One of the big farms I look after is in the run-up to full-on lambing – there have been a few early arrivals, but the peak of activity is still a week or so away. I only started shooting there at the end of the last season as the result of the foxes killing a lot of lambs. Consequently, I’ve been doing my best to stay on top of them to minimise the risks of it happening again. Last weekend, I whacked two – one of which, at 265 paces, was my longest successful shot off sticks. I knew I still had more to deal with though as I’d heard at least another two shrieking at each other down in some cover near the farm buildings. I tried again in the week, but the conditions were awful, and I ended up on my arse in some deep mud. I could have coped with that, but my rifle got soaked too, and in the end I gave up when the heavens opened and went home to give it a full going over.
Yesterday, I decided to have a prolonged session there, so set off in mid-afternoon with the truck loaded to the gunwales. Not knowing what I was going to find, I took the .17HMR in case I saw any corvids, the Sauer .308 - my stalking rifle in case Charlie showed in daylight, and, of course, my beloved Sauer .22-250 NV rig. I also packed the big thermal imager and a crate of really stinky bait. This was composed of various roe deer bones, four bunnies, and a big heap of pheasant bits - wings, heads, feet and guts. By the time I got to the farm, I can assure you the truck was rather unpleasant inside…
On arriving at the yard, I had various options open to me, but chose to drive down a long track to get to some relatively high ground. This would allow me to make the most of the thermal rig, which is an excellent area observation system. In essence, I set it up on its tripod and then search for my intended prey – with it I can spot a fox at huge distances – probably 800 yards or more if there’s nothing in the way. When I’ve spotted something I want to shoot, I then set off in pursuit.
This was all very well in theory, but the stark reality was that within about five minutes of getting it all unloaded and set up, I began to freeze. Now I’m used to getting cold on my hunting forays, but this was different – my exposed position meant I was being hit by a razor sharp wind that cut straight through several layers of thermals. I knew that I could grin and bear it for a while, but dusk was still some two hours away, and I wanted to still be fit to shoot with the NV. It was obvious that the amount of time I could spend watching the landscape was going to be severely limited, so I spent a few minutes recording some footage of the sheep, and then packed it all away again.
My next task was to set the bait out – a set of disposable gloves helped me fill a carrier bag from the crate without getting covered in any of the stinking goo. I then walked up and down the hedgelines, chucking a tasty morsel here and there until the bag was empty, whereupon I refilled it and repeated the exercise until there was none left. I’d intended to set the caller out along with my home-made fox attractor. This is basically a weasel-toy which sits on the end of a piece of welding wire that has been stuck in the ground. I’d made the damn thing about two years ago, but have never actually got around to trying it out in anger. Before I was able to do so, however, I heard the unmistakable sound of the farmer’s quad bike coming up the hill. Within moments, he and his wife were in the next field tending to their flock, clanging and banging the feed troughs around. It seems I’m fated to never use the attractor…
About half an hour later, they finished their work and moved on - peace finally returned. At that stage, the sun was sitting just above the horizon, casting a beautiful golden glow over the landscape. Every now and then a crow landed in the field, but for some time they stayed far too far out for any chance of a shot. Eventually, however, one settled within range, and I slowly manoeuvred the HMR into position. I couldn’t get a decent rest though, and wasn’t surprised when I fluffed the shot. Still – no matter, I wasn’t there for the birds – they just made for a welcome distraction. Another one came in a bit later, and I missed that one too. I made a mental note that I really should to get around to making myself a window rest.
I had considered driving around while it was light to see if I could spot any foxes on their travels, but the ground was so sodden that there was a real risk that I’d get the truck stuck. This idea abandoned, I made the most of the time by getting stuck into a large chunk of date and banana cake that my Good Lady had recently made for me. As I chomped my way through the tasty treat I enjoyed the large number of brazil nuts that she’d included in the mix. The DAB radio was tuned to Planet Rock, and I had the latest copy of Shooting Times spread out on my lap. Oh well, I mused to myself - life could be worse!
Gradually, the sun sank behind the hills and the light slowly dimmed – as it did so, a glorious red band formed along the western horizon. While this was happening, I got myself ready for darkness. The .308 rounds came out of both magazines and were replaced with ballistic tipped .22-250 Blitzkings. I slipped the chest harness which carries my NV mono on, and temporarily removed my face veil while I got my woolly hat in place. A second pair of gloves went on – albeit after a bit of a struggle. Now I was ready for a quick scout around – in particular, I needed to check whether anything was already at the bait.
A few paces saw me in the gateway which overlooked one of the stretches where I’d laid out the smelly pheasant entrails. As it wasn’t really dark enough to switch the NV on, I used my mini-thermal instead – this hangs around my neck like a small pair of stalking binos. But nothing was doing – with the loss of daylight the cold really came in hard, and it seemed that anything sensible was lying up in shelter.
A short wander saw me back in the original field and looking out over the next one – here there were yet more expectant ewes. As a result of the cold wet air, a freezing mist was now forming in the valley below – although this plays merry hell with the NV, fortunately, the thermal simply ignores it. Scanning around, I could see the white silhouettes formed by the sheep, most of which were stood around grazing. Down by the far hedge though, I spotted another white shape – but this one was running in a manner most uncharacteristic of anything that wears a woolly jacket. Fox. But before I could do anything, it had disappeared.
A minute or two later, I heard a dog bark in the woods. That’s strange, I thought to myself – who’s out there at this time of night? And then the most ungodly shrieking began – that’s when I realised that it had been a fox barking, not a dog. Now I have to say that the sounds it was making were unlike those of any other fox I’ve ever heard – and believe me – I’ve heard a lot. Except that is, for the one I heard on the same farm on my abortive trip earlier in the week. Undoubtedly, it was the same animal. The calls were comprised of a more or less constant wailing, interspersed here and there with shrill yaps. The whole scene was made all the more eerie by the staggered echoes reverberating back and forth in the mist-covered goyle*.
*Devonian for small valley
Realising that the wind direction meant that there was no possibility of me getting anywhere near it, I retraced my steps, hoping that the stinky treats I'd left out would instead bring the fox to me. I did another tour of the furthest bait before carefully making my way back towards the truck. In doing so, I had to scale a steel gate – that was when I discovered just how cold it was. Each time I placed my foot on a rung, it immediately iced up and stuck fast. The low temperatures combined with the wind chill were making this a bitter place to be. Still – better to be there than stuck somewhere on a sofa in front of a bleddy brain-sapping TV…
Some fifty yards or so before I reached my vehicle, I had another quick scan with the thermal – there, some hundred yards in front of me was what looked suspiciously like a fox. In one smooth movement, I had the sticks up and my rifle in place. The NV riflescope confirmed it – there was, indeed, a Charlie making straight for me – and within moments it would be downwind of me. There was no time to waste – luckily the safety catch on a Sauer sits just above the trigger finger, and so I was ready to fire in an instant. The fox, however, was jinking back and forth – I think the Disco’s presence was making it nervous, and I took the opportunity to adjust the focus. The moment it paused, I sent a Blitzking on its way. The crunchy ‘pop’ that resulted sounded like a solid skull hit, and the fox fell on the spot. When I reached the carcass, as I suspected, the round had made a real mess of the large vixen’s head.
Dragging the dead fox back to the truck, I changed the batteries on the thermal – luckily they’re rechargeable, since it eats them, and got ready to use the caller. I carefully assessed the wind direction, the likely approach routes of any foxes, and placed the caller out at 85 paces. Since I’d used it there many times in the past, I didn’t want to play any calls that the foxes I was after may have heard before. I therefore trawled through the menu and picked out a series of tracks based on high-pitched squeaks of one sort or another. With my rifle up on the sticks and my feet in my preferred shooting stance, I started the caller going. A few minutes later – with no sign of any action, I switched to a different track. A couple of times I heard a strange sound to my right, on the other side of my Disco, but couldn’t place it. I thought nothing more of it, and carried on working my way through the sound tracks.
About the forth call I tried was ‘Flying Squirrel Distress’ – it had only been running for about thirty seconds when a fox ran out from the direction of my truck – this was from upwind and thus totally unexpected. I hit the ‘instant kill’ switch on my NV mono (a new innovation I’d recently fitted), and slipped the safety off. Meanwhile, the fox was still running at full speed – as it reached the caller, it went into a classic ‘leap and dive’ manoeuvre, its jaws closing loudly on the caller’s plastic casing – as if this wasn’t enough, it then tried to make off with it. This put me in a quandary – do I shoot the fox and risk blowing my treasured Foxpro apart, or do I let it go? Luckily, the fox was even more confused than me, and it paused sideways on, clearly unsure as to just what it had captured. I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity, and peremptorily shot it. It flipped over and fell - as it did so, for an instant, its eyes glowed fiercely in the light from my laser.
I wasted no time in going out to check that the caller was OK – fortunately, it was – albeit with a couple of pronounced tooth marks! The fox was a large male – before long, I hope to have his skull mounted on a plaque in my office. I dragged him back and chucked him on the bonnet – then draped the vixen over the spare wheel, which is mounted on the rear door. With everything safely accounted for, I began my slow journey back up the track. Not only did I have gates to deal with, but the thick mud and rapidly reforming ice made the going treacherous. I figured it’d be better to take more time and arrive in one piece than rush things! As I did so, I ran back over the series of events as they happened. That's when it clicked - the sound I'd heard earlier was that of the fox crunching its way through some of the roe deer bones I'd chucked in the hedge, but because the Disco was in the way, I hadn't been able to see it!
I made it back to the yard without skidding off into the mire, and then began a round of the nursery fields – but with no foxes to be seen, I called in on the farmer – who was absolutely delighted with my results, and headed off home. This morning, I was unexpectedly asked to collect my step-son from Tiverton bus station - my Good Lady is not well, and was consequently laid up. Halfway there, I suddenly noticed that the bonnet had a huge patch of dried blood across the right hand side. Looking in the rear view mirror, I saw another large patch smeared along the base of the back window. It must have looked like I’d been involved in an early St Valentine’s Day Massacre – which, in a way, I suppose I had been!