The black plastic bin liner rustled occasionally as it brushed against the odd piece of vegetation. My mission was to spread its contents – the hide, bones and trimmings from a roe carcass, out as fox bait before the sun went down. It was a new shoot for me, and I wanted to make a good impression on the farmer. The ground there is typical of the area to the north of Exeter – absolutely beautiful countryside made up of low-lying hills interspersed with numerous small brooks and streams. Where the plough has been in action the archetypal red Devon soil can be seen – this makes for superb agricultural land, with endless tracts of rich pastures and meadows running for miles in every direction. The higher bits tend to drain well, but some of the lower areas can stay boggy for most of the year. The field I was in ran along the side of what is normally a fast-flowing stream – right now, however, the lack of rain means it is little more than a trickle.
The mix of lush grass, light woodland and small areas of cover combine with the relatively mild climate to provide an ideal habitat for all manner of wildlife, including bunnies, roe deer, badgers, crows, rooks, ravens, and so on. Wherever there is such a proclivity of prey, of course, there are also foxes – lots of them. I had been called in by the farmer as he needed someone to deal with them – although this year’s lambs are now big enough to be out of immediate danger, if one were to get tangled in a fence or separated from its mother, it could be in serious trouble.
I felt honoured to receive the invite as many others had asked to shoot on the land, but had all been turned away since the farmer doesn’t like the idea of ‘strangers’ on his property. The introduction had come about because I’ve been shooting for one of his neighbours for several years, and this gave him the confidence to allow me in. I had a meeting in Exeter yesterday afternoon, so arranged to meet up on my way in so that we could discuss such things as the positions of the boundaries, and so on. He was a little reserved at first, but it was good to see just how much he relaxed when I listed off the names of some of the other farmers I look after, many of whom are very highly respected in the local farming community. By the time I left, I felt as though I’d had a red carpet laid out for me, and was especially pleased to find that I had not just scored one farm, but two, as he rents a second property not far up the road!
I returned with the sun lying just above the horizon – there was about half an hour of daylight left, and the western reaches ranged from orange to crimson which contrasted well against the vivid blue sky elsewhere. My intent was to get the bait out before dark, and then to leave it for an hour or so before returning. The wind was in the north west, and so was blowing diagonally down and across the valley. The moon was clearly going to be a problem though – the clear skies meant that there’d be no cloud cover whatsoever, and as it was also very high in the sky, there’d be very little chance of being able to hide in the shadows. A follow-on issue was that as many foxes are very reluctant to show themselves when there is a lot of moonlight, I knew I’d have my work cut out.
I’d driven my Land Rover down the long farm track and hidden it in a deep fold of ground between a hedge and a stream. From there I’d walked to the far end of the field, and then ripped the bin liner open – having first put on a disposable vinyl glove. I stopped every few paces and pulled out a handful of suitably smelly bones – these were then thrown around to leave a wide trail of what I hoped would be considered choice morsels by any nearby foxes. This reached across the field almost as far as the upper hedge, and given the wind direction would have broadcast the scent to most of the valley beyond. I had my Sauer .308 over my shoulder in case anything of interest showed itself, but as it happened it wasn’t needed. Had I left it behind, Sod’s Law would undoubtedly have had it that a group of roe deer would have walked out in front of me!
By the time I’d looped back to the truck the light was starting to go, so I unlocked my gun safe and switched rifles. My Leica rangefinding binos were swapped for the NV monocular, but the mini-thermal stayed hanging around my neck. The magazines were emptied of .308 ammo, and a series of .22-250 rounds went in their place.
Once all that was sorted out, I went and sat on an old farm trailer and enjoyed the last few minutes before darkness set in properly. All around me were the noises of a late evening in springtime. I leant back and tried to see how many different sounds I could pick out. First and foremost were the noisy ewes in the next field, which were calling constantly to their lambs. These replied with tiny bleats that sounded both pathetic and endearing at the same time. Between them and the rooks at the top of the hill – which were making a real racket, it was hard to distinguish anything else. I could also hear several crows shouting their angry protests at whatever it was that had upset them. I knew it was probably just domestic politics as there were several magpies a couple of fields away, and since they hadn’t made any alarm calls, it was unlikely that any foxes were about yet. As the light fell and the world slowly went dimpsy, a thrush loudly staked out its territorial claim from the top of a tall ash tree. A little further away a barn owl produced the occasional shriek from somewhere over the brow of the hill. Closer to hand, a number of cock pheasants were trying to entice the numerous hens to come and roost on their respective patches. Rounding up the show, there were innumerable small songbirds chattering away the last moments of the day. Where else but rural Devon could a man possibly want to live?
When the last vestiges of blue sky finally turned to grey, I put an end to my reverie and slowly began making my way up the hill. At this stage it was still a bit too early for the NV, so I scanned with the thermal as I went. When the sun has been out all manner of unlikely objects give out heat signatures – mostly, these are things like tree roots and areas of baked soil. One initially unrecognisable white shape gradually morphed itself into a hen pheasant as it appeared from behind a dip in the ground.
Exploring an unknown farm in the dark can be rather challenging at times – especially when you don’t know where the gates are, or how robust they’re going to be when you finally find them. Whenever I found a gap in the hedge I scanned around for potential quarry, but apart from a frightened bunny that ran into some bushes a few feet in front of me, I saw nothing. Now that the birds had gone to roost it had become deathly quiet, and as a result every blade of grass I trod on made what seemed to be an unbearably loud crunching sound. Even though the moon was still only half-full, it was incredibly bright – casting short but sharp shadows. Having scanned several fields without any sign of Charlie, I decided that the only thing for it would be to try the Foxpro caller. I needed to find the right location though, as the grass was already long enough in many places to hide a cautious predator.
In the end, I found a relatively flat area in a freshly-sown field. Hiding myself in the shadows of a small oak tree, I tried the distressed rabbit call. There were some woods about two hundred yards ahead of me, a hedge to my right, and the field dived away to my left some fifty or so yards beyond the caller. As this was the downwind direction, it was where I was expecting any approaching foxes to come from. I was therefore more than a little surprised when one suddenly ran out from the hedgeline on my right – they’re not meant to come from upwind! I let the thermal go without attempting to switch it off, and got the NV riflescope in action. The fox ran right in to the caller, but jumped back in surprise when it discovered that the helpless creature was, in fact, made from hard plastic and not from tasty flesh. It paused for a moment to reconsider and then went back in again for a second look. Before it got there, however, it was hit hard by a .22-250 bullet, and down it went.
I left the caller running for a few minutes, but when it became clear that nothing else was going to come in, I muted it and went to inspect the carcass. Sometimes it can hard to see where a bullet has struck a fox, but in this instance there was no uncertainty - the ballistic-tip round had made a real mess. It proved to be a medium-sized male with a scattering of pale spots across its upper flanks. Since the farmer said he’d collect any foxes I’d shot, I left it where it was and continued on my way. It was now about an hour and a half since I’d left the bait out, so I figured it would make sense to go back see if anything was there.
As I worked back across the field I could see that about half a mile further up the valley someone was out lamping. Every now and then a beam of light flicked around and a shot or two rang out. Since they were actually on the far side of the hill, I was happy that my safety (and theirs) wasn’t going to be an issue. I was also conscious that their activities could well help to push any foxes towards me, so I forgot about them and returned my attention to what lay ahead. I was soon in a position to use the NV mono to look down to where the bait had been laid out. Almost immediately, I got the unmistakable glint of fox eyes reflecting back from my laser. Thanks to the moon I was now somewhat exposed, and I was reasonably sure the animal in question could see me. I had no choice though – all I could do was carry on to the far side of the field so that I could circle around and approach from downwind. It took me about fifteen minutes to do so, but when I checked the area over, there was nothing to be seen. I wasn’t too worried though – if the fox had found the bait, it may well have been ferrying pieces of it back and forth to various safe hiding places, and so could easily return at any moment.
Before it could do so, I carefully snuck out and placed the caller in a likely spot. Back by the hedge I got into a small pool of shadow under an ash tree and set the sticks up. After pondering the matter over, I decided to try the ‘rat duet’ call – this is a sequence of two increasingly distressed rodent calls, and the shrill squeaks seem to carry well on the night air. The main issue I had to deal with was that there was a lot of dead ground behind the caller, and so I was going to get very little warning of any foxes running in. I normally scan with the mono or the thermal and then switch over to the rifle – but on this occasion it wasn’t an option – I was going to have to use the riflescope from start to finish. Before I set the caller going, I had another thorough scan with the thermal for safety reasons. Satisfied that all was clear, that I had good back stops everywhere, and that there were no human access routes except for where I was standing, I pressed the button.
Within a minute of the rat sounds starting, a fox ran in from downwind and briefly stopped to stare at the caller. Before it had a chance to decide what to do, it went down to an engine-room shot. A quick swivel around with the riflescope picked up another set of eyes running up from the stream – they disappeared as they got to the dead ground behind the caller though, so I had to gamble that they’d go around on the wind. Sure enough, a few seconds later the fox reappeared some thirty yards further out from the one I’d just shot. It also fell where it stood. Both turned out to be males, so in honour of the 1970’s rock band of the same name, I’ve called this account ‘Three Dog Night’. I’ve just spoken to the farmer’s wife, and she said they’re very pleased indeed. I suspect, however, that unless there’s some decent cloud cover I’ll really struggle with the moon over the next week. I think that gives me a good excuse to go and do some daylight roe stalking on the other farm. Happy days!