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Fox-shooting with a young underkeeper

Teach a young lad to shoot foxes in Buckinghamshire? No problem, thought Bruce Potts — except there were hares not foxes, and his pupil was a natural


The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. How often does a planned shooting expedition transform into something different, usually dictated by circumstances and the game itself? I had been invited on a fox-shooting excursion with a 15-year-old underkeeper named Lewis Dimmock on Padbury Hill Farm, in Buckinghamshire, which belongs to Justin Farrington-Smith. It was just before the pheasants and partridges were to go into pens, and at this time of year the fox cubs are out of earths and foxes are more prevalent, so a good evening?s hunt was envisaged. But it didn?t quite go to plan.

Lewis is a young man well beyond his years – a mature, savvy country lad who is the underkeeper to Mick Seaton, a highly respected gamekeeper of some 40 years’ experience and a great mentor. I was there because Lewis knew my passion for firearms and pest control, and wanted to learn how to shoot a rifle safely and accurately. A week prior to this evening he had proved his marksmanship on the range, and so tonight was a chance to test his application of fieldcraft.

Terrain and rifles
This farm was new to me, so I let Lewis take the lead regarding approach and tactics. The half of the farm we were working was low-lying arable land with short halfgrown wheat and maize covercrops just emerging bounded by a slow-moving river. This was ideal, as it set the limit to any foxes? territory and we could concentrate our activities facing one way without having that nagging feeling you get when out shooting that something might sneak up behind you. The wind, too, was in our favour, blowing left to right at 45 degrees, so as long as we worked the fields with the wind on our left cheek, nothing ahead would scent us.

Lewis took my 6mm PPC rifle fitted with the excellent MAE sound moderator and loaded with 65-grain Hornady V-Max bullets, while I touted my old favourite custom 30-47 Lapua stalking rifle with a Predator action that shoots a .308 125-grain ballistic tip at 2,850fps and would allow me a fox or deer cartridge, if necessary. When it comes to shooting foxes, any small calibre .22 centrefire, .17 centrefre or HMR round is going to get the job done, but I always like to do things a bit differently. Lewis had borrowed the 6mm PPC before and could hit a ten-pence piece at 100 yards every shot, so was confident with it.

A pair of hares
It was a hot evening but with a cooling 5mph to 8mph breeze, so we crept down the hedge line at 7.30pm knowing full well that a fox would be holed up in the wheat asleep, or under a hawthorn bush awaiting its night-time prowl. Most youngsters are too keen and walk too fast, or natter constantly, but Lewis was wise beyond his years, silently and purposefully taking every step with caution and pointing out runs and eaten foliage as we walked down the hedgerow.

As we reached a gateway a hare got up from its form, gave us a quick glance and then bolted for cover. Our pulses raced because Mick had instructed Lewis to take a few hares. There is a healthy population and they had been hammering the newly laid sprouting maize, which would be essential as a covercrop later in the season.

“With one hare,” said Lewis, “there will be another.” So, in an instant we had switched from fox mode to hare stalking. We dropped to our knees and crawled slowly to the edge of the covercrop and, sure enough, a lone hare was sunning itself in the evening sunshine. The wind was good, but as we dropped to a prone position to set up the Harris bipod – as the shot was more than 100 yards ? the hare suddenly got up and hopped a few steps into cover.

We tried not to get frustrated, and reflected that when one door closes, another soon opens. But it didn’t! So we continued our way past the covercrop that bordered a small copse so that, hopefully, we would emerge on the other side to find a few sun-worshipping hares or a fox waiting.

Luck was on our side. A hare was nibbling between the long wheat so we cautiously lined up Lewis’s rifle, but again – unspooked this time – the hare hopped into the crop. Some youngsters I have taken out in the past would now be swearing, but Lewis turned to me and said, “right, he’s not gone far, let’s edge down this culvert with the crop to our back and it?s sure to appear further on down as they use the tractor tracks as runs.” I nodded and we crept to a small patch of shadow spreading across the field where we were in shade. A single hare was basking itself just on the edge of cover; I put up the Leica rangefinder and got a figure of 319 yards – too far, so we crept forward on the dry soil until we reached 249 yards.

Suddenly, a hare, probably the first one we had seen, popped out of the wheat only 80 yards in front of us, coming through on the tractor trail. “New target, new target,” I whispered and, in an instant, Lewis re-sighted with the safety off. A quick call of “safe to fire?” and then a muffled “thut” from the MAE suppressor as the 65-grain V-Max instantly dropped the hare on the spot with a perfect shot to the upper thorax.

We congratulated each other, but Lewis’s keen eyes spotted that the first hare at 249 yards was still sitting there. “Load up and take the shot, give it 2in elevation,” I said and, sure enough, a muffled report and the sound of a bullet striking home rang in the air. In the space of a minute, Lewis had shot two good-sized hares, with the second shot at 249 yards.

The witching hour
Now the fields were aware that we were there, so we regrouped on an old disused railway bridge that had been a casualty of Dr Beeching’s cuts in the 1960s, yet now served as the best high seat anyone could ask for. From here we had a view of half the farm with the wind in our faces and a safe shot at any angle. Coupled with this, we could sit and relax a bit with a well-deserved flask of coffee and a biscuit. Lewis reminded me of myself when I was a lad – keen as mustard, yet respectful of the game that we were pursuing. I love the solitary stalking experience, but shooting can also bring like-minded people together.

As the sun dropped below the horizon at 8.55pm we entered that witching hour when the woods wake up as animals feel safe to move from cover and start their evening feed patterns.

Sure enough, at 9pm exactly, a huge dog fox appeared 150 yards to the left from a small copse and surveyed its hunting grounds for the evening, but it did not hang around, and we had no time to line up a shot as it melted into the landscape before us. Fair play to it; we would meet again no doubt, but not that night.

But then, in an instant, I was aware of a small movement to my right and a muntjac buck appeared as if from nowhere. How do deer do that? Years of experience had taught me to assess the beast, check a safe backdrop and adjust trajectory. Well, at 10 yards the Timney trigger on the 30-47 Lapua was light on the fi nger and the bullet was on its way before I could curse the fact that I should have aimed a bit higher for such a close shot. But the muntjac crouched low to the ground and ran into cover.

Though the muntjac had run, the sound of body strike had indicated a hit so we slowly followed up the shot. Again the young eyes of Lewis were the first to spot the blood, bright red and arterial, from the muntjac on the grass and he tracked it to a hollow in the nettles where, after a brief rummage, he re-emerged with the muntjac buck in his hands and a huge smile on his face.

A great evening’s stalk
What started as a search for a fox turned into an excellent evening’s hare and deerstalking. I was the elder statesman, as it were, but you can certainly teach an old dog new tricks when young eyes are coupled with a sense of fieldcraft and respect for your quarry. We had shared a great evening’s sport and it will linger in my memory for a long time. My only concern is that Lewis shoots that 6mm PPC rifle better than I do!