A few weeks ago, the owner of a local gun shop – who knows my penchant for matters night vision, ‘phoned me up and asked if I’d help a customer out with his new NV unit. To cut a long story short, the chap was a farmer who wanted to be able to shoot foxes at night. He’d therefore bought a digital system, but found that it was so limited that it was not up to the job. He came over one night, and I took him up onto a local hill so that he could see the difference between his kit and mine, and whether or not some extra IR would give him what he needed (it didn’t). Anyway – as a thank-you for my efforts, he invited me and a mate to join him for a walked-up pheasant shoot on his farm.
We duly went over and had a great day – although the ground was frozen, the sun was shining brightly – so much so that several people were complaining about not being able to see the birds fly properly. I took the opportunity to try out the old 1868 Army & Navy side-by-side that I’d recently bought for the first time, and all in all my mate and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves knocking those silly birds out of the sky. Since there was an awful lot of uphill worked involved, we both arrived back pleasantly knackered.
Fast-forward to Monday morning, and I suddenly found myself being offered another invite – for Tuesday. This meant getting all manner of things reorganised – luckily my mate was off-shift, so he was able to come too. Things couldn’t have been more different though – the weather was awful, with rain falling consistently for most of the night. Before we left we therefore checked the Met Office’s local forecast – sure enough, they said it was going to rain all day. And for once, they didn’t disappoint – the heavens were open when we got there, and they stayed that way all day. We were up on high ground, and the rain was travelling horizontally.
It’s amazing how you can still enjoy yourself in such awful conditions – a matter made much easier by the fact that the other dozen or so blokes – mostly local farmers, were such great company. Everyone was laughing and joking all day, and although the pheasants were hiding in deep cover, we had a decent bag – mostly pheasants, but also woodcock, pigeon and even an unfortunate rook that got too close. One of the best things from my perspective was to hear all the old-school Devonian accents. We have a lot of people who speak ‘proper local’ around here, but it is so rare to hear so many of them in one place. I would imagine that very few people outside the area would have ever heard the genuine article. The farcical attempts at west country accents that one usually hears on the radio and telly don’t come anywhere close.
Anyway – I digress. Due to the terrible conditions, I’d left my Army & Navy 12-bore in the cabinet and taken my Benelli M2 instead. This performed faultlessly, however, I found that my glasses were getting swamped with all the rain, and for much of the time I was struggling to see anything. Luckily, I’d taken a dry cloth with me, and was able to wipe them down sufficiently to take two pheasants on the first drive. After lunch I left my specs in my pocket so that they would stay dry until we were on location. Once there, I was pleased to find that I could see relatively well without them – I was even more pleased a little later on when I found, much to my surprise, that I was shooting better that way! Several nice birds dropped to the waiting dogs, and although we were both pleased to make it to the warmth of my Disco for the twenty mile journey home, once again, we’d had a great day.
We arrived back at mine with everything soaked through, so the first half hour was spent draping wet clothing over every available radiator. This included countless pairs of drenched gloves – luckily I’d had several spare pairs in the truck, and had changed them every time we went anywhere near the farmyard. This done, my mate headed out of the door – he still had over an hour’s drive to get home. As I was seeing him off, I spotted two blokes getting out of a pick-up truck – it was one of my neighbour’s together with his brother-in-law, a local farmer. The moment he saw me, he called out ‘Ah, I wus gonna come and zee you…’.
After a brief chat, it transpired that his newly-born lambs were being attacked again. Every year it happens, and every year he always blamed it on badgers. Until last winter that is, when I spent endless hours up there trying to find the culprits. All the time I was on his land, however, the ground was frozen solid – if you remember we had several weeks of bitter temperatures, and there was not a badger to be seen. I reminded him of this, and said that I’d been up there the night before checking the lambs carefully to make sure they were alright.
I was seriously hacked-off to hear the bad news about the lambs. The little things have compressive rings fitted at the base of tail – this constricts the blood supply and eventually causes it to wither and drop off. It’s basically a humane way of tail-docking. The trouble is, however, that if a predator rips the tail off before it’s ready to go, the resulting wound gets infected very quickly, and the poor creature gets what is known as ‘joint-ill’. This is not only very painful, but is there for life. In spite of what the townies think, most farmers are very conscientious about their livestock, and get very upset to see any of their animals suffer. This is especially true for anything they have raised – and probably even hand-delivered, themselves.
I couldn’t understand it, as I’d been hammering the foxes on the farm all year in order to make sure this didn’t happen again. I’d been scanning the fields for weeks without seeing any sign whatsoever of Charlie. You can normally tell how many foxes there are in an area at this time of year simply by listening for them after dark. Their mating calls carry for miles, and so it’s relatively easy to know that they’re there. And yet I hadn’t heard any calls anywhere close.
I told the farmer that I’d get on the case. The problem was that I was dead on my feet – not only had we been walking around all day, but the combination of cold winds and getting soaked to the skin had really taken it out of us. No matter how upset I was, it’d have to wait for another night. I then spent the next couple of hours sorting out the day’s business emails and after that retired to the sitting room to watch some telly with my Good Lady. As I walked into the room, however, she glowered up at me and said ‘I do hope you’re not coming in here…’. Apparently, she was watching some bloody wedding program, and knew that if I saw any of it I’d only start ranting about what a feckless bunch of prats they were. She clearly knows me rather well…
I can take a hint though, and knew that in spite of my tiredness, I’d be better off heading out to see if I could see what was attacking the lambs. The first thing I needed to do was find some dry hunting kit – I have loads of it, but in no sort of order. The first three sets of DPM trousers turned out to be ones that I’d bought for my stepson when he was about 14. The fourth set were, however, the right size, so on they went. A dig in the cupboard found me a new set of camo gloves – albeit super-lightweight summer ones made from thin netting material. Still – they’d be better than nothing, and as it was getting late, I didn’t want to waste any more time looking for a thicker pair. The rest of my shooting gear came together easily, and I set off. I’d decided to travel light, so left all the bulky things like the electronic caller behind..
The farm is less than a mile from my house, so I was there in moments. The first field lies across the side of a steep valley, and has been the scene of several of my previous accounts. I killed the lights and switched the engine off as I rolled into the lay-by which sits opposite the main gate. I was already wearing my face veil and gloves, so didn’t need to faff about before climbing out – as I was only planning on a quick look around, I left the rifle in its case. A few steps took me to the middle of the lane, and my usual vantage point. The field was full of ewes and their lambs, but no matter how hard I looked, there wasn’t a fox to be seen. I stayed where I was for several minutes, scanning with both the NV monocular and the mini-thermal, but in the end decided that I wasn’t going to see anything.
A quick blast up the hill saw me pulling in to park near the farm buildings – not too close though – the last thing I needed was the cacophony that a small pack of collies can make. The area I parked on lies to the side of the road, and is often used by the council to store huge piles of gravel. Some of this still lies at one end, and its gentle slope provides a useful method of getting high enough to look over the hedge. A quick scramble saw me in position to have a good scan around. Once again, however, there were no foxes to be seen anywhere. Satisfied that I had no option but to walk up the lane and into the field that overlooked where the sheep were, I slung the rifle over my shoulders, grabbed my sticks and locked the truck.
One of the things I hate most about hunting in the dark is closed gates. It’s amazing just how much they can vary – some farmers make sure that every gate on their property is good and solid. Others think that a delicate tracery of rust held in place by a couple of pieces of baler twine will suffice. While the former present few problems, the latter can be a serious risk to life and limb. The moment one foot touches a rail, the structure either tries to fall over or gives way and collapses. If you’re lucky, any semblance of covert movement is lost. If things are not going your way though, you could easily end up with a broken leg or a smashed rifle. I was therefore not amused to find that the gate I had before me was shut. Fortunately, I knew that it was a heavily built one in good condition, and that it wouldn’t clang when I climbed over it.
Things got worse as I climbed down though – the field, which is normally nice and firm underfoot was so sodden that every step of the way I sank. It’s easily the worst I’ve experienced on that property, and I really feel for any farmers who have to try and work through it. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I then found that the light outside his garage was illuminating the rest of the field – there was no way that I could make it to the far side without being seen – and with all the sploshing around, heard. Still – I wasn’t there for my own pleasure – I had lambs to protect. In the end I made it to the far gate – this led into the area I was most interested in – but that bloody light was now right behind me, exposing me to anything that looked in my direction.
The one thing in my favour was that the wind was now right in my face. Well – I say that it was in my favour – it should have been, but it was carrying a strong mizzle. That unpleasant combination of mist and drizzle that soaks everything in minutes – except NV illuminators, of course, which it swamps in seconds. As I leant on the gate, I did my best to scan the field, but every time I cleaned the laser down, it was covered again in less than five seconds. I constantly fumbled through my pockets trying to find fresh cotton buds as I tried to stay ahead of the game.
I’d already checked the ewes and their lambs several times when I spotted an unidentified light source at the top of a hedge about 250 yards away. It was only just below the street lamps from the village, so at first I wondered if it was someone’s porch light. But the next time I saw it I put my hand over the laser and it disappeared – when I removed my hand, it returned. I could now be reasonably sure that it was eye reflecting back at me – but what did the eye belong to? Was it simply an adventurous lamb that had climbed the hedge? The conditions were so bad that everything was screaming at me to call it a night and head back to the warmth of the house. But I couldn’t leave the lambs. I had to press on.
Halfway across the field there was a telegraph pole – I figured that I might be able to gain enough shelter from it to use the NV mono without having to keep drying the laser off, so I made my way over to it. The going was still dreadful – thick gloopy mud that slowed any progress to a crawl. I finally got to the pole and steadied myself against it as I had another look with the NV – but that turned out to be a complete waste of time as the brightest lights in the village were directly in line with where the eye was last seen. I had a look around and decided that I had little choice but to loop around towards the far hedge by way of the ground to my right which was, at least, not lit up by that dratted garage light.
Every time I moved, some of the lambs bleated in alarm, and many of the ewes were trotting to and fro unsure as to whether I presented any kind of a threat. When I’d made it about halfway to the hedge – which was now only about fifty yards from me, I stopped for another look. The eye was still there, but so far I’d only seen a single reflection. Whatever it was seemed to be sheltering out of the wind, and sticking its head up every now and then for a look at where the lambs were. Whatever it was, it appeared to be checking to see if any of the mothers had left their babies unattended. I now needed to prove whether it was a predator or not, so I pulled the ‘BestFoxCall’ mouth caller from my pocket and placed it between my teeth.
A quick squeal from it caused all the sheep to stampede across to the far side of the field. This caused the owner of the eye to sit up and look around – Bingo! I now had two eyes looking straight at me – at as they were on the front of its face, it was a predator, and not a miscreant lamb. Whatever they belonged to was still a long way off though, so I needed to get it closer – the area between us was to brightly lit by that garage light for me to risk walking towards it. I therefore tried another more sustained series of squeaks, but there was no sign of the creature in question.
By now both the laser illuminator and the mono were awash, so I switched over to using the mini-thermal. Looking through it can be a bit disheartening though – this is because I’ve fitted dark film over the eyepieces to reduce the amount of glare. Previously, I’d be blinded by the damned thing in no time. The end result is that unless there’s an object with some kind of heat source in view, it looks as though you’re watching a totally black screen. At times like this it’s very easy to get completely disoriented, and mistakenly start looking above the horizon or even down at the ground beyond your feet.
If you’re going to be successful, you have to discipline yourself to keep checking back to a known reference point. Luckily for me, there was a sheep trough that was a degree or so warmer than the surrounding area, so it gave a faint glow. This was enough for me to stay on the right axis, and so I scanned back and forth along the hedgeline to see if I could pick anything up. All of a sudden, there was a huge white thing almost on top of the hedge right in front of me, some 45 yards away. Everything about it shouted ‘Fox!’, but I needed to double-check with the dedicated NV riflescope.
I slowly set the sticks out and slipped the rifle off my shoulder. In doing so, I quietly pulled the covers off the front lens and the laser. What a difference – nice dry optics! And now I was looking face-on at my fox, which had made it halfway down the bank. With the crosshairs sitting steadily between its eyes, I gently squeezed the trigger. There was an immediate ‘smack’, as though I’d shot into a rock. ‘Blimey!’, I though to myself (or words to that effect), ‘That hit something hard’. A quick check with the thermal showed me the fox lying where it had been hit. With my adrenaline coursing well through my body, I slung the rifle back over my shoulder and sploshed over to inspect what turned out to be a small vixen. It had taken the round to the right of its skull, and some of this, together with most of its shoulder and parts of its chest had been replaced by a massive hole. Full marks to the 55gr Sierra Blitzking – this fox didn’t know what had hit it, which is how I like things to go.
Since I wanted to check its stomach contents as well as show it to the farmer, I needed to carry it back with me. I therefore pulled the glove off my right hand – which by now felt as though it had been in a freezer for a couple of hours, and swapped it for a disposable vinyl version. The trudge to the farmhouse was much easier than it had been on the way over, as I no longer needed to remain covert. This meant that I could also use the torch to see where I was going, which helped me navigate around all the pieces of discarded equipment that always seem to gather around farmyards. A quick knock on the door brought the farmer out – as well as his gaggle of barking dogs – or ‘dugs’ as they’re known locally. Fortunately, a fierce shout from him shut them up instantly, and I was able to recount my experiences. To say that he was pleased would be an understatement – not only because of the result, but because I’d responded to him so quickly and in such appalling conditions.
As I drove home I stopped at the first field for another check – but by then a thick mist had arisen in the depths of the valley – and I couldn’t see a thing. Luckily, the thermal doesn’t care about such things, and I was able to satisfy myself that the lambs there were all safe and well. A minute or so later I was back in the warmth of my house – but not before I had slung the fox onto the roof of the log store. Today, having spent all morning dealing with VAT papers, I performed my autopsy. Whilst doing so, I also emptied the contents of its bladder into my fox urine jar for later use as a scent attractant. To be honest, I was unable to conclusively identify anything I found in its guts, although there was an area composed of something that may well have been made up of partly-digested lamb’s tails. Whether I shot the only culprit remains to be seen - watch this space, the story may continue yet...