With some 9,000 foxes having fallen to his .233, Colin Beverly and his team are a legend on Home Counties farms
“Vermin, if allowed to get unduly plentiful, will no doubt clear almost every living thing from an estate.” Written by a gamekeeper in 1898, these words are as true today as they were then.
Back in the Victorian era, a gamekeeper could supplement his meagre salary of about £40 a year with “vermin money” – a payment of threepence for every weasel, rat, crow, or other pests killed and nailed to his vermin pole.
Given the salary, it was a fair bounty (more than 50 pence in today’s money). Indeed, there were tales of unscrupulous keepers collecting mummified vermin to be presented year after year. Other dodgy keepers would borrow a neighbouring keeper’s vermin to claim an unearned bonus. Wise landowners stood by the bonfire and watched the vermin burn, having settled with their keepers.
The practice of dishing out vermin money died out as landowners railed at paying keepers for something they should already be doing. Today’s keepers (many of whom work part time or unpaid) need no such incentives. They know full well the value of keeping on top of vermin – especially foxes. Just one in or around a release pen can wreak carnage.
In addition to the keeper’s trapping and snaring, most shoots will have one or two members or local helpers who wield firearms and who’ll be happy to help to cull foxes.
I recently met one such enthusiast in a pub in Buckinghamshire. We were discussing game books. Like many keen shots, I keep a scrupulous record of every day in the field. My drinking companion, Colin Beverly, does not shoot game but, my goodness, he’s keen on lamping. Like me, he keeps his own game book of foxes shot.
Colin, always known as Bev, has faithfully recorded 8,892 foxes shot since he started lamping in 1991. During his busiest years he helped to protect stock and game on 124 farms and shoots. His records show where each fox was shot, along with the date, time and whether it was a dog fox or a vixen.
Bev has eased off in recent years. He and his regular lamping team (Andy Collins and Ray Dunbarton) now cover only 30 farms. However, Bev’s enthusiasm is far from dimmed. In 2009 his records show that he was out lamping 304 nights of the year – often from 10pm to about 2am. In addition to foxes, he culls 3,000 to 4,000 rabbits a year (440 during one memorable night).
His preferred tool for knocking over a fox is a Sako .223 with a custom barrel made by Border Barrels plus a Zeiss scope. “I’ve had that rifle for years and years,” Bev told me. “I’ve also got a .204 but, with the .223, I just know what it’s doing – I take it out of the cabinet and it performs. I load my own ammunition, and have worked out a good load. The accuracy of the stainless steel Border Barrel is absolutely superb – it was fitted after I wore out the standard barrel.”
Bev meticulously records hit rates. His records show, for example, that in one year he shot 223 foxes and missed only three. Overall, his current hit rate is about 98 per cent. Other shooters are less meticulous. Over the past two decades, Bev has watched the growing popularity of lamping with some misgivings. “Some people just see lamping as a sport,” he says. “They will go out for a couple of hours, take a shot at several foxes and miss them all but still reckon they’ve had a good time. The trouble is they just make those foxes lamp-shy and overall a lot cannier. You miss a fox and it’ll remember that for the rest of its life, and as soon as it sees a lamp it’s gone. It makes our job a lot more difficult.”
And for Bev and his lamp-man, culling foxes is a job, albeit an unpaid one. “I don’t treat this as sport – it’s really unpaid work, a service. For local shoots we are helping preserve their game stock. Our poultry and sheep farmers certainly don’t see lamping as a sport. They want to see foxes on the floor. It’s not nice when you see lambs and ewes killed by foxes.”
Costs add up
Following his vocation, Bev covers thousands of miles a year. An audit for one year’s lamping showed fuel costing £1,608 and ammunition at £586, plus miscellaneous costs of £384 – a total of £2578. “We sold some rabbits, which returned £1,820. Overall it cost me about £6 per fox shot. Some shoots used to pay for fox control, but not now. They can always get someone who will do it for nothing. However I still treat it as a job and do it to best of my ability,” said Bev.
He’s anticipating being busy once the fields dry up. This winter’s constant rain left most of the farms too sodden for his truck – meaning many lamp-free nights. “We do it all off the truck and we don’t want to carve up our farmers’ fields.”
Bev’s ideal shot is taken at about 40 yards to ensure a clean hit and kill. However, he has killed foxes at over 400 yards – a reminder of the need for a clear field of fire plus a solid ground backstop when using centre-fire rifles.
Over the years, Bev and his team have learnt a few tricks for dealing with lamp-shy foxes. “You’ve got to know where he’s going to be and when. If you go in when they have just arrived, it disturbs them. They need to settle. It’s very satisfying when you do lamp one that’s a bit jumpy. You can lamp a field and there is nothing, but return five minutes later and there are three in the field. Timing is crucial. I cover a string of farms in north Buckinghamshire. I can treble the bag by reversing the order I visit them in.”
He also stressed the fact that good lamping is a team effort. The lamp man can help to assess range, knows when to hold the lamp off the fox and when to take the best shot. Bev’s advice to the novice lamping team is this: “Be as safe as you can, get as good as you can get and then do a little bit better. Try that little bit harder and you will be surprised at what you can achieve.”
Oh, and I might have mentioned Bev’s enthusiasm for culling vermin. His day job is running a successful pest-control business. At the time of writing, he was being kept very busy by plagues of rats displaced from lower-lying ground by this winter’s floods.