One of the places I shoot on regularly is owned by a chap called Jim, and covers a large area of ground in the foothills between Exeter and Exmoor. Although there are some fields of crops such as wheat and maize, most of it is given over to livestock in the form of sheep and cows. Adjoining this farm are several others that I also have permission to shoot over, one of which keeps free-range organic chickens. Together, they comprise a considerable area – far more than one could cover in one session. Over the years, foxes have caused all manner of problems, from killing lambs and poultry to causing spontaneous abortions in cows due to the parasite infection, neospora. Consequently, my fox control activities are very popular, and I go to great lengths to ensure a smooth and harmonious relationship with the various landowners.
Unfortunately, it seems that others can’t be bothered to go to the effort of asking for permission, as Jim discovered the other evening when he spotted unknown lamps in one of his fields. He drove down in his Land Rover with the lights turned off – then, when he got to the field in question, he found there was no sign of those responsible. Not wanting to be thwarted, he did a slow lap of the field, and after a while spotted two blokes with guns lying in the grass under a hedge. He collared them (the wisdom of doing this on his own will be left for a future discussion) and gave them a serious bollocking. They claimed they thought they were still on land that belonged to the neighbour, to which Jim asked why, in that case, were they hiding? He then said that not only were they expressly forbidden from coming back onto his land, but if they did so, they risked being accidentally shot by someone using a high powered rifle (me).
At the time, I knew nothing about all this as I was laid up with man-flu. I felt better the next day, but then my illness got worse, and I went down with what appears to have been norovirus. Two nights of being sick left me in a bit of a state. Still, by Wednesday evening, I was feeling a little stronger and was desperate to get out. My mate, Paul was also anxious to go shooting, so we went over to Jim’s to see what was about. I made it clear that we wouldn’t be travelling very far on foot as I was still too weak to do much. When we arrived, Jim welcomed us in to his kitchen, and regaled us with the story of the poachers. As it happens, I’ve seen lights at that end of the farm before, but not taken much notice as I assumed they were on next door’s land. From now on I’ll be keeping a closer eye on the place – luckily, there’s good mobile ‘phone reception at the top of the hills, so if I have any doubts, I’ll be able to call Jim easily enough.
On the upside, Jim said that while he was prowling about after the unwanted visitors, he’d seen a large fox. Now this animal is almost certainly one that I’ve been after for at least a year. The area it was living in is very difficult to approach due to the awkward terrain. It’s quite a way from the farmhouse, and the only sensible access route means driving along the peripheral track and then back down the valley. The problem with this is that the wind nearly always blows in the same direction, so getting close to the fox without being compromised was very difficult. I’ve successfully taken nearly all the other foxes in the area though, so hearing that this one was still about whetted my appetite, and it became the primary target of the evening’s session. We left Jim to it, and began the slow drive along the track – the first section is a pain as there are so many gates to open and close. After that there are only a couple more, however, because the rain had come down so hard over the previous week, a lot of the soil had been washed away leaving massive potholes. What was left had turned into dangerously slippery mud, so we had to go carefully.
The truck itself wasn’t smelling its best, for I had a tray of smelly pheasant bits in the back – these resulted from some of the roadkill birds that litter the lanes at this time of year. When we got to the large field I’d selected as our night’s killing zone, I retrieved the bait and passed it to Paul – he was then able to distribute it out of the window as we drove slowly up to the other end. Once there, we positioned the caller about a hundred paces out, and set ourselves up just below a large mound, and thus off the skyline. The wind was blowing from our left to our right – straight towards the area where I suspected the target fox to be living.
I then had to think very carefully about which call to use – if I was right and this was the same animal I’d been after for all that time, I would have to avoid using any sounds that it might have heard before. I slowly perused the track listing, and eventually settled on one labelled ‘distressed hen’. As I’d not used it before, I wasn’t sure what it’d be like, but on switching it on, I found it produced a few clucks with the odd disturbed chicken noises in between. It also had quite a long time lag between each batch of calls – it sounded quite eerie in the dark of night, and I was hopeful that it would attract my intended victim’s attention. As we waited, the moon began to rise above the far horizon – for once I wasn’t too worried about this, as there were very thick rain clouds above us, and I knew it would lose out to them.
After some ten minutes – while I was scanning with the mini-thermal imager, I spotted something moving very fast at the other end of the next field. It was fox-shaped, and heading up towards the hedge. I only had the briefest of glimpses of it though, as there was too much vegetation in the way to get a decent view. I whispered to Paul that I’d seen a possible Charlie, and we both focused on the area where I’d seen it. As we watched, a white shape appeared through the hedge and into the field we were in. Something wasn’t quite right though, for after a minute or so of observing it, we both realised that this was probably a smaller creature – most likely a rabbit. It was so far away though – some four hundred yards, and almost completely hidden by long grass, that we couldn’t be sure.
While we were trying to work out where the fox had gone, the cattle in the field where I’d seen it suddenly started charging about all over the place. ‘Hmmm’, thought I – ‘That’s suspicious - something's disturbed them’. Downwind of the caller there was a gate that connected with where the cattle were, so I kept watching the area around it. Some five minutes later, I suddenly saw that a white shape had appeared. I was on the rifle – which was already up on the sticks, in a flash. With the NV scope and laser switched on, I scanned along the hedgeline until I found myself staring at a fox that was sitting back on its haunches, looking out over the field. Presumably, the call had brought it in, and the smell of the pheasant bait was helping to keep it interested. I didn’t waste any time in thinking about such things though, for I was slipping the safety off and getting a good point of aim sorted. The fox was the best part of two hundred yards out, and as a result was quite a small target. I steadied my feet, paused my breathing and sent a round on its way. It was immediately obvious that the .22-250 Nosler BT had hit the fox very hard indeed, for it was thrown over by the impact, landing on its back motionless.
After satisfying ourselves that there were no other foxes about, Paul went over the hill to check the ground there, while I drove down and took a series of photos with my Nikon DSLR for my upcoming book. The fox proved to be a large male – he was, however, very poorly fed and had a patch of fur missing on his right flank. Whether this was from an injury or possibly due to early mange, I don’t yet know. A fox of his size should have been in better condition, so there was clearly something wrong with him. I took a number of close-ups of the wound, and will hopefully get an expert opinion on what caused it at some stage. My thoughts that he’d been hit hard were proven when I checked the carcass – there was absolutely no sign of an exit wound, so all the energy from the round had been dissipated within the chest cavity. No wonder he’d gone down so convincingly.
I threw the fox onto the bonnet of the Disco and drove up to see how Paul had go on. Unfortunately, he’d not seen anything, so we agreed to call it a night. We got most of the way back to the farm before I realised that the fox had disappeared – the track was so rough that it’d been thrown off without either of us noticing. Since there was a risk that it was carrying mange, I wasn’t prepared to leave it where it was, so we found a gateway and turned the truck around. Bumping and bouncing our way back from whence we’d come, we eventually found it lying in the mud. We put it back on the bonnet and set off again, this time making it to the yard without losing it for a second time. While Paul checked the nearby paddocks, I called in to see Jim. He was not only delighted to hear that I’d successfully caught up with the errant fox, but that as it was clearly not well, I’d got it before its ailment got any worse. A sick fox is a dangerous thing to have around a farm, as in its desperation to eat, it will risk attacking livestock that it wouldn’t normally contemplate going near. I told him that he would need to keep his dogs away from the carcass, and that it should be burned or buried to ensure there was no chance of the mange – if that is what it was, being spread further.
We I drove back in a good mood – it’s always much more satisfying to go after a known fox that’s proved hard to get in the past than to just bring one in that you’ve never seen before. I dropped Paul off and then a couple of minutes later, I was home. It took me sometime to unload all the gear and lock it away, and by then I was knackered, so was pleased to finally settle into my bed. Sadly, I was not to get the much-needed good night’s rest. About two hours later, the sickness hit me again, and I ran to the bathroom – barely getting there before chucking the contents of my guts all over the place. I have never vomited so much in my life. By the morning – having been forced to run to the toilet twice more, I can say with total honesty that I felt thoroughly miserable. Luckily, the weather has been dreadful for the two days since then, so I haven’t minded being kept indoors quite as much as I would have if it’d been nice out there. Still – the forecast for tomorrow is good, so I’m doing my best to ensure that I’ll be fit enough for another session!