Foxing in the Snow

When there are foxes on the hill, they need to be dealt with, and fast. As I’ve found out through bitter experience that once they get accustomed to the place, bad things happen! Fortunately, the south side of the estate was bordered by a mighty river, on the other side of which was a fellow keeper that did his bit of vermin control. I was also gifted the permission over miles of land to the east, where between myself and a few others, we kept fox numbers to a reasonable level. As a result, most, but not all of the incoming tsunami of young foxes came in from the North and West. Travelling over the bleak moors and forests where they were cubbed the previous spring. Our ground must have been as enticing as an overfilled wheelie bin, in comparison to the neighbouring fells which, without any help from human wildlife managers, supported little game. Peewits, curlew, skylarks, pipits and dunlin nested on our hills in abundance through the summer, adding to the resident red and black grouse. It doesn’t take a fox long, if not brought to book swiftly, to locate these vulnerable ground birds and have their wicked way with them.

Regardless of the weather conditions, I would be out with the lamp. We would take the rifle out too, for back-up in case Charles didn’t play ball coming in to the squeak. But only on the estate grounds, as we considered a fox that got away from a lurcher off the estate, free to go… until we meet again!

I remember the first winter outings with our sapling lurcher. He had already shown his worth in his job of pest control on the estate by the time the snows hit the fells. The incessant winds blew the snow into deep drifts against the rocks and dykes. The moon was shining, and was enhanced by a wispy thin procession of clouds racing across the sky. The distant hills illuminated in the silver moonlight with the woods, walls, hedges and dykes showing as shadowy shapes against the white backdrop. Jonny and I followed a wall that cut a straight line up across the fell. We flashed the lamp occasionally but only briefly, just to check for the unmistakable bright eye-shine of the fox.

We spotted a fox out in the heather, off went the lamp and we jumped the wall landing in the drift on the other side, which provided plenty of concealment! The lamp was kept off as we squeaked to entice our vulpine friend in for a closer look. Invariably, the dog would spot the approaching fox before we did, and I remember on this occasion, even though the fox approached to within 30 yards, I still hadn’t seen it and was getting a few elbows to the rib cage from Jonny, who was well aware of the foxes close proximity! Taking the hint from friend and dog alike, I let go of the rope, which sluiced through the dogs collar as he sped away, sending white powdery snow flying behind him. On this occasion, once we knew he was behind his fox, we turned on the lamp, as it proved difficult tracking the action with the naked eye between the dips and hollows in the heathery ground.

On a few favourable moonlit nights we completed the entire task without using the lamp at all, leaving the outcome of the chase entirely to the skill of the lurcher, with his superior eyesight. The lurcher covers deep snow better than the fox, not a sporting advantage, but definitely a trump card in the on-going battle of pest control on the estate.

One night we got a good result as we managed to bag a particular fox that was lamp shy. He had evaded the rifle on a few previous nights when we tried in vain to get him in range, and also avoided many a well-placed snare. Each time the light hit him he would trot away and sit in the distance, before disappearing around a steep and rocky crag end.

Gingerly, we crept across the snows of the fell top on what was an unusually flat calm night. The snow was dry and squeaked underfoot as we trod the uneven ground, finally making it to a rocky outcrop overlooking a large expanse of short mixed aged heather, at the far side of which was this foxes favoured crag. Without turning on the lamp, we sat and squeaked. I brought along an old fleece jacket and placed it over the thin coated dog. After about quarter of an hour of squeaking, changing sitting positions more times than I care to remember, simply to share the numbing coldness around different body parts, the lurcher, who was until this point, calmly looking around, went tense. I heard his heart start pounding, like a war drum, as he stared into the dappled white land. Apart from taking shallow breaths he was as motionless as a cast iron statue, his muscles hard and ready for action.

He was set away, and soon merged into the eerie moonscape and out of sight, but not out of earshot, as on this night we would have heard even a mouse fart at 50 yards, so peering pointlessly into the gloom, we listened to thudding of the lurcher’s feet as he sped across the fell.
“He’s going left” I said, “No, he’s going right” says Jonny. “Bugger it, I’m lighting it up” and as the light force illuminated the scene, we observed the lurcher taking the lamp-shy fox after it misjudged a drain and took a tumble. A mistake that cost him his life, but undoubtedly saved the lives of many of our game birds, among other wildlife.

It wasn’t all plain sailing though, on occasion the fox made it over a brow, jumped a wall, or got into a wood or other cover, and escape would seem a certainty, right? Not with these dogs, as we actively encouraged them to hunt on, and on these snowy nights the odds were raised as the scent holds better, and the vision is improved a great deal. Many times a lurcher caught out of sight of the beam, and a good few were put to ground often some distance from where we last saw the departing course vanishing from the lamp. Some of our lurchers would bay strongly at a mark, likely out of frustration, but it was said by a few that they could actually be calling us in? Whatever the reason for it, it was a godsend, and saved us hours of searching. Then one of us would head for a terrier from the kennels, which could have been a few miles by foot and ATV. The things we did for pest control!

Out checking some likely holes one day, we had so far drawn a blank and the day was cracking on, when the lurcher, scouting ahead, marked in at a spot just above an old coal mine working. The crevices between the huge rocks around the collapsed mine entrance were a definite no go, a few terriers over the years have failed to emerge from the depths of that place. But this was some way up the bank, and we had been successful there once before, with a challenging, stony 8 foot dig. The foxes tracks were clearly visible in the snow around the vicinity of the entrances. We released a good little rough bitch, who entered and settled at a shallower depth of just 4 feet. As darkness started to spread across the evening sky, temperatures fell dramatically, we all wanted to be in the dig, just to keep the blood flowing. As we struggled with some huge rocks, the terrier, who was mute up to now and must have been in grips with her fox, suddenly started up baying, and to the echo of a few muttered curses from the chaps stood on the edge of the dig, she moved off, still baying away frantically. Within seconds, out flew Charlie, with a chilled lurcher right on his brush. It was over within a matter of thirty yards, but thank God this fox hadn’t taken the lurcher further, as we soon found out that as the night had drawn in, the snows that had partially melted during the day, had frozen on the surface, forming a glass like crust, that had cut the lower legs of the thin-skinned lurcher. I should have known better, lesson learnt. Thankfully the cuts were very minor, and healed well with some cream from my vet.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to cancel many days or nights pest control due to these conditions, and for the most part, I thoroughly enjoy myself when the snow falls. There’s one thing about Britain, and that’s that we have the regular challenge of the variable and often harsh weather systems, which make hunting that bit more interesting.

Anyway, that’s it from me, you know where I’ll be… if there’s snow on the ground, I’m out with the hounds!

Take care all, and good hunting.