The huntsmen shouted and threatened, and followed close upon him so that he might scarce escape, but Reynard was wily, and he turned and doubled upon them, and led the lord and his men over the hills, now on the slopes, now in the vales……. Sir Gawain and the Green knight circa 1375 AD.

     I arrived in the late afternoon.  My grandparent’s old house, located in a small central Victorian town, is still in the family, and I have taken to using it, as well as a getaway for my kids, as a base of operations for shooting on a nearby property.  It is a picturesque place, ideal for some target practice, general plinking, small-game hunting and even just letting the world go by. I have taken my share of bunnies off it, but their numbers have never been huge in my period, and, most gallingly, I had never managed to bag a fox.  I knew that they were there, as I’d seen the tail end of a few disappearing into the bracken, and even a few strolling about in full view well out of range.  But never once had one been in the cross-hairs, and it pained me to admit it. So I decided that a new plan of action would be required.  In short, I needed to go nocturnal.  Where usually I was packing up, I actually needed to be just starting. A bedtime tale of tails, if you see what I mean.

Just as an aside, whilst speaking of bedtime tales, I have vivid memories of staying at my grandparents as a child.  Grandpa could always be relied upon for a bedside tale or three.  Sometimes classical stories known to us all, sometimes pure claptrap invented on the spot.  Not a few of these stories featured the venerable fox, who seems to occupy a place in all of our consciousness that is a mixture of loathing and admiration.  He is cunning, clever, awe-inspiring and despised – often all at once.  The story that I most remember is the Fox and the Crow, though I know not why.  However, childhood fondness or not, he is target number 1 in my mind these days.

     Be that as it may, the development of LED tactical flashlights seemed to offer a solution to help me secure a redcoat.  I wanted something that would let me roam around, free of a vehicle, but without the burden of battery packs on the belt and a top-heavy spotlight above the scope. Where I was shooting, mobility was the key.

     So I got on the phone to Glen at Wolfeyes, importer of the Sniper range of tactical torches, and arranged the purchase of a Sniper 260 torch and gun-mount kit.  The torch arrived promptly, but high demand meant that the mounts were out of stock.  Being of the impatient kind, and factoring in that I had to return to work the next week, I resolved to come up with a temporary barrel mount and get out into the field. This I did, using a mixture of two types of electricians tape to suspend the torch forward of the fore-end below the barrel of my 22 rimfire.  It looked like it would do the job, it felt secure and now it needed trying out!

     I drove into the property with about two hours of daylight left.  It was vital that I have a chance to check for any point of impact changes.  This was easier said than done, given the constant gale that was blowing!  I managed to find a semi-sheltered zone below the old ramshackle homestead and ran a target out.  As near as I could tell, no discernable impact change had occurred.  This was not hugely surprising, given that the torch only weighs 150 grams, but any time you hang something off the barrel you half expect some effect.

     With an hour or so to go, I loaded up the belt with ammo, pocketed a small hand torch and moved the ute out of the way.  From here on, I was hoofing it.  The blustery southerly was horrible, so I decided to head for the back section of the property, where I thought the hills and valleys might provide some respite from the wind.  So it proved, with relatively calm and pleasant conditions prevalent.  In fact, so good was it that I assumed that the breeze was dropping off as the sun set.  I sat under a tree and whiled away the time, enjoying the silence.  A column of sheep filed up a game track towards me, and stopped to graze not 10 meters from where I sat.  Several looked straight at me, without appearing to actually see anything!  It reinforced the old idea that movement is the crucial factor.  Remain still, and you might go unnoticed.  The consternation and horror that arose when I got to my feet and conversationally said “g’day” was truly comical, and they all took off in the direction from whence they had come!

     With the sun dropping rapidly towards its place of repose, it was time to start working towards the main suspected fox hangouts.  I picked my way along an old washed out water course, the sun at my back and a gentle breeze on the face.  I took my time, creeping along as quietly as possible.  Ahead to the right, the ground rose gently away from the creek bed, and it was here that the main flock were milling around.  I headed down the slope, to the left, into the creek zone.  It flattened out here, making the banks traversable, and I opted to cross over. I paused at the bottom of the dry gully, and cast a look back towards the sheep, noting with some amusement that the wandering band I had seen earlier was trickling in to bunker down with the main group for the night. I wondered if they had followed me, pausing when I paused, keeping a discreet distance.  Does the herd instinct know no end?  And then, suddenly, like an apparition in the fast gathering gloom, I caught sight of an angular, almost regal silhouette framed against the skyline.  The pose was not unlike an Alsatian on point, the rear legs angled aft in a suggestion of aggression. A fox!  Finally! 

     Re-tracing my path, two careful steps brought me to an old tree stump, and I slowly sank down with the timber as my backstop.  Reynard was still there, some 150 yards off, and apparently transfixed on something further along the hill.  I played a short tune on the whistle, and through the scope saw the head whip around in my direction.  There was a moments pause, me holding my breath in anticipation, and then he was gone, just a wraith-like flash of darkness across a patch of grass to hint at his direction.  It was angled across me, heading for the creek-bed, looking to get down-wind of the whistle. I was in a quandary now, irresolute but in the end immovable.  If he came in from down-wind, he would run out of cover 20 yards from where I sat, and I slowly pointed the rifle in that direction.  The bolt handle locked home with a gentle snick, and I peered into the murky darkness with straining eyes.  A few more soft whistles and vigilance resumed.  But nothing happened, nothing moved.  I remained thus for several minutes, whilst all daylight ebbed away, and then turned over to the Wolfeyes.

     Gently squeezing the pressure switch, I got quite a shock when a cone of apparent daylight stabbed into the blackness.  Passing the beam over the creek bed and surrounding bracken revealed nothing.  Not a reflection, not a shadow slinking away. Nothing. Sweeping the light up the hill rewarded me with hundreds of green fireflies as the sheep’s eyes lit up, but nothing more.  So I abandoned my position and continued the original path, crossing down into the gully and up the far side, aware that somewhere, not far away, I was probably being scrutinised by public enemy no1.

     Following the creek for some way, making intermittent passes with the spotlight, I crossed back over again and progressed some way up the hill.  The sheep were now to my right, or westwards, and I lit them up.  Again the night exploded into a sea of green points, but this time that was not all.  A pair of piercing yellow orbs surmounted a long slender body in a sitting position, and beyond that a second pair appeared to be floating down the hill, wending its way through a galaxy of emerald stars.  Not just one fox, but two!
Looking through the scope at the nearer one, the eyes disappeared briefly as it foraged for something on the ground, then shone brightly again with idle curiosity.  It looked like a young dog, probably in its first season, but I cursed quietly at the sheep riding shotgun in the background.  I couldn’t take the chance, and flicking the light off I hurried diagonally across the hill face to change the angle.  Finding a likely spot, the bipod legs quickly dropped, I opted for a prone position.

     Heart pounding now, I forced myself to breathe before going to the torch.  Bingo! He was still there, fossicking head down.  I made the range about 60 yards and took up the little bit of creep that I know lives in the trigger.  The sight picture under the light was excellent, and old Reynard helped me further by turning broadside and looking straight down the barrel.  I drew a bead just behind the shoulder, exhaled and finished the trigger.  Crack!  Then “whop” and the fox keeled over like he’d been poleaxed.  Eureka!  Finally, finally, I had my fox!!

     Heading over to where the animal had fallen, I realised two things.  Firstly, that a full moon had risen above the tree-line and the world was bathed in a pallid, ghostly glow that threw shadows into every crevice.  And secondly, that my heart was still racing and I had broken out in a sweat!  Never, perhaps, has a majestic African trophy been taken with any more excitement than I took that mere fox!

     First impressions were correct.  It was a small animal, and rolling it over with my foot I found that the Rws hollow point had exited on the far side.  It was stone cold dead, with nary a twitch. Belatedly, perhaps, I suddenly recalled the second pair of eyes, and muttering some unmentionables at my innate stupidity I again scanned the area for those tell-tale golden discs.  Nothing amongst the sheep, but I just got a glimpse down near the creek bed before extinguishing the light.  Okay, there was still a chance.  A nearby tree stump glowed chalky white under the moon and offered a useful rest. Thumbing the switch, the eyes glowed back at me, moving swiftly along the edge of the bracken.  Through the scope, it looked like a twin of the first, as indeed it probably was.  A moving shot is not my preferred option, and I silently willed the animal to pause, however briefly.  My bushy tailed friend, happily, acquiesced and offered me a rock solid shot.  Distance was about the same as last time, although downhill, and I took the same hold.  Again there was a sharp crack, followed almost instantly by the hoped-for “thwack”, and redcoat number two was down without movement!    

     This time I performed another sweep immediately, but without receiving an answering reflection, so I hurried over to the scene.  This dog was hard hit, but still breathing.  It appeared to be paralysed from the neck back, but actually turned its head to look at me as I approached!  A finishing shot produced a convulsion, and it expired with a paw in its mouth!  I must admit that I found both specimens surprisingly striking animals, and the paradoxical position that they hold in our psyche was partly explained.  A devil, perhaps, in all but appearance. Pausing just long enough to take a couple of photos, I continued on to new pastures.  A feeling of elation at not only getting my first fox, but then a second one just minutes later, was tempered when I cleared the flank of the hill and ran smack bang into the teeth of a gale.  The wind howled and the gumtrees groaned their protest, and I tried to recall whether I had left the vehicle clear of any potential falls. Inky shadows cast by the moonlight completed a feeling of desolation, and I contemplated calling it a night.

     But I thought that there might be a few places in the lee of various hills and escarpments that offered some potential, and headed for them.  It took 20 minutes of walking across a windswept landscape that yielded a single lonely bunny – duly dispatched – before a series of switchback gullies and hills provided some relief.  A veritable eye-of-the-storm, as it were. I obviously wasn’t the only creature who valued the calm, as the spotlight revealed several dozen kangaroos sheltering from the wind.  Eagle eyed and prone to flight during the day, they seemed more ambivalent under the light, and I was well within rimfire range before they took off.  They were free to go, as I had neither the permit, calibre nor inclination to take advantage of the situation.

A bit further on, however, I had a more profitable encounter.  Again, those luminous eyes shone out of the night.  At first that was all I could see, but I was able to get in closer and intermittent use of the light gradually revealed the outline of another redcoat, this one seemingly larger, and darker, than my previous catch.  Ultimately, I reached a point opposite the fox, separated by two fence lines and a treacherous washaway gully that I was unwilling to cross.  The sight picture was ok, but the Reynard was not far from merging into the background, and it had to be now or never.  Taking a rest on a convenient fencepost, I guessed the distance at 100 yards, doped in some holdover and squeezed off a shot.  A clean miss, probably high! 

     Mr Fox didn’t appreciate this noise and took off, but luckily passed across my front, not away from me.  Even more remarkably, after going no more than 20 yards, he stopped to look at the light again!  I needed no further invitation, and this time took a point-of-aim hold.  There was a satisfying smack, and he went down.  A certain amount of rabid scrabbling and darting eyes was followed by sudden silence and an inert form.  Unsure of matters, and unable to get any closer, I decided on a follow up shot and again heard the shot go home.  This produced no reaction at all, and I was sufficiently certain that he would bother our wildlife no more. I decided to call it quits then. 

     Rabbits were non-existent, probably hunkering down out of the wind, and after three foxes inside of an hour or so I thought I was probably out of luck.  Making my way back up to the old homestead seemed to confirm this, as I saw nothing.  In fact, where I had seen a dozen rabbits cavorting around the old house in broad daylight just three weeks before, this time I saw just one who absconded the instant the light fell on him.  Truly, the wind was keeping them underground.

     Intriguingly, however, the drive out of the property revealed quite a few rabbits playing on and around the track.  So many, in fact that I was persuaded to get out with the rifle again and cull a few.  One fellow in particular could count himself unlucky.  He paced out at 85 yards, and was taken in a howling cross wind with 4 inches of hold off and copped it in the neck.  Any thoughts of self-aggrandisement were banished however, when I botched a 30 yard shot.  The gut shot bunny needed a second round….

A Fox once saw a Crow fly off with a piece of cheese in its beak and settle on a branch of a tree.
     "That's for me, as I am a Fox," said Master Reynard, and he walked up to the foot of the tree.
  Aesop’s Tales, The Fox and the Crow

     I arrived home just after midnight.  And in the moments before turning out the lights, I looked around at the long-familiar surroundings and could almost hear my grandpa again. “Would you like a bedtime tale?”  I wish he still could.  But I could tell him a tale of my own.  A tale of tails, three bushy and six cotton.  And, as a hard-pressed native animal population would hopefully attest, that’s no fable.

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