There are a number of potential dangers when going after your quarry at night. Dr Patrick Hook investigates
One issue with shooting is often overlooked and that is safety. Hunting at night has its own risks, so let us look at what they might be.
Shooting from a truck doesn’t pose the same hazards as those faced by people who venture out on foot. The reasons for doing so vary with the terrain – I agree that there is little point in trudging across endless flatlands if a good vehicle does the job better. Anyone who hunts over hilly terrain, however, rarely has the luxury of such things. Where I live in mid- Devon, the fields are off-limits for most of the year – either because the ground is too wet to drive on or there’s livestock about. If you stayed in a nice warm cab, you’d only ever see about 1% of the landscape, either because of the high hedges or the way the hills slope away from you.
Potential dangers on foot
While going after your quarry on foot is undoubtedly the best way to achieve your aim, there are a number of potential dangers that need to be taken into account. I consider the two most likely sources of danger to be boundary crossings and livestock, but there are many others, too. Only a couple of nights ago I went to climb over a small fence – on the face of it a trivial matter. Although it was a new moon hanging in the sky, it was covered by thick cloud, so it was extremely dark. By carefully running my hand along the top wire, I could tell that it was barbed. This is not a problem if you’re careful, so I casually lifted my hunting sticks over before scaling the obstruction. It was only when they almost disappeared that I realised there was a deep ditch hidden on the other side. I’d not been into the field before, and it was only because I was trying to find a problem fox that I’d ventured in that direction. A moment’s inattention, and I’d have gone head over heels.
On another occasion, I called in and shot four foxes that had been troubling a mate’s ducks. After satisfying myself that no more were coming, I set out to look for them. The first three were no problem, but I couldn’t see the fourth. In the midst of looking for it with my NV spotter I heard something that just didn’t sound right, so I stopped where I was and turned on my torch. Good job I did, because less than a foot further on there was a sheer drop of some 25ft; my so-called “mate” had neglected to tell me that he’d dug a small quarry to help build a new track. My boot had dislodged a small stone, and it was the sound of this hitting the bottom that had alerted me – the missing fox was lying down there, too.
Some wonder about my assertion that gates are potentially dangerous – but trust me, they certainly can be. Imagine climbing halfway over one only to have it disintegrate under you, or for the support hinges to suddenly crumble resulting in it tipping over without warning. Both have happened to me, so I now approach unknown gates with great caution. Although a torch will illuminate matters well, I don’t like to do so as it not only warns any foxes in the area that you’re about, but it leaves you dazzled. I therefore prefer to feel which end the hinges are – once that’s established I then try to determine how it’s secured.
While we’re on the subject of gates, you should never climb at the latch end as it can place a damaging strain on the pivots – no farmer will thank you if he sees you doing it! Many farmers will use baler cord to tie the gates shut, and by the time the cattle have chewed it, a Gordian knot results. On these occasions, I just climb over. If there are two of you, one can hold the guns and then pass them over. If you’re on your own though you’ll need to find a suitable alternative.
As I said earlier, I consider livestock to be a major threat at night. Cattle are the main problem, and it pays to know a little about them. Some breeds are much more aggressive than others, but the real risk is their curiosity. When I was a lad the local farmer told me “Never let them get uphill of you, because if they come running down to see what you are, they might not be able to stop.”
While the old boy was talking about daylight, his words are even more pertinent when it’s dark. I was lining up on a particularly troublesome fox one night when the ground suddenly started shaking. Looking up I saw the brow of the hill above me go black – a large herd of what the keeper later described as the most mental cattle he’d ever seen came charging down towards me. I just had time to get my torch out – some went to my right, the rest to my left. It was a close call, but because they’d been on the other side of the hill, I hadn’t known they were there.
What you should do to keep safe at night
I can only scratch the surface here, but there are also a few other things I should highlight before I conclude:
- Having a reasonable understanding of your fitness level is really important, especially if you’re heading off to unknown ground. Overestimating your abilities can not only place you in danger, but others too.
- Staying motivated is another thing that is really important – if you’re in the wrong place mentally, go and do something else and come back to hunting when you’re ready. Doing otherwise is asking for things to go wrong.
- Make sure someone always knows where you are – it’s a basic rule, but one which is easily forgotten.
- Knives are an integral part of our hunting kit – keep them sharp, but take care when using them. An accidental cut is bad enough at the best of times, but if you’re miles from civilisation it can be a real problem.
- First aid kits can be bought really cheaply, so it’s a good idea to have one or more amongst your kit.
- If you encounter violent ‘antis’ or poachers, the advice from all the shooting organisations is to get yourself to a place of safety and call the police – don’t try to tackle them yourself.
As they used to say in Hill Street Blues: “Stay safe out there!”
Dr Hook’s top fox control safety tips
Before you set out
If you’re going out for a session, and this applies to hunting in daylight as well as at night, you need to think about what you’re likely to face. It’s far better to be over-prepared than to find you’re ill equipped. Whether there’s a chance of physical exertion, or not, make sure you get some rest before you leave or you won’t perform well. Likewise, hunger and dehydration are not only unpleasant, but you won’t think or shoot properly. I always carry a couple of small water bottles in my truck for this reason. Stimulants such as caffeine can work well at waking you up, but they are not a universal panacea. The effects of such things diminish with use – as they say, there is no free lunch!
It ca be difficult to know what you’re likely to face in the way of temperatures, so it’s best to cater for the worst scenario – it’s much easier to take layers off if you’re too hot than to add clothing you don’t have. Since so much has already been written on this subject, I’ll summarise it as: “Stay warm and dry, but don’t let yourself overheat!”
Gates, ditches, electric fences & barbed wire
All these deserve respect – for example, a single barb on a fence can puncture the femoral artery resulting in you bleeding to death in minutes. If you suspect that there might be an electric fence around, hold your sticks at an arm’s length ahead of you – if they suddenly get hung up on something, stop to see what it is. The sticks can then hold it down while you cross – trust me, a belt from a mains-powered fence will hold your attention.
The risk of getting lost will vary tremendously depending on where you are and how well you know the terrain. Having said that, it’s all too easy to get disorientated in the dark, and it only takes a bit of fog to turn a gun outing into a life-threatening situation. For this reason, I always advise that you carry a mobile phone. Even at their most basic, these give you a chance to call 999 if things turn awry. The more advanced ones have all manner of GPS systems, but none are any good if the battery goes flat, so make sure it’s well charged. For the same reasons I always carry two small torches – they’re so cheap these days that there’s no excuse for not doing so.
When you get home
It’s not over when you get back to base – not only do you need to ensure that your kit is dry and safely stowed, but if there’s a chance that you’ve been exposed to ticks (which can carry Lyme disease) you need to check yourself thoroughly. Whether you’ve handled any carcasses or not, wash your hands as well as it’s quite possible that you’ve unconsciously touched things that rats have travelled over. Leptospirosis is another nasty disease, so caution is well justified.