Caught Napping – Charlie Down

I met the Devil in the lane down to Garden Wood and he was as drunk as a skunk. Staggering around, his obviously blurred vision failed to pick out the approaching danger that I represented. Or perhaps he knew that my rifle didn’t have the requisite power to put him in my freezer? I was shouldering my .22LR rifle. Eventually he caught my scent and the muntjac buck lumbered off through the gateway to the old orchard. I followed closely, intrigued at his condition and worried that I had stumbled upon some cervid coronavirus. A glance beneath the abandoned apple trees and the proverbial penny dropped. The wasted crop of windfall apples were in rotten fermentation and explained his inebriation. He staggered slowly up the escarpment, leaving me wondering what naturally cider-infused venison would taste like?

This was another lockdown ‘essential pest control’ expedition as nature abhors a vacuum and the grey hordes still keep coming. I was interested to read recently that conservationists are considering genetic modelling to reduce the fertility of Sciurus carolinensis. What a fanciful idea. It could possibly work over a century or two, by which time our native red squirrel will be extinct anyway. Many of us, who actually know the countryside, would consider that there are four much swifter methods of contraception that have immediate effect. They are (in no particular order) trap, shotgun cartridge, airgun pellet and .22LR subsonic round. Come on! Why would you trap thousands of grey squirrels, inject them with a gene mutant, then release them again? It does nothing to control the incumbent population.

Walking the margin beside the orchard I was, as I always do, scouring the path ahead for spoor and sign. Before me, at the bottom of the slope, lay the flooded Wensum valley. The splashes coated with the glisten of thin ice, the mercury still hovering around zero this morning. The rivers water levels haven’t receded in weeks. It was no surprise to stumble across mink scat. I prayed that the landowner wouldn’t spot one of these murderous mustelids or life could become unbearable. Her peacocks are her pride and joy, iconic ambassadors for the estate which must be protected at all cost.

Into Garden Wood via a slowly manoeuvred five-bar gate, with a mental reminder to bring some WD40 next time. The old latch is rusty and squeals like a poked pig if I’m not careful. I stopped for a few seconds with my eyes tight shut, then opened them. A good tip for any stalker moving from light into gloom. Just twenty yards into the wood and I saw a grey squirrel foraging at ground level, a little less than thirty yards away. The standing shot was flawless and the grey rolled over to the muted thump of the .22 Sub. The animal wouldn’t have been able to dig the hoary soil outside this thick covert. That it could delve here proved the insulation afforded by solid tree cover and scrub. The temperature in here was probably four or five degrees higher than the open fallow. Passing through the wood I bagged a second, a youngster that had been chasing a sibling. They were so skittish, I knelt for the shot and had to wait for one of the pair to pause. November twins. The survivor skittled away before I could reload and would be much wiser next time I met it. Just the two and I moved on. I had ground to cover.

Through the cattle meadow and a clamber over a five bar gate (at the hinged end, of course). Fully safety observed. Rifle unloaded and passed over, along with my bag. I stopped at the edge of the spring barley, where rain run-off had left a sandy stretch littered with prints, now frozen. Badger, roe and more importantly, fox.

As with mink, a single passing fox here becomes “We are over-run with vermin!”. The deer-stalker and I will be messaged with a call to arms by the non-shooting estate staff, who simply don’t understand that the creature isn’t going to just stand and wait until we can get there. We both (the deer-stalker and I) account for foxes when we meet them. That is why I moved to rimfire as opposed to air rifle on this estate. We’re not ‘foxers’. The stalker obviously carries a centrefire which, when he kills a fox, will alert every deer within half a mile that a shooter is abroad. It is not in his interest to shoot foxes when his purpose is to control the deer. Yet he does so when pressed. This is a particularly vulnerable time for the farm, which has a large beef herd. With the cows now calving night and day, every fox in the neighbourhood will catch the pheromones of after-birth on the breeze. The trouble with a hungry winter fox, though, is that they won’t stop at the inert waste. Meat is meat, dead or alive. They will attack a weak new-born calf as readily as they do a lamb. At this time of year, it’s ‘no holds barred’ when tackling Charlie. Not just because of the calves and peacocks. The pairs have now mated and cubbing is just weeks away.

Trudging long the last furrow of the barley, following a feeder stream next to the Wensum, woodpigeons burst from the willows with every step I made. I would have had a field day with my shotgun, but still detest the noise of the blunderbuss. I drew into the cover of the long pine wood and started up a steeply climbing ride. To my right was a large marl pit, the clay from which would have bricked much of the local houses a century ago. As I laboured up the incline I glanced into the pit and saw a hint of rufus at the far side, lying on a bed of white marl. My first reaction was that it was a dead muntjac, which had perhaps tumbled down the steep side of the crater. I used my camera to zoom in on the form and as I watched, a head was raised and ears were pricked. Fox. Very much alive. Camera down, gun up, range assessment (circa 60 yards). Comfortably within range of my CZ455 .22LR. By the time I was ready the head had gone down again. I knelt patiently, the breeze in my favour, the rifle lowered. As soon as I saw the head come up again, I engaged the animal in the scope. The rifle thumped. The fox slumped. A clean head-shot. Not satisfied with just the cull, I felt the need to climb down into the pit to find out why the fox had left itself so vulnerable in broad daylight?

The descent was treacherous, using tree roots and branches to stop slipping on the icy clay sides of the hollow. When I finally reached the corpse, all the questions were answered at once. This is breeding season for Vulpes vulpes. The dead vixen had just finishing excavating what was probably to be her nursery den, hence the pile of white marl on which she lay. This is thick, chalky clay. She must have been exhausted and unfortunately for her, I had caught her napping. I examined her teeth, the worn incisors indicating she was several years old. I reasoned that she had probably drifted here from a neighbouring estate. I felt the pangs of regret that the true hunter, who respects their quarry, always will on ending a creatures life.

There will be some who read this who will question the use of a .22LR on fox. To them I would say, learn to hunt up close and shoot accurately and this gun is a superb, quiet vermin rifle. Keepers and hunters were using this rimfire calibre long before the .17HMR evolved. I have never, ever had a ‘runner’ with this round – but then I never take ‘percentage’ shots. Habits learned from decades of airgun hunting where getting in close and precision shooting are a necessity.

Stay safe.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, February 2021