Thirty years ago lamping was not as popular as it is now. If you wanted to control your fox population in spring, or catch-up with a litter of cubs in a piece of woodland or patch of cover in late summer or early autumn, choices were limited. You could snare (still a good way to catch up with them), or hold a fox drive.
On many shooting estates the first five or six weekends after the season finished were taken up with fox or vermin drives, with each morning taking in a different part of the estate. Not only did this help control the foxes, but it was also a bit of a social occasion as well, with the beaters, farmers and neighbouring keepers meeting up for a chat, staying for a few hours either beating or standing, possibly shooting the odd fox and then heading home for lunch.
Sometimes you can?t snare your patch because of concerns about public access, an increase in the number of badgers or deer, or you simply don?t have the time. If you can?t lamp the ground because it?s unsafe to shoot for whatever reason, or you wish to catch up with a lamp-shy fox, then fox drives are just the thing.
When I first moved to my present job, every time I went out lamping I?d see two lamp-shy foxes, which posed quite a problem. I tried different coloured filters, wet nights, going out on foot, you name it, but the moment the beam got anywhere near them, they were off. I picked up the first fox on an organised drive, the second when a local retired keeper called and said he?d just seen one cross the road and enter a little wood not far from the house. Neither had many teeth, both had avoided my wires for several months, and both were picked up on little drives.
Small drive tactics
How you carry out drives depends not only on personal preference but also on the ground. In smaller patches of cover a simple tap through by one or two people can usually get a fox moving in the right direction. I worked in Shropshire on the YTS scheme and my old headkeeper Roy used to get his son and me to walk little shelter-belts and dingles to him while he waited at the other end with a .22 Hornet and shot anything that came out. That he managed to shoot moving foxes with a rifle was down to several factors: the slow pace at which we drove the covers (so the foxes trotted out), his knowing the ground intimately, his being able to take an educated guess at the direction any foxes would take… and a lot of practice.
A couple of times this year we?ve found litters in small coverts near our partridge ground and decided to have a little tap through to see if the dog and vixen were laid-up near the earth. When we do this, I usually creep round the front of the wood then step inside as quietly as I can and sit or stand next to a decent run, or make sure I?m covering the corner where they usually break out. I find being inside the wood better than being outside as the fox is still creeping forward and not making a run for it. The first time we did this the dog came first and I shot him at about 15 yards; the vixen jumped up right beside my assistant and went to break out across the field a little in front of me before being knocked over as well.
The second time, no foxes came forward and none had been seen so we ran a terrier through the earth to see if the cubs were still there. The vixen was to ground, but I think she?d popped in when she heard us coming ? she bolted and we shot her. We also managed to get the cubs but there was no sign of the dog.
Both of these places were unsafe to lamp because there were houses and a road nearby, but we managed to pick both lots up in a couple of hours.
A larger operation
If we?re driving larger areas it?s different. For a start, we need more beaters, with guns if possible, and certainly we need experienced ones who know the job and aren?t going to take risky shots at anything running back through the line. Secondly, and fairly obviously, we need more Guns. The best chaps I?ve come across are old boys who?ve cut their teeth shooting rabbits; it?s second nature to them to find the right spot and they know not to make a noise, or smoke, and they rarely miss.
On our drives we only shoot foxes but I know some keepers are fine with their Guns shooting other vermin as well. If a magpie flies out, or a squirrel runs across a ride, they?re happy for them to be shot and swear it makes no difference to the drive.
I think big woods need a lot of noise for a couple of reasons: first, it?ll deter any foxes from staying put and letting the beaters pass over them so they can then creep back. Second, it helps to stop them being driven back through the beating line if they spot a standing Gun or hear a shot up front.
We fire a couple of shots to signal the start of the drive and give the all-clear once we?ve finished. My friend Norman who keepered a large woodland shoot locally always reckoned the first shot had the fox sitting up and the second set it moving. He held fox drives all spring because he felt most of his foxes never left the wood; they had everything to hand so they didn?t need to. Lamping around the edges never accounted for many foxes, but his drives always did, which I think proves the point. It was also interesting that some foxes were shot as soon as the beaters started and others waited until the end of the drive before moving, but that?s foxes for you ? they all behave differently.
It?s amazing how many people shoot at foxes out of range, with guns that aren?t going to kill them. Small shot in light game loads simply won?t do the job; large shot in heavy loads will kill them outright if they?re close enough and strike the right place. I like 3 or 4 shot in Magnum loads, big pellets but still with plenty of pattern.
Fox and vermin drives, whether big and organised or small and impromptu are simply another way of keeping on top of predators. They often work when other methods don?t or can?t be used, and they can be social and fun as well. There?s still nothing that gets my heart racing like the sight of a fox trotting towards me.