One of the farmers I shoot for keeps a vast flock of sheep. They’re spread out across various pieces of land, some of which he owns, some of which he rents. As the lambing season begins to get into full swing, he not only works his socks off during the day, but gets little sleep at night too. As an illustration, he worked late yesterday, and then went out again at 04:00 this morning to check how things were going. It’s a good thing he did so, as he found that two lambs which he’d expected to be delivered safely had got their legs tangled up, and were both half out of their mothers and very close to death. Fortunately, he got to them in time, and they both survived. Not only does he have to dash to and fro constantly trying to deal with all the complications that lambing brings, but once they’ve arrived, he also has to do his best to keep them alive afterwards.
One of the more obvious problems is that of foxes – some of which will sit within a few feet of a pregnant ewe that already has a lamb, and wait for her to start giving birth. While this is going on, they will wait for the right moment and then run in and snatch the unguarded youngster. At other times, they will simply dive in and bite the tongue out of a lamb that is halfway out of its mum. Nature can be such a cruel beast. I do my best to clear any foxes from the most sensitive areas in the run-up to lambing, but just when you think you’ve got things under control, more Charlies appear – seemingly from nowhere. Apart from the numbers of pheasants leftover from the winter shoots – most of which have by now learned to look after themselves, there’s not a great deal else for foxes to feed on in mid-February. It’s no surprise therefore, that they’re relentlessly drawn to the lure of defenceless lambs, piles of afterbirth, and where tail-ringing has started to take effect, lots of cast-off tails lying around for the taking.
It wasn’t exactly unexpected when I got a call from the farmer in question on Friday, asking if I’d be prepared to visit some of his more far-flung rental grounds. Not only is keeping my landowners sweet a top priority, but I love a specific challenge – especially when it gets me even more ground to shoot over! I asked him how he wanted me to prioritise the different areas, and after a brief discussion, we got the order of importance sorted out. That night I visited a smallholding that lies in a narrow valley near some of my other permissions. I had a dreadful time – not only was the terrain mostly near-vertical, but the mizzle was so thick that I couldn’t see a bloody thing – either with the thermal or the NV. After a couple of hours of wallowing in mud, scaling unnecessarily high barbed wire fences, and trying to avoid being lit up by car headlights, I was beginning to seriously overheat. With the humidity being so high, it meant that every time I tried to look through the NV monocular, it instantly misted over. In the end, I realised that I’d be better off coming back another night, so packed up and went home.
Luckily, the forecast for Saturday evening looked more promising, so I was hoping that I’d have more success then. In due course, I got everything arranged and drove over. When I got there, I was delighted to find that I could actually see everything properly, and having thoroughly worn myself out there the previous night, I now knew the lie of the land. Instead of beating myself to death climbing up and down all the hills again, I parked up at the top and worked around what I hoped would be the more productive areas. No matter what I tried though, I couldn’t find any foxes – either with the thermal or with the caller. Admittedly. the wind wasn’t helping, blowing as it was from the most awkward direction, but I was mystified as to where they could be.
As I made my way back to my truck, I realised that there were some sheep close by on a neighbouring farm. I wondered if they were already lambing, and if so, whether that was where the foxes had gone. I decided to try putting the caller in a location that might tempt anything lurking there out. My first problem was finding a position that wouldn’t leave me lit up if a car drove by on the B road below. That done, I placed the Foxpro out in the field, got my rifle up on the sticks, and set to with a quick burst of vixen squalls to announce to the world that there was a rogue fox around. Looking through the thermal, I could clearly see the white shapes of the sheep some three or four hundred yards away on the other side of the lane. Near them, however, were also two slightly smaller shapes. There was too much foliage in the way to get a positive ID with the NV, but I suspected they could well be foxes. Sure enough – when I started the caller with a vixen mating call, both shapes started running towards the lane.
A few seconds later, a white form appeared in my field, and it was game on. I turned the thermal off and got the NV riflescope and laser operational in moments. Almost immediately, I picked up a bright set of fox eyes coming in at speed, ducking and diving between the rows of maize stubble. Before the eyes got very close to the caller, however, they suddenly changed direction and swung around to get fully downwind. This put the fox at about 90 yards from me – but somewhat frustratingly, it kept disappearing from sight in the deep furrows. At some point, it must have crossed where I’d walked out to position the caller, because something spooked it and it suddenly turned to run away. Just as it did so, it presented itself to me side-on, and I dropped it with a perfect chest shot.
The loud ‘whomp’ in response to the hit was all the confirmation I needed, so I waited to see if the other fox would show. In spite of my trying all sorts of tempting calls though, nothing came in, so I collected the fox and walked back towards the gate. Before I got there, however, I found an extra-deep tractor rut. The first I knew of its existence was when I went smack down into the mud, and milliseconds later my rifle swung off my shoulder and joined me in the mire. I was not best pleased, to put it mildly. It took me some ten minutes with cotton buds to get the laser clean enough to use – luckily, everything else seemed OK, if a bit mud-encrusted.
With the fox carcass stashed in an accessible place, I then spent the next ten minutes standing balanced on top of the gate trying to see into the nearby fields. Although I couldn’t have shot anything there as I didn’t have the necessary permissions, it would have given me an excellent excuse to speak to the relevant farmers. Having convinced myself that there was nothing more to see, I packed up and went home.
Last night (Sunday), I set off again – this time to a series of fields along the side of a steep valley. I took a large pot of super-smelly deer gralloch with me, in the hope that it would help draw any foxes in. One of the first jobs was therefore to spread it out in a position that would leave a suitable scent trail. Luckily, the first field is flat enough to drive in, so rather than carry the heavy load out to my selected spot, I used the Land Rover. That done, I set off to inspect the sheep. I’ve only shot on that land once before, and that was nearly a year ago, so although I knew roughly what was where, I wanted to take a few minutes to reacquaint myself with the terrain. Although the first part of the field is pretty flat, it soon begins to dip, and then it very quickly dives steeply down into the valley below. The first fence sits some fifty yards down the slope, and this is where I began my observation.
Within a few seconds, however, just as I did my first scan around with the NV, I was somewhat taken aback to find there was a fox running in from above and behind me. In a frenzied flurry of sticks and slings, I got the rifle in place and the NV switched on – just as the fox reached the hedge. Another half second and it would have been out of sight, so I made a brief squealing noise with my lips and it stopped for a moment. I put the reticle in place and squeezed off a shot. And hit the bank that stood between us. In the heat of the moment, I hadn’t realised my target was only about twenty five yards from me – at that range I should have aimed high to allow for the fact that the scope sits so far above the barrel. But I didn’t, and as a result cocked it up.
I spent the next half hour looking back and forth with the thermal to make sure I hadn’t winged it, and was somewhat surprised to find that right where the fox was heading there was a ewe with two lambs. I wasn’t expecting any livestock to be there as all the other sheep were in the next field over. Anyway – having checked the area thoroughly – and after giving myself a thorough beating up for missing an otherwise simple shot, I moved on. I was mystified as to where the fox had gone – I knew it hadn’t run up the hill, and there was no sign of it out in the fields below. If it had been, the thermal would have found it, as I could see every bunny for at least six hundred yards. That meant it had to be off to my left somewhere in the hedge.
Presumably, it had been going after the lambs, in which case I’d got there just in time. With that in mind, I went back up onto the flat part of the field and started looking for somewhere to put the caller that would site it upwind of the hedge and light thicket where I suspected the fox had probably gone. There was a big problem though – there was absolutely nothing for me to hide behind. The hill simply dropped away too suddenly, and my only option was to try to position myself behind a slight fold in the ground. With the caller out and the rifle on the sticks, I switched the caller on using a distressed bunny track.
About a minute later, the fox suddenly came running out. Instead of approaching from downwind though – which would have given me plenty of time to get ready, it came from much further up the hedge than I was expecting. As a result, I was completely exposed to it – and worse than that, I had to move the sticks through ninety degrees to get lined up. It was no surprise that the movement gave me away, and before I was ready, the fox had turned and was running off. There was little doubt that it was the same individual. It was the same size – huge, but also when it got about 150 yards away it hesitated for a moment and looked back at me. The instant I switched the laser on though, it jumped up and ran like hell. Clearly, my earlier shot had taught it that the red glow from a laser illuminator was bad news.
I was now even more hacked off – not only had I taught it to be laser-shy, but also that callers were dangerous. From now on, unless I was very careful, this fox was going to be a serious thorn in my side. In desperation, I tried several other distress calls to see if it’d show again, but with no luck. I wasn’t going to give up yet though, so I waited a few minutes, and then blasted out a couple of short sets of fox squalls. After another pause, I started the vixen mating call. My thoughts were that if it was a dog fox, he’d find it hard to resist an unknown female on his patch. Similarly, if it was a vixen I knew that she’d have to be pregnant because of her size – and in all probability, having a rival calling on her territory would enrage her.
While the track was running, I kept scanning with the thermal – but all I could see were bunny-sized shapes. A quick change to the NV, however, showed me that one of the supposed ‘bunnies’ – which was hiding in behind a fencepost, had an improbably bright eye. I swung the rifle round and switched the laser on, but as I did so, the bunny transformed into a fox and jumped up and ran like fury. It got well out into the field on the far side of the fence, then when it was the best part of two hundred yards out it stopped to look back over its shoulder to see what I was doing. In that instant, I sent a Blitzking on its way. There was a gentle thump, and the fox fell over. Result! I left my sticks in place and walked over to collect the caller, before returning to count out the range. At 180 paces, it wasn’t my longest shot off sticks by a very long way – but it was still a very satisfying one. The carcass was that of an incredibly fat vixen. She must have been due to drop her litter in the next few days, and was consequently almost certainly very hungry. There was no doubt – this was a very good fox to have taken out.
I called the farmer with the glad tidings this morning – he was absolutely delighted. That was when he told me about his 04:00 deliveries, to which I responded that I’d had one too. He was a bit confused by this – but was overjoyed when I explained that I had become a grandfather for the first time at about two this morning. Truly, it had been a busy night!