Pattern breaking is a term used to describe the way you can break out of an established routine. For some it refers to amending destructive personal behaviours, whereas for others it might be more to do with finding ways to avoid mathematical repetitions or even preventing resonant frequencies in engineering structures. In this case, however, it is all to do with my hunting down a particular problem animal – what became known as The Vanishing Fox.
Bruce – a local keeper, had been having his precious pheasants killed around one of his release pens, and was understandably anxious that I find and deal with the vulpine problem. Every time I’d been through the area though, The Vanishing Fox had seen me and taken off before I could get a rifle on it. The difficulty from my perspective was that the area in question lies on the side of a very steep hill, and that neither of the two nearby roads provides a suitable approach. Both are extremely quiet back lanes, so there’s little trouble from passing cars, but while one runs immediately below the ground its steepness means that you can’t see more than a few yards from the only place where you can stop. If you feel like scaling the hill, any foxes are long gone before you can get anywhere near them.
The other road lies a fair way off, but at least you can get the truck out of the way, and the approach along the top of the hill is relatively flat. It’s still a no goer though, as the wind almost always blows your scent straight over the brow and down to where any foxes would be lurking. On the rare occasions when the wind is in your favour, there always seems to be something else to ruin your efforts. If, for instance, there’s anything like a full moon it’s a complete waste of time as there’s no cover whatsoever and you stand out like a sore thumb. There other factor guaranteed to cock everything up is when the field is full of sheep – which is most of the time. Since the pasture is both vast and drops away just above the pheasants, the only shelter for them is right where you need to approach. Any chance of being at all covert is blown the moment you get near as they always panic and charge off en masse.
Since the estate is quite large and is made up of hilly ground interspersed with countless complicated goyles (narrow valleys), there is normally too much for us to do to spend too much time focusing on any single area. The difficult terrain and thick cover that abounds makes it exceptionally difficult to find and deal with the local foxes, so we have to work very hard to get any results. We have been very successful in setting up ambush sessions, where we place a caller out in a field and then play either distress or vulpine calls, shooting any foxes that come in to investigate. The problem with this, however, is that no matter how careful you are, every now and again there will be one or two that you can’t see, and if they learn to associate the sounds with danger, you get call-shy foxes which run the other way as soon as they hear anything unusual.
Another method we use a lot is driving along the narrow lanes, and stopping in places where we can get a decent vista. Once we’ve spotted a fox – often from the roof observation platform of my Land Rover, we go after it and hopefully put a halt to its predations with a bullet. The system generally works very well, with very few Charlies escaping our clutches.
One animal, however, had the jump on us. I saw it loads of times, but it had the uncanny ability to simply vanish, even when it was in the middle of an open field. I’d see it, climb down from the roof to get my rifle, and by the time I was back up there it’d have disappeared. I lost track of how many times it managed this. One time it was huddled down in a ditch within a few feet of some sheep. While I stood there and watched it with the NV, it didn’t seem to be at all aware of my presence, but in spite of my being super-quiet in fetching the rifle, it did me no good whatsoever as it was gone when I regained my perch. Unfortunately, I climb up and down so often that carrying the rifle with me every time isn’t an option – both for safety reasons and practical ones.
Another time I was parked up in the same place and standing on the roof observation platform scanning the landscape with the thermal. I’d just shot two foxes on the other side of the valley and they were both laid out on the load tray in the back of the truck. While I was up there I heard a slight noise down below me - pointing the thermal at the ground I suddenly saw a fox run out from the other side of the hedge, just a few feet away. It had almost certainly gone up to the open doors of the truck to sniff my dead cargo and run off before I realised what was going on – how lucky could that animal be!
I normally throw the any dead foxes across the bonnet so that I can deliver them to the keeper’s house, but if I’ve got to drive out on the main road, I generally put them in the back to avoid unnecessary grief from anyone who sees me. One time a lady drove past as we were packing up and she spotted the three dead foxes laid out on the front of the truck. Sadly she added two and two together and made five - as soon as she got home she called the estate owner and told him we were poaching deer. This caused all manner of trouble with the poor chap being close to calling the police in. Fortunately, I’d taken photos of the foxes and as the keeper had the carcasses in his yard, the sorry mess was eventually sorted out, and I received an apology for being caught up in the silly misunderstanding.
I usually go foxing with my shooting partner, Paul, but he plays skittles in the local farmers’ league on Monday nights, so I then head out on my own. It makes sense for me to use these occasions to go after problem foxes where the stealth and patience of a single shooter is particularly important. Since The Vanishing Fox had eluded me more times than I could recall, I decided to make it the focus of that evening’s efforts. It was a foul night – with all the misery that the weather on a mid-October night could throw at me. For a start it’d been raining on and off all day – that meant the air was thick with moisture, and to make matters worse there was a thick, persistent mizzle. Not only did this reduce the performance of both the NV and the thermal imager, but it heralded that a fog was sure to set in. Coupled with this the thermometer was pretty low and there was a bitter wind blowing. Just the job!
I set off in the truck and wended my way through the various hamlets that lie between my house and the estate. As I got close I stopped and inspected the view from a few gateways, but I found that the fields beyond were all filled with soaking wet sheep and the occasional bunny – but no foxes. Choosing a pull-off that was well below the brow of the hill I was going to operate over, I parked the truck and got myself ready. The caller stayed behind for two reasons. Firstly, because I knew that there was no way that my target animal was going to do anything but run from it, and secondly, because I’d got a lot of distance to cover and I wanted to travel light.
This meant I had my thermal spotter around my neck, my NV spotter on my chest harness, Vanguard tripod shooting sticks on my right hand, and my .204R Kimber Montana over my shoulder. I was wearing Le Chameau wellies over Sealskinz socks, with NATO DPM combat trousers and fleeces (two of them). My hands were covered with Sealskinz gloves and my face with a veil – pulled over a tightly fitted woolly hit. This set up has proved itself time and time again, with foxes being unable to see us unless we do something stupid.
On the face of it the wind was against me, but it in the big picture it actually worked in my favour, for the plan was to execute a large loop and come in to where I suspected the fox would be from the other side. Since it was used to the sound of the truck and our usual antics with the caller, it had got our routine pretty well worked out. Time to break the pattern by doing something it wasn’t expecting…
My first task was to make it up the lane without frightening any locals driving the other way. Clad from head to toe in combat gear and with a rifle over my shoulder, there was the risk that I’d have been a bit of a shock to the system for any fragile townie venturing fearfully out into the sticks. Further to this, I still had quite a lot of the hill to ascend, and I had to do it quietly. The overcast skies and total lack of a moon meant that down between the tall hedges it was darker than hell. Unseen brambles dangled out into the roadway and grabbed at my arms as I passed. Small stones crunched under my feet. Fortunately, the wind rustling in the leaves masked the sound of my progress, and I eventually made it to the first gateway without incident.
By then I was thoroughly warmed up, so I was able to take my time scanning the landscape with the thermal. All I could see, however, were yet more sheep – looking a bit closer though, I suddenly spotted a white shape only about thirty yards out. It was laid out on the ground, and was a definite candidate for a fox. I wouldn’t be able to confirm what it was with the NV spotter, for if it was my intended quarry, it’d take off as soon as I turned the illuminator on. ‘It couldn’t be this easy’, I thought to myself, as I quietly slid the rifle off my shoulder and up onto the sticks. No, it couldn’t – for the moment I switched the rifle’s NV I realised I was looking at a large hare. Letting my pulse rate settle down, I had another good look around, but as there was nothing to see, I moved on.
Almost opposite the gate I’d been looking over is another one which leads off to the area where the pheasants were being killed. The entrance itself is halfway up a short, steep slope that is out of sight of the field, so the chances of being seen by any foxes while opening it are slim. On the downside, it’s made of metal and although it’s hung relatively well, the catch always makes a slight clang, no matter how careful you are. Since there were a lot of sheep nearby, I was concerned that I might spook them and start the flock running about the place bleating and generally ruining the peace and quiet. My luck held though, and I got through with the minimum of fuss.
As I mentioned before, the pasture itself is relatively level – on the left it runs along the top of a large wood, while the right is bordered by a wire fence, with yet more sheep on the other side. It is very long though, with the region at the far end being hidden by a slight rise. For the aforementioned reasons I chose to skirt the trees and head away from the sheep until I was clear of them. The going was OK as the grass had been nibbled down, with only the occasional dashel (thistle) to trip over. Every twenty yards or so I stopped to check the landscape for potential quarry. Sometimes I’d use the thermal, while other times I’d use the NV – they show different things, so by alternating them you can get a good feel for what’s about.
I listened to the various sounds of the night as I navigated my way between the ewes and the woods. About a mile away I could hear the dogs in the hound kennels kicking off every now and then. Somewhere down in the valley a machine was running – I assumed it was something to do with the milking parlour on the big farm. Every now and then an owl would screech to its neighbours, but other than that all was quiet. There was no sign of fox calls, but something had been upsetting the beagles, so it was possible that a Charlie was somewhere near them as there’s nothing like his scent to set them off. Still – that area was off my list for the night, so I concentrated on matters in hand.
As I got close to the middle of the field my eye line rose above the rise and with the thermal imager I could see there was a large gathering of animals at the far end. Sure enough, there was another flock of sheep gathered immediately above the pheasants, so I wouldn’t be able to check their pens as I passed. The sheep would normally stand out clearly in the viewer, but the thick clouds of mizzle reduced them to a series of small white splodges – their well insulated fleeces meant their bodies were almost invisible. As a result, the heads and limbs all looked completely disconnected, which not only makes them look odd, but it also makes it hard to spot a fox when it’s amongst them. This is where an NV spotter comes into its own – a quick sweep reveals the eyes of anything that’s looking in your direction. Those of a sheep are a long way apart and quite dull, whereas those of a fox tend to be very bright and close together, so they are usually easy to differentiate.
Off to the right of the flock was a wooden gate across a public footpath – at least this one opens easily – indeed, as I approached it, it was knocking gently back and forth in the wind. Ahead of me the hill dropped away towards a friend’s farm – looking ‘out over’ I could see there were three bunnies off to my left and another two down on the hillside to my right. Still no foxes though. I wasn’t expecting to see many as we keep a relatively tight rein on the estate. You can never tell when newcomers are going to come wandering through the area though, especially at this time of year (mid-October) when the youngsters start looking for new territories. Likewise, there’s no way of knowing when one of the so-called ‘animal welfare charities’ is going to illegally dump yet another load of disease infested town foxes.
Making my way along the brow I kept checking as new areas came into view, but as I’d still not seen anything when I reached the far hedge, I turned right and back headed towards the road. This would eventually lead me to my target zone – the fields where I’d seen The Vanishing Fox. First, I had to scale a wooden gate and cross a grassy meadow. Keeping as covert as possible, I kept scanning until I got to the road. While I was making my way there I heard the eerie cry of a fox, somewhere off in the distance. It repeated its calls several times, but I didn’t hear a reply. My best guess would be that it was somewhere over near the hounds, so it was probably what had set them off barking earlier on.
Having seen nothing, my next task was to find the gate that leads into the field on the right – since I normally drive this section of the lane and there’s nowhere to stop, I wasn’t exactly sure where it was. After a couple of minutes at a good pace I eventually discovered it tucked in amongst a load of brambles. Since the lane there is very tight, the farmer no longer uses it to access the field, which is why it had become so overgrown.
Carefully avoiding the aggressive vegetation, I quietly leaned forward and scanned the area, but all I could see were yet more sheep. Unbelievably, even though the farmer has every reason to encourage fox shooters, he is a staunch foxhounds man, and hates anyone shooting the creatures he likes to hunt, even though they kill his lambs. He doesn’t own the land, however, and as a tenant, he has to do what the estate owner tells him – which is to allow us access. To keep the peace I do my very best to avoid being seen. Since we don’t use lamps – I don’t even possess one, this isn’t usually a problem so long as we use our heads. What with the buckhounds, staghounds, foxhounds, game shoots, deerstalkers, and so on, the politics of shooting in the countryside can be extremely complicated, even without the complexities of the antis being involved. Fortunately, we have very little to do with townies and other yoghurt-weaving loonies out here.
Carefully scaling the gate, I climbed down into the field – I had to be on full alert as I was now right in the middle of The Vanishing Fox’s home ground. There were ditches on all four sides of the field, and as my adversary had previous form for hiding in such places, I was extra careful to make sure they were all clear. Every few yards I stopped and checked again – I didn’t want to go to all this effort and then screw it up by being lazy. At the lower side of the field there were two gates – one was a bit too close to the farmhouse for comfort, so I went for the other one.
This was half hidden by brambles, but it led to a large field where I’d seen my intended quarry many times. Creeping up to it, I did my best to weave in and out of the thorny branches that surrounded it, but one on the left somehow managed to wrap itself around me. I thought I’d successfully got rid of it, but as I raised the thermal it tugged at my right arm. Unfortunately, at that very moment a fox – The Vanishing Fox, presented itself in the viewer, right in front of me and less than a hundred yards out. It was a large animal, almost certainly that of a male, so it should have been an easy shot, but when I tried getting the rifle onto the sticks, the bramble kept fighting against me and it was impossible.
By the time I’d got free of the unwanted thorns, Monsieur Le Reynard had more or less disappeared over a brow. I had little time to waste if I was going to keep him in sight though, so I desperately struggled to cross the gate without any further grappling with the undergrowth. Luckily, I got across it quietly – the hedge now ran off to my right, and about a hundred yards further on it joined the road at right angles. I therefore ducked into its cover in order that my silhouette against the sky didn’t give me away. Checking with the thermal, I could see that my intended victim had turned and was now making his way back towards me. This gave me a chance to catch up with him, but I had to get in a suitable position before he got downwind of me.
Ducking down below the hedge in the places where it was low, I quickly gained about fifty yards. From there I could see that I had about five seconds before the fox crossed my scent line. I’d put the rifle up on the sticks as an automatic reflex, so I switched the NV on, hit the Nitemaster IR torch’s power switch and slipped the safety catch off as one practised set of operations. It all happened so quickly that the fox was caught completely unawares – the moment the IR lit it up it stopped on the spot with the guilty look of a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. My shocked target immediately tensed himself to jump backwards, but I was in the zone, and a bullet knocked him off his feet before he could move.
Counting the distance out, I found that the range was only about eighty yards, while the animal itself was confirmed to be a large dog fox. He had long pheasant-killing teeth and a good body weight, so he was a good specimen to be rid of from the keeper’s point of view. As Hannibal used to say in The A Team ‘I love it when a plan comes together’. It had taken me nearly two hours to stalk around to approach and kill this fox, but achieving exactly what I set out to do was very satisfying indeed. I dropped the carcass off at Bruce’s house and although I saw another fox in a field on the way off the estate, it was too far out and too hidden by the fog for a shot. Still – I know it’s there now, so one night I’ll set off after it…