lane and circled around to the field entrance there. This way, the wind was directly in my face, which was just perfect. On the way there I’d also checked the sheep in the opposite meadow, but they were all lying around peacefully, and didn’t appear to be at all stressed. When the ewes are chilled out it generally indicates a lack of predators, so I knew it was unlikely that anything would approach from their direction when I ran the caller.
The gate I had to get through was tied in place with baler cord, and since experience has taught me that attempting to untie a farmer’s knot in the dark is usually a futile exercise, I climbed it instead. Making sure that I was masked by the adjoining woods, I quietly walked up the hill until I was presented with an excellent view all the way – some three hundred yards or so, to a small pasture which lies tight up against the farmer’s house. I spent a minute or two scanning with both the thermal imager – which hangs around my neck, and the night vision (NV) spotter which is attached to a chest harness below it.
Using the thermal I could see that there was an unidentified heat source hidden in the long grass in the field to my left, but I couldn’t tell what it was. I therefore changed over to the NV spotter to see if the infra red illuminator would give me any eye reflections as some kind of a clue. Whatever it might be, it was about the size of a fox, but it wasn’t moving. This could, of course, have meant that it that was asleep – as sometimes happens, but from its size it could also have been a hare or a badger. You usually get eye-shine from the former, and the latter don’t tend to stay still for very long, so it probably wasn’t either of those. As I wasn’t getting any success with the ID, I left it for later.
Below where the unidentified creature was lying up were some woodland margins – while I was inspecting these, I suddenly heard foxes chittering in the direction of the farm. Switching my attention to the area in question – not easy when the house is festooned with bright lights (which tend to blind one’s vision), I got some strong eye shine. There was a large fox right in the middle of the sheep, about 25 yards from the house! I couldn’t see any others though, but they were clearly not far off as they don’t make noises like that on their own.
I had quite a few sheep to my front, but there was a large area of empty pasture slightly to the right with excellent visibility all round. I quickly programmed the fox caller with the ‘Vole Squeaks’ track, checked it was working, and placed it 50 paces out. The vole call is quite quiet, but is usually irresistible to a hungry fox if it’s close enough to hear it. Back at my sticks, I double-checked that everything was how I wanted it – their height was right, the magnification and focus of the scope was adjusted correctly, and so on. I do all this so often that it only takes me a few seconds. When I was happy that all was well, I pressed the control button on the rifle. This tells the remote – which sits in a special pocket by my left armpit, to start the soundtrack. The sheep were clearly a bit alarmed as they all raised their heads, but they stayed put for about ten seconds. Then they all started running off to the left. At first, I thought they were reacting to the unexpected noise, but as they moved off I realised that a fox was running straight at them, and that was what they were trying to avoid.
When Monsieur Le Reynard got to about 120 yards, I pressed the mute button and the tasty meal immediately stopped squeaking. At this, my quarry paused briefly to see where his supper had gone. I was ready and waiting, so a bullet hit him hard the moment he stopped. He went down with a very convincing ‘wallop’, I therefore knew instantly that the shot was a good one. Letting everything settle down for a minute or two, I ran the caller again – this time on ‘Rat Distress’, a much louder sound that carries much further. Despite my efforts though, no other foxes responded, so in the end I collected the caller and carried the carcass – that of a large dog fox, up to the fence line to make it easy for the farmer to find.
My hope was that this was the animal that had been responsible for the killings, but only time will tell on that score. The plan had been to carry on through the field to my left, where the unidentified animal was lying, so I crept up to the gate and had a look from there. I could see with the thermal that it hadn’t moved, but I still couldn’t tell what it was, so it was back to the NV. My new position gave me a much closer and better view – it was immediately obvious that I was watching a young roe fawn that was couched up and waiting patiently for its Mum. Had I continued on my intended route there was a serious risk that I’d spook either it or the anxious parent. Having just significantly improved its chances of survival by shooting what was probably the biggest threat to its well-being, the last thing I wanted was to ruin everything by tramping by too closely.
I’m sure I could have skirted around it by heading down to the woods below, but not knowing the lie of the land, I figured that in the dark discretion was the better part of valour. To this end, I therefore back-tracked to the truck. A quick swig of water and I moved on to the field below Nick’s house – he’d told me there was a small flock of sheep there, so I spent a few minutes ensuring that all was well. Since everything appeared to be nice and quiet, and I wasn’t sure of how to reach the other fields, I called it a night. Having divested myself of all my shooting accoutrements – the face veil, FOXPRO caller, thermal imager and NV spotter, and stashed the sticks in their rooftop holders, I climbed in for the drive home. I was pleased with my efforts – but even more so when I found a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon on the passenger’s seat with a thank you note. My wife loves me dearly – but a bottle of decent red wine helps tremendously!