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Tales from a lifetime of foxing

Join Mike Powell as he explores the evolving world of fox shooting, drawing from a career that spans seven decades

Mike Powell's very first right-and-left with his trusty 12-bore

When I embarked on my fox-shooting career, things were markedly different from today. Initially, very few of us specialised in fox shooting, and those who did were largely motivated by the financial rewards the skins brought. The same was true for rabbits. Rabbiting rights were purchased and, given the vast numbers of rabbits existing in those pre-myxomatosis days, the sale of rabbits and their skins could be very lucrative. Nevertheless, it paled in comparison to the extremely profitable trade in fox skins.

A thorough knowledge of where foxes are travelling is useful

Fast forward to today and the market for fox pelts has vanished, rabbit populations in many areas have plummeted to an all-time low, and one would be hard-pressed to make a living from rabbit and fox skins as I did all those years ago. It’s safe to say that apart from gamekeepers and those protecting livestock from fox predation, the majority of foxes are shot for sport. In fact, foxing has evolved into a distinct branch of shooting sports, with a whole new industry, especially regarding specialised night vision equipment, burgeoning around it.

A well-used bait point and a trail cam will tell you a lot

Old ways, new gear

Having spent years shooting foxes for a living, we acquired specific skills that seem, to some extent, redundant with today’s modern equipment. However, certain aspects of shooting foxes, whether by day or night, can benefit greatly from some old-school wisdom. Fieldcraft is a prime example. Many newcomers to fox shooting lean heavily on modern technology to assist them in shooting foxes, as I do. Yet, one aspect often overlooked today is that understanding the habits of foxes and learning how they operate can significantly enhance your chances of success.

Foxes, as any trail camera user will attest, are creatures of habit. Especially when bait points are used, foxes are likely to turn up night after night around the same time. I’ve had cameras set up in the field adjacent to my house for years and have recognized some of the visitors quite well. Like us, some foxes are better timekeepers than others. One dog fox that visited my bait point for two or three years would arrive around 7.15 pm and return at about 3 am. For those wondering why these foxes were left alone, particularly with a free-range poultry farm only two hundred yards away, the reason is simple: observing their behavior taught me a lot. You learn more from a live fox than a dead one! However, any fox causing trouble at the poultry farm was fair game, and over the years, many foxes have fallen to my rifles there. Interestingly, few of the foxes shot at the poultry farm were regular visitors to my bait points.

fox destruction in hen house

The fox that caused this destruction must be dealt with – and promptly

Understanding fox behaviour

This brings me to an aspect of fox behaviour I’ve been aware of for many years. Some foxes seldom, if ever, cause problems for humans. Yes, all foxes have the potential to be a nuisance, but many are not the ruthless killers some perceive them to be.

For instance, at lambing time, when lambs start getting killed, several foxes are usually seen around the lambing fields. Most of these foxes are after the afterbirth, or the discarded tails once the tail rings have done their job. They also quickly find and devour natural lamb casualties, particularly if adverse weather conditions have occurred. Consequently, they often get blamed for the deaths. Many times, dealing with lamb killings is usually about one rogue individual. Get the right one, and the killings cease.

Understanding fox behavior will give you a solid idea of which fox is likely to be the lamb killer. Foxes are naturally nervous creatures and will approach potential prey extremely cautiously. This is observable when foxes are among sheep at lambing time. The fox that has taken a lamb, however, will return to the flock far more confidently and will practically ignore threats from the ewes. These are the ones that must be removed. The same principle applies to poultry. If birds have been killed, the guilty party will almost always return the next night, heading straight for the same spot without hesitation. This behavior starkly contrasts with that of a newcomer, who will be wary and hesitant. There is no doubt in my mind that if you spend time studying the fox and its habits, you’ll have greater success in removing the troublesome ones than merely heading out on a chance encounter. Additionally, a thorough knowledge of the terrain you’re shooting over will also aid and improve your success rate. As previously mentioned, foxes tend to be creatures of habit and will often follow similar routes to their predecessors. For example, I have removed several hundred foxes from the poultry farm I mentioned earlier over its twenty-year existence. Almost all of these foxes have been shot from my 4×4, parked in the same place year after year. Being just a few hundred yards away would have drastically reduced my results. Locating such a spot on your own land will almost guarantee success.

Mike’s old Pulsar Quantums alongside his Accolade thermal binoculars

Getting the right gear

When discussing the equipment side of fox shooting, some newcomers may be discouraged by the sheer cost of some items. Although today’s high-tech gear is impressive, not all of it is essential. We old-timers shot large numbers of foxes using rudimentary equipment, which, compared to today’s offerings, was almost laughable. Nevertheless, one item has undeniably revolutionised night shooting, particularly where foxes are concerned: the thermal imager. This tool not only allows foxes to be spotted covertly but also enables the user to better understand fox behaviour. This knowledge, combined with a decent rifle or shotgun, is your best weapon for dealing with problem foxes.

Deciding on the type of thermal imager that suits you best will largely depend on your budget and the number of foxes you’re likely to be dealing with. If you’re only going to be shooting a couple of foxes a month on your land, a handheld thermal spotter will suffice. I used a now elderly Pulsar Quantum for years in conjunction with a lamp, shotgun, or rifle to great effect. When digital night vision became as efficient as it is now, I found thermal binoculars, like the Pulsar Accolades I use, were a huge improvement, particularly in combating eye strain and night blindness, especially as I’m out about five nights a week all year round.

Thermal imagers have become essential equipment for the fox controller

Personal observations and tips

The observations and tips I share in this article are purely personal views, gleaned from over seventy years of chasing foxes. A lot of what I learned the hard way all those years ago may now be redundant due to modern technology. However, I’m noticing a trend where it seems essential to have the latest gear to guarantee success when out after a fox. I suspect this might discourage some from entering the world of foxing purely due to cost, which is regrettable.

Today, all forms of shooting equipment have evolved significantly from when I started. A good example is the torch. Modern, lightweight torches, used correctly in conjunction with a thermal imager spotter, provide an affordable way to go out and shoot a fox.


Time spent watching and learning is never wasted

Nowadays, almost all of my fox work involves removing those that are causing or are about to cause problems. This requires slightly different techniques than merely going out and trying to shoot any fox you encounter. Despite a lifetime spent dealing with foxes, I’m still learning and making mistakes. But hopefully, I can share some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years to help increase the success rate of newcomers and even those already well-versed in the ways of the fox.