The early-April evening was light, balmy and full of the sense of spring. It was almost 8 o’clock when I reached the farm and everywhere birds were singing the day to a close. I parked up in my usual spot opposite the lambing shed. Lambing was over now, and from further down the yard came the call-and-answer of lambs and ewes. Soon they’d be out in the fields, and vulnerable to predators.
My gear, rifle and all, travels in a rucksack, so all I had to do was open the back of the 4×4, slip on my boots -the ground was drying after three days of fine weather, but there was still mud everywhere, deep in places- sling the pack on my back and grab my folding chair and sticks.
Despite doing a passable impression of a man about to undertake a long-range patrol, I wasn’t going far, so might more fairly have been compared to a carp fisherman who’d inexplicably forgotten his rods. In fact, my destination was a little spoil heap, behind the feed silos and just downhill of the yard: a mere 50m away.
Once there I set up my low-slung American-made turkey chair, extended and spread my sticks, pushing their spiked tips into the earth to ensure they wouldn’t slide once they had the weight of the rifle on them, and spread my poncho liner across the seat. My regular shooting buddy wasn’t out with me this time, but that didn’t prevent me hearing him take the Mickey out of my “old man’s blanket”, and I found myself mouthing my customary reply of “Any fool can be uncomfortable”.
I put it down to jealousy. After all, the poncho liner pads the nylon seat (a bit), making it (a bit) more comfortable; it’s an effective windbreak, keeping me warmer for longer (my electrically-heated gillet does that too); and it gives me a less-easily-definable shape that, further blurred by its camouflage, makes it harder for my quarry to identify the threat I present. All good.
Now it was time to settle into the stand. I pulled the rifle out of its scabbard in the back-pack, opened the bolt, slipped off the neoprene scope cover, checked the turrets were set to zero, and the moderator was tight on its thread. Next out from the pack was a box of rounds. I fed five of these into the magazine of the rifle, a Remington 700 with a hinged floorplate.
The Remington is chambered in .17 Remington Fireball, a cartridge with a stubby little case that appears ill-matched to the gracile bullet projecting from its mouth. In this instance the bullets were 25-grain jacketed hollow points. If fired they would travel towards their target at 3,500 feet per second, ending their first-and-last split-second journey in explosive fragmentation. They are small, however, and quite easy to fumble, so another thing I appreciate about the poncho liner is that it catches everything I drop! Cartridges loaded, I close the bolt and apply safe.
Now it’s time to sort out the optics. First out are the binos and I check that they’re properly set up and that the coast is still clear with a quick look around. The ground drops away gently below the mound I’m sitting on. At 3 o’clock, the lower edge of the yard with its muck-heap, silage clamp, cattle and sheep sheds defines my left boundary, but the sightline is cut short about 50m away by a slurry pond framed with fir trees. Foxes like to lie up in there, and this year I suspect there’s an earth in there too, though the safety fencing means I can’t get in to check. Another 50m brings you to a hedge line that runs down the hill, alongside a watercourse, to a grove of oaks 600m away. Beyond the hedge is a sheep pasture, close cropped, and easy to monitor. The field below my stand is like this too: 320m to the bottom corner, where the boundary hedge turns right, up towards the next rise. After a run of about 150m it ends at a gate across a track. A right-turn here takes you up towards a cottage on the road, and the road itself defines the fourth side of the field. The field I’m watching is in effect a natural bowl, with rising ground to the left, in front and to the right. I need to set my right-of-arc safely clear of both the cottage and the road -and use a solitary oak in the middle of the field for the purpose-, but otherwise there’s little to worry about: the fields are open, you can still see though the still leafless hedges and the track -not a public right of way- is also in plain sight.
I have three trail cameras set around this field too: One on the fence around the slurry pool; one half-way down the watercourse where a dip in the ground provides a natural crossing point; and one by the gate, which is not only an access point but also a popular scent-marking spot for the local fox population.
The field is also covered by a range card stored on my phone. As I set up I rehearse the distances: 55m to the corner of the firs… 158m to the holly bush by the watercourse… 267m to the crossing point… 390m to the far gate…167m to the solitary oak… and 157m to a galvanised drinking trough that represents my centre-of-arc.
I check these ranges against my ballistic program and confirm how the drops look in the scope. This has a mil-dot reticle in the first focal plane. 390m has me resting the point of aim on the top edge of the third dot down, but at 158m all I have to do is use the bottom of the horizontal cross hair.
There’s no wind to speak of, but I’ve got a screen filter app installed on the phone that gives me a dim red night-vision mode, and a pocket anemometer that plugs into the headphone socket, so if conditions change later I can work out the necessary corrections. All the same, if a breeze gets up it’ll rule out the final third of the kill zone since there’s only so much one can do to assess wind in the dark.
The light is starting to go now. I make another quick sweep with the binos, and then get out the NV gear. I’m using a rear-mounted monocular with a laser illuminator. The adapter slips easily over the eye bell of the scope and I tighten the forward thumbscrew. I remove the rubber cap from the lens of the monocular, wind its focus all the way out, slide the monocular into the adapter, and snug down the rear thumbscrew to secure it. I switch on, look into the eyepiece, twist the zoom ring on the scope to enlarge the reticle, and then focus the monocular to get it sharp before winding the magnification down to minimum again. Ready to go.
The next half hour or so is spent periodically scanning the ground through the binos, listening to the sounds of the birds, the bleating and lowing of the livestock, the diverse exhaust notes of the vehicles racing along the road, and the dogs barking in the estate beyond it. Then there’s a rhythmic sweeping sound over my head and I look up to see a pair of Canada geese making for the reservoir beyond the wood at the foot of the hill. They’re barely 10m up, saving energy by skimming the top of the hill. The colours change, but as they bleed away into grey, more lights come on in the estate, and further off a huge red moon rises into a sky already dotted here and there with blinking aircraft beacons. I keep scanning, but it’s getting harder now. The binoculars are good, and the night is far from dark, but a light mist is rising, blurring the boundaries between shape and shadow, substance and imagination.
Then, among the firs, a pair of magpies starts chattering. Their message is clear: a fox is about.
I scan the edges of the enclosure with the binos, and seconds later I see a fox emerge, heading out downthe field towards the trough in the middle. I put down the binos, lift the rifle into my shoulder, switch on the NV, and acquire the animal through the eyepiece. It’s clear now that it’s not heading straight down towards the trough, but rather angling right towards the road. I need to stop it.
I grunt. It halts, turns its head and peers into the piece of darkness that conceals me. I press the trigger and it drops to the shot.
The report is muffled by the moderator and by the mist, and eclipsed too by the sound of the bullet striking the fox’s chest, where it tears itself, and everything else, to pieces.
The range was 115m. Point blank. I reload, taking care not to drop the case. Brass for the .17 Fireball is so hard to come by that I treasure each piece.
Discreet though it was, the shot has startled one of the locals: a barn owl. It flits to and fro, back and forth, 30m or so either side of my stand, quartering the ground, trilling. After a while it drifts off, so I pull out a mouse squeaker and tease it back with a couple of tiny squeaks. I don’t play the game for long, though, and am soon back on the binos. It’s getting darker now, so I detach the monocular, refocus, and scan with that.
A little while later I’m mid-way through a sweep of the most distant third of the arc when I see the flash of the trail camera by the gate come on. The cameras are set to record video. This is partly because I find it more informative than stills, but mostly because it gives a 15-second flash exposure that is easy to spot through the NV. I tighten its focus, switch the illuminator on, and pick up a pair of eyes. They move briskly across the field, following the hedge down to the watercourse, skirting a boggy patch. I can see now that it’s a fox, with a good brush too. I suspect it’s heading for the crossing point, and sure enough, as it disappears from view into the dip, the flash on the second camera comes on. It looks as though the animal is going to keep going on the same track, angling away to the left, so I reach for the mouse call and give a few squeaks, watching through the monocular and hoping to see the eyes again. I do: two of them, oscillating briskly up and down as the fox runs in, locked-on to the source of the now-silent call.
I refocus the monocular for the rifle, slip it back into the adapter, snug down the thumbscrew, sharpen up the reticle, and re-acquire the fox. It has re-crossed the watercourse now, uphill of the holly bush, and is moving steadily in my direction. I anticipate that it will stop to listen for another squeak, and get ready. It stops.
I squeeze the trigger. The strike resounds. But the fox runs, stumbling, and disappears into the hedge by the holly bush.
Part of me is horrified. Wounding an animal is anathema. Yet I know too what a good strike sounds like, and what it means. So when after a few minutes I walk down there, I’m heartily relieved but not at all surprised to find the fox laid out, half-in and half-out of the hedge. Its right shoulder is smashed and its heart is shredded, but somehow it still made a 40m run. It’s a big, strong dog fox, and it was on full alert -for prey, albeit not for danger- at the moment of truth, so perhaps that made a difference, or perhaps my shot should ideally have been placed another inch to the right.
I check the time. It’s only 10 o’clock, but tomorrow will be a full day, so I call it a night and head back up the hill, collecting the first fox on the way. This one is a vixen. She’s small and threadbare, but looks like she’s nursing, so there is a litter somewhere, probably among the firs, that I will have to account for without delay. Yes, tomorrow will be a full day! But the last two hours have held their share of riches.