The end of another season was fast approaching and spring was just around the corner, when we were hit, in some areas, by severe weather. The forecasters somewhat over dramatically dubbed it ‘The Beast from the East’ when really it was just what used to be known as ‘Winter’! Some remoter places did get it very bad but as is the way of rural folk, they all just got on with it. Incredibly, other less remote places in the UK, some cities for instance, didn’t get it as bad yet were still brought to a halt by just a few inches of snow. ‘Don’t make unnecessary journeys’ we were warned. Meanwhile those of us made of sterner stuff just got on with things as normal.
I’d been up to my neck in work all week and itching to get out in the snow with the dogs. Old habits die hard. I’ve always loved a mooch in the snow. Saturday arrived and whilst the bitter east wind was still present most of the light sprinkling of snow we’d had around here had cleared. We got off lightly. I therefore decided it must now be OK once again to make unnecessary journeys! Off I set with the dogs to check a few dens on a little nearby ‘place’, in the interest of protecting game birds of course. The grey partridge here are all paired up now so any foxes aren’t welcome.
Local knowledge of the ways of our wild animals, gathered over many seasons is a great asset. Whilst none of us can ever claim to know all of the ways of the wild, the bits we have learnt through our time in the field can often prove useful and save much footwork. I know many foxy places that are pretty much guaranteed in spring for traditional breeding dens. Another place I know with its earths on well drained, sandy ground is always a favourite in prolonged wet weather. Today’s place can in some years have a breeding den but it is marked in my memory bank because it usually only holds in extreme cold weather. In such conditions, when paying a visit here in the past, I’ve always been rewarded. Today was to be no exception.
I had Hazel and Bela both running free and young Piper held securely on a lead as she was right in season and the land has some public access via a footpath. There is sometimes a slight chance of bumping into a dog walker here. A couple of days earlier, by my house, she’d gone running after another dog for a spot of cavorting, favouring the calls of canine courtship over my recalls! I wasn’t risking that again but as there wasn’t much of our hunting season left I didn’t want to leave her in the kennel. She wouldn’t learn anything there. The few earths on here are all in a small wooded spot near to the boundary. I set off in the direction of them marvelling at how Hazel and Bela remembered them despite both only having been here twice before. The last time being over a year ago. It was Piper’s first visit and I had no doubt next time she’ll remember it too as she pulled me along on her lead.
The first earth we came to comprised of one hole and runs to about three feet deep. I know this as I once dug it, about twelve years back, with my old bitch Sage. It was in similar bleak conditions that day. It appeared promising, to my eye at least. It was all cleaned out and looked well used. The dogs knew differently and passed over it without so much as a glance. They stopped at another earth about 25 yards further on and Hazel the lurcher was having a good sniff. Bela got herself in the mouth of the main entrance, the other couple of holes looking not so well used, but then she moved off with her nose to the ground. I let young Piper, who was showing an interest off the lead. Whilst she has bushed quite a few with the others she is not yet entered but she was keen to have a look. She slowly crept inside and disappeared from view. She must have been able to turn around as she emerged from the same entrance less than a minute later, head first. She then tried to follow the same scent Bela had meandered off on. It lead in the direction of the next earth.
This one had been dug in the past by someone and not backfilled. Sadly a common occurrence around here. Despite this it looked like it was still seeing some use and also had a bit of scent on it. The dogs were all sniffing about the different holes and around an adjacent ivy covered fallen tree. I said nothing and just watched them noting their body language. Once satisfied no-one was at home they moved on. Young Piper, still off the lead, came up to me for a pat and I scooped her up under my arm as we moved on. It was lucky I did so. Bela was now at the next earth and even from afar I knew straight away we were in business. Her whole demeanour had changed. She was in the mouth of what looked a well-trodden earth. Her little tail was wagging furiously like that of a clockwork dog! Hazel was trying to push her nose in but Bela wasn’t having any of it. She gave a single backward glance at me and I could see that look in her eyes, then she was gone in a flash, into the cold ground just as I arrived at the scene.
Hazel, ears cocked and wild eyed, was bouncing about like a lunatic between the two entrances which were about ten yards apart. Piper was also going ballistic and struggling to get out of my arms. If I’d have been more organised and had both terriers on leads I’ve no doubt young Piper would have entered there and then if given the chance. Every muscle in her little body felt like it was charged with electricity! Too late now for her as Bela was in and was immediately baying away. I tied Piper to a nearby tree, got a couple of nets out of my bag of tricks and quickly managed to net both holes. Hazel, who was way too excited immediately messed one of the nets up and got her leg tangled in it. I had to quickly reset it and get a hold of her to keep her back which she wasn’t happy about. Piper was screaming away and despite the chilly wind I was feeling rather hot and bothered. There was a big old holly tree nearby and I sat myself down under it with a still struggling Piper now under one arm and Hazel restrained by the other. I had a good view of both entrances from here and was able to quieten Piper down a little. I was also out of sight of anyone on the nearby footpath with the holly being evergreen and overhanging. The wind was in my favour too, blowing from the earth towards me. I rested my back against the trunk of the tree, relaxed (well, I tried to), noted the time on my watch and waited, savouring the moment. Both dogs could clearly hear Bela working as they were cocking their ears and moving their heads. Thankfully they’d both quietened down a bit. I have a lot of days like I described in my last article (‘Recent Foxy Encounters’, EDRD no. 307) where I find foxes above ground but nothing below. It’s nice, on the rare occasions, when it goes like today and the terrier gets the chance to do her proper work. I sat and I savoured. Man and his working dogs in the field controlling a predator in a traditional way.
About fifteen minutes had passed. I was reaching into my coat pocket to put my phone onto silent mode as it had been beeping away. In the very second that I moved my arm from around Hazel and relaxed my grip on Piper, as if by magic, the fox bolted. It was perfectly pursed up in the net and bouncing around. It was the sight of a ferreted rabbit in a purse net many years ago that first got me hooked on hunting. I have to say that a fox bolted into a net takes some beating too! Perhaps if I’d witnessed that all those years ago rather than the rabbit I may have followed the path of terrier man rather than ferreter? Who knows? It’s certainly an exciting sight.
I bounded over and I confess a slight mêlée almost ensued before I quickly got a grip on the situation! Luckily Bela was still to ground and not part of this potential mêlée, which helped though she was grunting away now very close to the surface. I humanely despatched the fox and extracted it from the net. Hazel immediately lost all interest and young Piper claimed it as hers! Bela meanwhile was still grunting away below ground. I got my locator out but before I could switch it on I looked up the hole that the fox bolted from. I spotted her inside trying to squeeze out. It was a narrow tunnel. Far narrower than the one she’d entered. She was only an arm’s length away and a helping hand soon eased her out for a well-earned worry of her quarry. She was looking very pleased with herself.
I checked another couple of earths without any luck so then walked back to the car happy with the result. The dogs were happy and the landowner was too. Field knowledge of when to visit had paid off. With the adrenaline of the hunt subsiding I was aware of the cold wind biting into me again. The forecasters were predicting more severe weather. Already my mind was plotting another potential place to check tomorrow….