The Longest Nights - Foxing in winter with Sporting Rifles Mike Powell

There has been a definite change in the weather lately and it leaves us in no doubt that winter is on the way. Unlike the majority of the population, many who read Sporting Rifle will be only too pleased to see the arrival of darker, colder nights, as this time of year heralds the start of the lamping season.

Nowadays night shooting has become an all-year round event rather than a pastime for the dark nights of winter alone. It wasn’t always this way, of course. The change has largely been brought about by night vision, which encourages you to get out there and see what’s about. While I too use my NV gear to see what’s going on after dark on my land, I am not convinced that all-year-round shooting, particularly where foxes are concerned, is a good thing.

Controlling foxes that are raiding poultry and other stock is a must, but general shooting of our top predator all year round is, I think, not altogether a good thing. Clearly what I think will – and should – have no bearing on what others do, but hearing reports of fox numbers dwindling in some areas make me wonder if those who shoot foxes purely for sport would perhaps do themselves a favour by giving the fox a break during the breeding season.

Anyway, that part of the year has now passed and we are heading towards the main night shooting season, whatever your quarry may be. Rabbits are more often than not top of the list, and more and more shooters are going after them with a rifle rather than the shotgun. I read some intriguing posts on some websites where discussion rages about which rifle is best for rabbit shooting at night. Of course everyone has their own opinion, but I do raise an eyebrow when I read those who advocate .20 centrefires as ideal ‘bunny bashers’ (a description I’m not too keen on) for taking rabbits out to 300 yards at night.

learly these guys are much better shots than I am, but having shot countless thousands of rabbits over the years, 99 per cent of them at much less than 100 yards, I do wonder why your normal rabbit man would want anything more than a .22LR, a .17 HMR or even an FAC-rated air rifle. Foxes are a far simpler matter, though even here things occasionally get a bit heated when .22-250s and above are described as ideal for fox shooting at night. In days of yore, when lamps were pathetic compared with today’s incredibly powerful offerings, foxes were shot at much closer ranges.

Now we have highly sophisticated night vision equipment that tempts shooters to try their hand at greater and greater distances. However, I believe that using quality night vision should enable night shooters to get closer to their quarry and ensure humane kills farmore often than not. I for one very rarely shoot further than 200 yards after dark and normally far less than that, despite having gear that allows me to shoot out to 300 yards.

Unnatural advantage

But enough pontificating. What does this coming season hold for the night shooting man, whatever he uses and at whatever range? Well, things in my own area are looking good. Vixens have produced large litters, most of which seem to have survived to adulthood. Equipment sales are well up, with thermal the ‘in thing’ and rightly so. Pulsar’s latest offerings have been very good indeed, as have night vision and thermal sights.

I’m not in favour of all the added ‘facilities’ that these units always seem to offer. I prefer straightforward, practical equipment that does exactly what you want it to. I do understand why manufacturers do this, as the modern shooter is very savvy when it comes to technology, but I do wonder how often the various add-ons actually get used. Apart from contrast and brightness, I haven’t used any of the facilities on my Pulsar Quantum for months!

Thermal will really start coming into its own in the coming months. I have no doubt that many who bought thermal spotters during the summer will be thrilled that their already excellent equipment now gets even better when the nights start getting colder and clearer.

When I reviewed the Pulsar Apex scope earlier in the year, I mentioned that it wasn’t quite there when it came to absolutely positive identification of quarry species. But I tested it in the summer months, which is truthfully rather unfair. Though it works perfectly well, it really comes into its own in the cold, dark nights of winter, and I will be interested to see what I think of it in a few months.

Most ‘casual’ foxers will just be out hoping that a fox will show up. This works perfectly well in many areas. For those who need to adopt a more pragmatic approach it is time to start planning and keeping an eye out for ideal spots to locate bait points. This form of fox shooting can work really well but there does need to be a degree of planning to ensure the best results. Once again the thermal spotter really comes into its own here. A few nights spent just looking over the countryside you shoot over will soon give you an idea of where foxes are travelling. There will always be certain spots where foxes can be seen on a regular basis – their routes have been laid down over time and they will stick to these routes as they go about their night’s hunting routines. The more I check fox movements using both thermal and trail cameras, the more I realise that they do have routines.

It would be foolish to suggest that if you see a fox at a particular time one night then it is guaranteed to be there the same time the following night. If, for example, on their nightly rounds they come across a meal (especially a large one like a rabbit) they will stop to eat it. Clearly this will take some time, after which they will often have a sleep. Their evening round can also be interrupted by many factors such as dogs, people and other foxes.

However, when their evening trip is uninterrupted and you start getting signs that your bait points have been visited, you can identify routines. Once they become aware there is a regular source of food they will visit the spot quite soon after the light starts to go. Strangely, my cameras have revealed that although they will clear up anything you put out as bait at the first visit they will almost always revisit the site later the same night, again at fairly predictable times. I have had foxes do this for weeks even though on the return visits there was never anything there for them.

Game-changing gear

Returning to equipment, the latest version of the Pulsar Photon is out. I have always thought this to be a very good piece of kit for the money. I had one of the originals and I’m looking forward to giving the latest model a full test soon.

Thermal spotters have become a must-have as they reveal so much that is out and about after dark. I have even found my own Quantum spotter to be a real boon in daylight, particularly when assessing roe deer populations and planning stalks. This deer species can be quite secretive at this time of year when the undergrowth has reached almost jungle proportions. The thermal will pick up a deer’s heat signature when even good quality binoculars can see nothing. There’s no doubt in my mind that the advent of the thermal imager spotter has been the greatest game-changer in modern live quarry shooting.

Finally a word on more conventional night shooting: lamping. I am pretty sure that there will always be a place for this type of night shooting for a variety of reasons, and the main one is probably cost. There must be a great deal of people, especially those coming into the sport at a young age, for whom the sheer cost of some of the modern equipment rules it out completely. To those people I would say:

Don’t forget that the old methods worked extremely well long before digital and thermal appeared.

Providing you learn how to get the best from it, there is no reason at all why you shouldn’t be successful when after such quarry as fox and rabbit after dark.

Mike Powell - Sporting Rifle Magazine