My recent story entitled ‘Foot Foot Owl’ recounted how I called in and shot a very large dog fox. That brought my yearly total to eighty-nine, however, as I would like to make it to a round hundred, I headed off again last night for another session. This time my plan was to shoot over a farm that lies in the foothills a few miles to the north of Exeter. I went to school with the farmer, so have known him for more years than I care to remember. The place is overrun with rabbits, and as a result has a significant population of foxes. Since he has a small pheasant shoot as well as a large dairy herd, foxes are not welcome there. Not only do they kill his birds, but they also spread a parasitic infection called ‘neospora’ which causes spontaneous abortion in cattle (as well as horses and sheep).
As darkness fell, I got everything ready. I’d already charged the batteries for my caller and thermal imager (the ones in the NV last for months), so I got the ammo sorted, boresnaked the .22-250, and loaded everything into the truck. I didn’t want to leave before my Good Lady got home from work, as she’d be spending the evening alone, so I got the Landy’s engine fired up to ensure it’d be nicely warmed through. Unfortunately for me, however, she’d decided to do a Tesco run, so I was on my way a bit later than planned.
The half-hour drive over is not one I enjoy, which is why I don’t visit the farm more often. The hedge-bound lanes are single track for most of the way, and at that time of the evening all the city workers are heading home to their country abodes. This meant that I was pulling over or reversing back every half mile or so in order to allow them to squeeze by.
The land I was going to be hunting over is comprised of steep hills interspersed with low-lying lush meadows and frequent streams. Although the landscape is beautiful, the farm can be an absolute pain for night vision users. The amount of water around the place means the air tends to be more like fine mist – this not makes it hard to see very far, but it causes the optics to fog up in moments. Another hassle is that the fields run right up to a village - most of the inhabitants of which are archetypal suburbanites. Fortunately, few of them seem to walk their dogs at night, but even so the lights from their houses can make things very difficult.
Slightly frazzled by the drive, I eventually pulled into the farmyard. As I did so, the dogs kicked off, creating a hell of a row. One of them was on the loose, and was running about all over the place. Luckily, Nick – the farmer, soon appeared and sorted that matter out. We had a brief chat about things, amongst which was news of his new 50 kW solar panel installation. Comprising some five hundred square metres of panels, this was a massive investment for him. Still – his dairy must use a colossal amount of electricity, so presumably the sums stack up. When the subject swung around to foxes, he said that although they’d shot several, he’d seen two near his pheasants, and he wanted them dealt with. I explained that I was going to start in the meadows on the other side of the lane, and that I’d then move up to the higher ground where his shoot is based. He wished me luck and went back to his supper.
My plans fell apart the moment I crossed the lane. Sadly, I found that the massive sodium lamps that he used to keep his dairy unit lit were also illuminating the entire valley. Trying to hunt there would have been futile, so I turned around and walked back up through the yard to try my luck in the fields on the other side. I wasn’t sure if I was going to have it all my own way there either though, as the moon – which was sitting high in the sky, was threatening to come out from behind the dark clouds which blanketed most of the sky.
The first bit of ground I reached is a small paddock which holds the family’s pony. As I’m very careful to avoid spooking anything unnecessarily, I made some reassuring noises by quietly clicking my tongue. Having heard me do this many times, it knew who and what I was. Straight away it came ambling over to the fence – presumably to see whether I was going to give in and pull up some nice fresh grass for it. On this occasion I was rather preoccupied though, so sadly there was no verdant treat on hand. Checking around with the NV monocular, I found that one of the farm cats was sitting on one of the many pieces of agricultural machinery watching me. I’m always very careful where cats and foxes are concerned, as it is frighteningly easy to mistake one for the other if you only go by eye reflection. It’s absolutely vital that you also get a positive physical ID. Fortunately, good equipment that is properly set up makes this very straightforward. Sweeping around to my left immediately gave me another observation test, for there was another very bright set of eyes looking right at me. It proved to be another easy one though – it was a Little Owl sitting on a low run of fence wire. These beautiful birds feed on a wide variety of small creatures like beetles and worms, and I always take great pleasure in seeing them. After watching it for a while – taking care to keep the IR off it to avoid any risk to its eyes, I walked the remaining few yards to the main track that bisects the farm.
On reaching it, I had another look around. There were about fifteen bunnies in the field ahead of me, but as I watched the mono began to mist over, so I switched over to the thermal. Within moments, I’d picked up a large white shape about a hundred yards out that looked suspiciously like a fox. A quick double-check with the mono showed that I was in business – and as it was trotting straight towards me, there was no time to waste. I got the tripod sticks up, the Sauer in place, and switched the riflescope on. The fox came in to about sixty yards, then realised that I was there. Not knowing what I was, it sat back on its haunches for a better look. Moments later a Blitzking hit it with a loud ‘Smack’, right in the engine room – it flipped up in the air and in doing so turned and fell to the ground, dead as a dodo.
Now that’s not bad going, I thought to myself – less than a minute out and I’ve already notched up a good kill. On examination, it proved to be a very well-sized dog fox. With a couple of photos in the bag, I put a disposable glove on and dragged it to the edge of the track where Nick would be able to see it in the morning. Following the path trodden by untold numbers of dairy cows over the years, I continued on into the next field. This is a vast area of lush grassland that begins at a hedge high to the left and then runs downhill for several hundred yards before ending at the lane far down to the right.
There were rabbits everywhere I looked – and some way out – right in amongst them, was the sharp glow from a set of fox eyes. There was no doubting what I was looking at – its tail gave me a positive ID, so I ducked under the electric fence to my left in order to take advantage of the background cover provided by the tall hedge. Making my way along it, I had another look – the fox was still there – so I set the sticks up and tried to find it with the riflescope. In those few seconds, however, it had somehow disappeared. Mystified, I had another look with the mono, and picked it up straight away. Back to the scope, and it had gone again. I repeated this a couple more times, and finally convinced myself that the problem was that it was just in the lee of the rise that lay between me and it. In other words, I could see it when I stood up straight to use the mono, but not when I leant forward onto the scope. The only solution would therefore be to move up the hill a little so that I could see into the dead ground.
A few yards was all it took to see into the previously hidden area – but there was no fox in sight. I was convinced that it hadn’t left the field – none of the bunnies around the edge had shifted or appeared spooked, so where could it be? I had a very slow scan around with the mono, and saw that there was something dark in the grass. It was too big to be a cow pat, too long to be a bunny. Maybe it was a piece of debris that the farmer had left behind? A quick check with the thermal immediately told me otherwise – whatever it was, it was alive.
Now one of the things I’ve learned about foxes is that when they’re hunting, they can be incredibly patient. Many is the time that I’ve seen them walk past a load of ultra-nervous bunnies and then simply curl up and go to sleep. A while later – long after the rabbits have forgotten all about it being there, the fox picks a victim and pounces before it knows what’s happening. It was therefore my bet that this was what I was seeing. I knew it wasn’t looking in my direction, as I wasn’t seeing any eye reflection, so I was hopeful that I’d be able to close the distance enough to both properly identify it and to shoot it. I had to be careful though – every couple of minutes or so the moon was coming out and lighting up the landscape.
I watched the clouds for a bit, and decided that the dark area that was moving towards the moon would hide it for at least a couple of minutes, so I moved back towards the hedge and then circled around to the top of the field. This put me well away from any possible scent risk, and also gave me a height advantage. I still wasn’t 100% sure that it was a fox though, so I waited until the moon was obscured, and moved twenty paces forwards. When I looked through the mono, I could see that a few yards away, a rabbit was stood on its hind legs checking out the unidentified shape. I counted another twenty paces forwards and checked again. This time, the shape had two prominent fox ears, and about a minute later, it raised its head. At last – a positive ID, and it was game-on. I waited until it put its head back down, and counted out yet another twenty paces. Now I was within a healthy range (not for Charlie though). With the sticks out and the rifle in place, I began observing my target. The fox was now lying there with its eyes open quietly watching another bunny that had rather carelessly wandered a bit too close for safety. I held back until it raised its head again, then sent a round on its way. There was the unmistakable sound of a central body hit. The fox just rolled on its side without even twitching.
I counted out the distance – 130 paces, and in doing so spooked a woodcock that rocketed up squawking in alarm. On examination, the carcass was that of a medium-sized vixen, and the hit was a good solid chest shot. After taking some photos, I moved its remains to the side of the track, next to a cattle trough where it could be found in the morning. A look around showed me that the rest of the field only held bunnies – and that most of them were standing up watching what was going on. At that moment the mono began to mist over again, so I moved on. Although the ground was very wet, the going was relatively easy - in stark contrast to that of the previous session, where the mud had been so thick that I’d sunk at every step.
The next field was bordered on one side by the lane, and on another by houses. Yuk – humans – best to stay away. Before leaving, I checked for any sign of foxes, but apart from yet more bunnies, there was nothing there of note. My plan was to move up and across into the next valley, but to minimise the risk of being scented by any foxes there, I first circled around the lower hedgeline, and then made my way over the brow. Wiping the mono down every couple of minutes, I kept checking around me. There were rabbits everywhere, and I could hear many of them stamping their feet in alarm.
Once my silhouette was clear of the ridgeline, I paused for a less-rushed look. Before me was a small valley, at the bottom of which was a narrow stream running through a large water meadow. On the far side was a high bank, and above that a field. As the mist made it hard to see much with the NV at that distance – some five hundred yards or so, I used the thermal. There were so many rabbits that it would be been close to impossible to count them. Imagine looking at the stars on a clear night – there were that many. I saw forty-seven just along the hedge that ran fifty yards in front of me. Suddenly, while I was still observing the landscape, the silence was shattered by the shrill scream of a young rabbit. The fox – for I was sure that was what was responsible, could only have been a few yards beyond the hedge.
I picked my way as quietly as I could down to the gate which led into the water meadow, then climbed up and took advantage of the extra height to scan again. Unfortunately, there was absolutely no sign of Charlie – just more bunnies. In the valley’s shelter, the breeze was very light and moving from my left to my right, so I decided that if I couldn’t find the fox, I’d put the caller out. Once I was back on the ground, however, I realised that there was just too much light coming from the houses away to my right. Luckily, I found that as the hedge ran around the side of the hill, it curved off into darkness, so I followed it and got myself well out of the unwanted illumination.
I was hoping that I was now in a good position to use the caller – there was a large wood in front of me, with excellent visibility everywhere else. Whilst checking the lie of the land, I spotted an unidentified shape in the grass – I couldn’t be sure what it was. The thermal told me that it was alive, but at that stage I didn’t know whether it was two rabbits side by side – or a fox. I moved a bit closer, trying to ignore the bunnies stamping their feet on other side of hedge. At about ninety yards out, I set the sticks up and had another look. Once again, a set of fox ears gave the game away. It was lying on the ground eating something – presumably the unfortunate bunny I’d heard scream a few minutes earlier. I waited until it began to stand up, and then fired. Much like the first one, it flipped up into the air then fell to the ground and expired.
Since I’d decided that the spot was ideal for calling, I left the fox where it was and put caller out at seventy-five paces, ensuring that the wind was taking my scent off down the valley. Returning to the sticks, I had another check around, dried the optics again, then started the caller with a short series of fox squalls before turning them off. The mono showed me that nothing was stirring – apart from myriad bunnies, so I gave it another blast of squalls. Still nothing. It was now time to move on to the ‘Vixen on Heat’ call. After a couple of minutes with no positive signs, I was beginning to wonder if I’d already shot all the foxes in the area, but just then I caught a flash of eyes. They were about 400 yards out and too bright to be those of a bunny. The bad news was that they were directly downwind of me.
I dried the optics again, and checked that no other foxes had snuck in towards the caller. Nope. Going back to the eyes, I could see that they had moved closer – and as the animal they belonged to had now broken cover, I could positively identify that they were those of a Charlie. I quickly repositioned the sticks and got riflescope switched on. By then the fox had stopped about two hundred yards out, and was sitting just over a rise in the ground, looking towards the caller. There was plenty of safe backstop, but before I was able to take a shot, it moved off, running across the valley and away towards the next field. As it reached the foot of the large boundary bank it paused, just to the left of a large oak tree. By then I was ready, and to allow for the range, aimed for high chest shot. I fired and moments later heard a loud ‘pop’ – the fox dropped on the spot, the fierce glow from its eyes extinguishing as it fell.
I checked around again, but as there was nothing to be seen, apart from – you guessed it, yet more bunnies, I lefts the sticks where they were and walked down the valley, across the stream and up to the bank to the left of the oak tree. As I couldn’t see the carcass with the mono, I switched to the thermal. But there was still no sign of it. So I put my driving glasses on, and powered up my torch. No matter how hard I looked though, I couldn’t find it. The bank was chock-full of bunny holes, so I had to be careful where I trod. I didn’t want to be breaking a leg out there in the darkness. As I picked my way between them, I could hear the occupants stamping their feet below me. Rather frustrated by my inability to find the fox, I stood back and scratched my head. Just then, I noticed that further along there was a second big oak tree. Could I have got them mixed up? As anything is possible in the dark, I walked over towards it – and a few yards on there was my Charlie. A big dog fox hit with a perfect chest shot. Result!
After the customary photographs, I counted the number of paces back to my sticks – 222! I picked them up and retrieved the caller before examining the previous fox. It was yet another large dog fox – this one was by far the biggest of the three I’d had that night though. As I was photographing it I noticed that both of its left canines were missing, and that the rest of its teeth were very beaten up. This was certainly an old individual, although his diet of bunnies was clearly keeping him healthy, as he had a very good body weight.
By then I was out of time, so I made my way up a steep mud-covered track and over the top, checking every fifty yards or so until I was back at the farmyard. Just as I got there, Nick walked out of the house, on his way to check his livestock. I recounted my session to him, and explained where all the carcasses lay so that he could collect them on the quad. After that, I packed up and drove home. So – that’s another four on the floor, and only seven more to go for me to reach my goal of a hundred this year!