Having snatched lambs, a fox books itself an appointment with a long-range bullet — but would you take the shot, asks Mark Ripley?
Long range foxing early in the morning
From where I sat, I could see the entire lambing field. All had remained calm until I noticed the ewe closest to the cover stand up and stare intently at the bushes. I was already watching the area after I noticed the blackbirds starting to give their ‘pink, pink, pink’ alarm call a couple of minutes earlier. By the reactions of the rabbits, the ewe and the birds, I knew that a predator was on the edge of the cover below me.
As always on these open downland hills, I had my rangefinding binoculars with me and took a range with their built-in laser to the standing ewe — 230 yards.
Looking for lambs
As a couple more ewes stood up nearby and called for their lambs to huddle in close, I knew this had to be the fox I’d been waiting for, the one that had taken two other healthy lambs over the past few days and always from this large field. Suddenly it was there among the ewes, trotting purposefully through the flock, its head turning with each lamb that ducked behind its mother. I desperately hoped it would come toward me but instead it trotted further out across the field.
I ranged the fox at 335 yards and knew that if I moved down the bank towards it, it would either see me or the sheep would panic and run away from me. This would either scare the fox or separate the ewes from their young, leaving them vulnerable. Foxes have an uncanny knack of sitting out of range where they feel comfortable and this one clearly felt safe — but it wasn’t. It was time for some long range foxing.
I adjusted the scope for elevation, checked the wind, levelled the scope, adjusted the small rear bag beneath the butt of the custom-built rifle and leaned into the bipod as I’d done thousands of times at the range. With a squeeze of the trigger I sent a hand-loaded 143-gr 6.5mm bullet on its way and watched it impact squarely in the centre of the fox’s chest, knocking it backwards in a heap. The killing of what proved to be a small mangy dog fox marked an end to the lamb losses, but it hadn’t been the first and it won’t be the last of my long range foxing around here.
Adapt shooting and kit
Every spring, with large flocks of sheep on open hillsides giving birth, the inevitable will happen and the opportunist fox will strike. Once this happens, a fox will quickly catch on to this new, easy, all-you-can-eat buffet until it’s stopped. It’s from situations like this, and on the type of ground I shoot over, that I have adapted my shooting as well as my kit for long range foxing. This means I can take shots like that and beyond. The subject of long-range shooting, particularly of live game, is one that will always be met with mixed opinions. For some it will be a fascinating dark art, while to others it will be quickly frowned upon as ‘cruel potshots’.
In truth, the rifle is a long- range tool designed for that purpose, unlike a shotgun, which is designed for close range. Yet I always find it bemusing why a high bird at the extremes of a shotgun’s range is considered sporting, while anything over 100 yards with a rifle is considered unsporting. A rifle is capable of humane kills many times that when used correctly.
Like the lead on a shotgun’s swing, the trajectory of a rifle bullet also needs to be correctly plotted to connect with a target, which is more about correct data than skill. If you have done your homework correctly, the trajectory of a bullet can be easily and accurately predicted. The biggest variable is the wind. This is where skill comes in and is something that you never master but can only get better at.
Like any type of shooting of live quarry, only you can decide what is realistically likely to result in a humane shot. You should always take shots that are in your own capabilities. A shot at perhaps 300 yards could be a fairly straightforward humane shot on a nice calm day when you have time to prepare. However, one at 70 yards resting on a gate post in a howling gale could result in an injured animal. Only you know what your capabilities are.
Accuracy at longer range
The key to consistently accurate shots at longer ranges is good equipment and ammunition, good shooting technique and practice. It doesn’t take much to shoot accurately with a good set-up at long range — it’s no different to shooting accurately at close range.
I recently took two people out shooting, one an experienced shooter who only shoots within about 200m, the other a young lad who had only shot a few times before. We set up a target at 500m with a 13mph crosswind. I dialled the adjustments into the scope then let each of the two shooters try for the target. With a little prior instruction on the basics of long-range shots, both of them connected with the target on their second shots. Long-range shooting is based on a scientific calculation — rather than merely a wild guess. I’m sure there are those shooters who will “have a go at it” or “just aim a little higher”. But these are the shots that are likely to at best miss or at worst cause injury to an animal.
If you are going to shoot beyond your comfort zone, that’s fine, but do your homework on ballistics and fine-tune your skills on the range before considering shooting anything live. You can amass a good deal of knowledge and skill through research on ballistics, wind reading and shooting technique, as well as finding the best rifles and equipment for the purpose. For hands-on practice and tuition, there are a couple of venues in Wales offering long-range shooting practice days on reactive steel targets, which are extremely fun and informative. This is a great way to find out what your foxing or stalking rifle is really capable of and to see exactly what your capabilities are.
One thing I would suggest to anyone going on these courses is to take plenty of ammunition — 100 rounds can quickly disappear once you get into it. Even if you have no real intention of frequently taking long shots or going long range foxing, it’s always nice to have the experience and the knowledge there, just in case you need it. Shooting at longer ranges also has the advantage of boosting your skills and confidence on closer-range targets. So why not unlock the potential of your rifle by booking a day at the range and improving your shooting skills?