Following on from a request for more info about how I use my Foxpro callers, here is an account of Saturday's foxing session:
Earlier this year, I was introduced to a chap who had recently taken on the role of keeper at a 5,500 acre estate on the south-western fringes of Exmoor. The previous incumbent had let things slip badly, and there had been no shoot for a year. Consequently, the foxes had got rather out of control. Ian – the new keeper, did an excellent job of getting to grips with the situation, taking some really good numbers on innumerable nights out lamping with an assistant. The problem with such methods, of course, is that while you can cull all the inexperienced animals easily enough, you’re left with wise ones that are inevitably lamp-shy. And they, of course, are the ones that do most of the killing. After a long chat on the ‘phone, I was asked to go and show him what I could do with my NV and thermal imaging equipment.
The first time I went there, we drove around with me standing on the back of the pick-up in the manner traditional of lampers. We didn’t see much as he and his team had shot pretty well everything that was stupid enough to show itself. I did manage to knock down an old dog fox, however - I spotted it as we pulled up at the base of a steep rabbit-infested hill, but the moment we stopped it ran over the brow and out of sight. It had obviously worked out that the Ford Ranger signalled danger, so we left it for a few minutes and then I started making rabbit distress noises with the ‘BestFoxCall’ mouth caller. About thirty seconds later, the fox returned, and I carefully tracked it through the NV as it made its way down between the gorse bushes. At one point it paused to sniff the air – as it did so, I sent a round on its way, smacking the fox down heavily. I was particularly pleased, as it was a very difficult shot – a long way above us on a steep incline, and the best part of 200 yards out.
In spite of our success, Ian realised that his way is more suited to lampers, so the second time I went over we did it my way. We drove to specific trouble spots and then walked in to place the caller in my tried and tested manner. We managed to bring four to the rifle that night, and from there on in Ian and I worked to optimise our respective skills. He would carry on lamping, and whenever he spotted a lamp-shy animal, he’d tell me where it was. I’d then go in a few nights later, find it, and shoot it. This has been really successful – although I started out going over on my own, in recent months my mate Paul has joined me. Between us, we did really well – until Saturday we had a 100% success rate, taking every single animal we’d been tasked with shooting.
I’d had a bad week though, and when I was told of my latest mission I was worried that I was going to tarnish my unblemished record. I’d had the dreaded man-flu for at least ten days, and as a result was well below par. I’d had no choice but to cry off from several of Ian’s invites to go over as I simply wasn’t well enough. I couldn’t put it off any longer though – a dog fox was taking four to five partridges a night on a part of the estate I’d never been to before, and he was desperate to stop the slaughter. The animal in question had been seen when it was driven from some cover the day before, on what was the estate’s first shoot day of the new season, but unfortunately, no-one had been close enough to take it down.
Paul and I drove over that evening with about an hour of daylight remaining. I was keen to get there early as I was hoping to get some photos for my new foxing book before it got dark. We were a little delayed though – on the way over we saw a fox at the side of one of the narrow lanes we had to drive down. It was nuzzling around at a discarded burger box when we came around the corner, but it dived into the hedge as soon as it saw us. I swore, saying that I could really do with some photos of live foxes. There was a small lay-by about a hundred yards further on, however, so I pulled over and got my camera out. More or less as soon as the car behind us had passed, the fox jumped out into the road again. Unfortunately, the sun was shining straight into my face, so although I got about twenty photos of it, the quality of the images wasn’t really up to scratch. All the same, it was good to snap a series of a fox going about its business.
We’d arranged to meet up with Ian at a specific time, so I was pleased that we were there to within the minute – I do like to be punctual. We’d chosen the big hill where I’d shot the first dog fox as our meeting point, however, unknown to Paul and I, he was having some problems with his pheasants. Consequently, he was at least half an hour late. I wasn’t at all worried though, as it gave me the opportunity to take some more photos. Meanwhile, Paul used the time to scan around the area with both the binos and the thermal, in case any foxes were about.
Eventually, Ian arrived, apologising profusely for being late. We wasted little time in following him over to the problem area. This took us down a narrow winding lane – after a mile or so of climbs and drops, with both of us trying to avoid running over young partridges, he pulled over and opened a gate into a steep pasture. We drove up the grassy hill and past a cover crop to the top of the hill where he had a partridge pen. Ian then drove in a loop and parked up. Jumping out of his pickup, he told us that this was where the killings were taking place. He pointed down below to some woodland hidden in a deep goyle (steep-sided valley) – apparently, that was where the fox had been flushed from the day before. I looked around in dismay – the ground dived off steeply in every direction, and as a result there was almost nowhere that you could see more than fifty yards. Down in the dips the trees were so thickly-packed and lined with gorse that there wasn’t a cat in hell’s chance of seeing anything moving.
Walking over the brow of the hill, I hoped that I’d find somewhere more suitable for the task, but it was even worse - I found myself looking straight at a large collection of farm buildings. There was no way that I’d be able to shoot in that direction. To make matters much worse, the moon was full and almost up to the top of the trees - the sky was no help to us though – it was completely clear with not a cloud in sight. Scratching my head, I told the keeper that he’d really handed us a tough one. Apologising again, he said he knew it was a difficult ask, but he had no other way of dealing with the problem. They’re not allowed to use traps on the estate, so one way or another, it had to be sorted with a rifle. I told him to leave us to it, and that we’d do our best. I also said that if we failed, the best thing would be to bait the one bit of ground that we could see from our position. Having agreed that, he wished us luck and drove off.
Paul counted out 110 paces and placed the Foxpro caller in our agreed location – this was in front of the one area where we could see right down to the cover. When he got back – having carefully walked in a loop to avoid leaving a scent trail near the most likely fox approach route, he began scanning with the thermal. Not long after – and well before it was anywhere near properly dark, he excitedly told me that something had just come up the rise and then turned and run away. He thought it was a fox, but I wasn’t convinced – it is only too easy to mistake a hare for a fox when using a thermal. I then commented that if it had been a fox, it’d probably go around on the wind to try and come up behind us, so I suggested that he go and stake out that side of the hill. He thought it a good idea, so set himself up in the cover of the trees behind me.
While he was sorting himself out, I started the caller on a young rat distress to see if there really was a fox on the prowl. Within a minute or so, just as I was scanning the area in front of me and without any warning, two large white shapes suddenly came flying past me just a few yards away. With my heart trying to leap out of my throat, I caught up with them in the viewer – panic over – it was just two hares coming in to see what the screaming was all about. Calming my pulse rate down, I quartered the area again. One of the hares settled almost right in front of me, its body heat glaring strongly in the thermal. Beyond that, about a hundred yards out, I could see a faint white heat signature – that was nothing to worry about, however, as it was just the caller. The warmer parts of the trees in the wood stood out, as did the many fenceposts, but the most obvious objects were the sheep in a field some half a mile or so off. As the air temperature fell, so the image gradually improved.
There was no sign of foxes though – I tried several different distress calls, running each for only a few seconds – it was quite clear that if Charlie did come in, I’d only have a second or two’s warning, and I didn’t want him to reach the caller and scent human before I got the chance of a shot. By now the partridges were coming in thick and fast to roost around the pen. Then, as the light finally faded away, the owls started hooting – possibly antagonised by the sounds of the screaming rat calls. As the prey calls weren’t working, I decided to try a few fox squalls instead. These are usually used by foxes as a contact communication. They basically say ‘I’m over here’, and are generally heard just as darkness falls, so the timing was perfect.
When I got no response, I started to wonder what else I could do. Moving my position was out of the question – if I went a couple of feet in any direction, I’d be lit up by the moon as though I was on stage. I’d tried everything I could think of to provoke a reaction from the fox, but without a result. Was this going to be a mission too far? Then, all of a sudden, the peace of the night air was shattered by a fox calling. It was impossible to tell exactly where it was, but there was no doubt that it was somewhere in the woods before us, right where we were expecting it to be. Although it was a massive relief that my methods were starting to pay dividends, I now needed to get it somewhere that I could shoot it.
I immediately triggered a few more squalls, and for some fifteen minutes or so, I had the fox answering me – each time it called, I replied. But the bloody thing still wouldn’t show itself. At one point, Paul, who had turned to face the woods as soon as he heard the calls, spotted something fox-like with the thermal down the hill and off to the left of the caller. He was expecting me to fire at any moment, but didn’t realise that as I was lower down the hill, I couldn’t see it. When it cleared off, he came over and asked me why I didn’t shoot it. ‘Shoot what?’, I replied, a little confused. We then had a heated discussion in muted whispers as to whether he’d seen a fox or a hare. He was 99% convinced it was a fox – I accepted that he was probably right, so stuck at it. By then the moon was lighting up the entire landscape – with the exception of the area right under the trees where we were standing. From previous experience, I know that few foxes will willingly come out into bright moonlight, so as the zone around the caller was now fully lit up, I was somewhat downhearted at our chances.
I kept at it though – switching from screaming rat to distressed rabbit and back to fox squalls and then mating calls. I used every ounce of my foxing knowledge to tempt the reluctant creature out. After a couple of hours of frustration, I suddenly saw a fox through the thermal – it had run along the edge of the woods under the cover of some big oak trees where it stopped briefly to look up at the caller. I already had the rifle up on the tripod sticks, and my position meant that I had a good view of it under the branches. It was some two hundred yards out, and was clearly about to move off again. In that moment, I dropped the thermal (it was on a strap around my neck), and in one smooth movement switched the NV riflescope and laser illuminator on. There was no time for thinking about the shot – I simply placed the reticle on the fox’s chest and squeezed the trigger. The fox just fell over. When you get a solid hit, you normally get a characteristic thump of some description, but on this occasion there was absolutely no sound at all. By then the fox was past caring though - it was lying on its side as though asleep. Paul and I both watched it for at least half a minute, neither of us really believing that we’d actually done it.
Since it was getting late and we’d not seen any other sign of foxes, we decided to call it a night – I wanted to take some high-resolution photos for my book, so we drove down and examined the carcass. It was as we’d been told by Ian – a large dog fox in very good condition. There was no sign at all of a bullet hole, so the photos came out well – the last thing I wanted was all the gore that sometimes makes it look as though the fox concerned has trodden on a landmine. When we flipped it over though, there was absolutely no doubting where the exit wound was. There was a large hole in the side of its chest – the fox had clearly hit the ground without knowing anything about it – which is just how I like it. While I was fussing about with the camera, Paul started poking at some mud in the ground a couple of feet behind where our quarry had fallen – a few seconds later he sat back grinning - ‘There you go’, he said, holding out his hand ‘There’s your bullet’. Sure enough – he’d uncovered the remains of the 55 grain Nosler ballistic-tip, albeit in an extremely bent and curled up state.
We chucked the fox on the bonnet and drove back up the hill, leaving it next to the gate into the cover crop, where Ian would be able to find it in the morning. I sent him a text explaining where it was, and the next day I got a very grateful response. I was both delighted and surprised that we’d managed to find and deal with this problem animal in one session. Even better is that Paul and I are justifiably still able to claim our 100% success rate!