Out-foxing the feral fox

Marc Deas uses a thermal imaging scope and stable shooting sticks to maximise night vision, stealth and accuracy when shooting pests like foxes and cats.

The dismay felt by seeing foxes around livestock and predating native wildlife is enough to make most farmers consider a control program. However, feral pest management can be expensive and time-consuming, so it’s vital that farmers choose the most effective strategy.

One farmer with considerable experience managing pests in the South West is Marc Deas. Marc manages Rylington Park, a 600-hectare farm south of Boyup Brook with his wife Erlanda. After years controlling foxes with a variety of methods including foot-hold traps and canid pest ejectors (CPEs), Marc has settled on shooting as his most effective strategy. However, his approach is much more sophisticated than simply loading a gun.

Marc’s journey started in South Africa where he worked on cattle and game farms as a manager and hunting guide. After moving to Australia, he became involved in target shooting in 2009.

“We built a range at Rylington Park and had competitions here,” Marc said. “We even had a South African National Hunting Rifle Shooting Team come here.”

In 2013, Marc and Erlanda took over the coordination of the annual “Red Card” fox shoot. With their connections to sporting shooter groups, Erlanda’s organisation in matching shooters with local properties, and great community support, the shoot became the most successful in Western Australia. In 2018, the Boyup Brook fox shoot accounted for 701 foxes, 77 feral cats, 186 rabbits, and five feral pigs in two days.

At the same time, Marc was fine-tuning his approach to shooting at night, progressing from shooting with a spotlight, trying night vision and eventually settling on thermal imaging.

“I was going out at night spending two hours with a spotlight. I might see three or four foxes and shoot one. It was a waste of time. So, I decided to get some infra-red night vision equipment.

“Night vision needs a light source. Some people have a camera attached to the scope and a screen on top of the rifle, but it lights your face up. It’s a very good option, but it has an external torch.

“One of the problems is that if the fox isn’t looking at you, their eyes won’t light up.”

With Marc shooting from the ground to maximise stability, low-growing vegetation was causing white-outs with the night-vision equipment. To overcome this problem, Marc built a set of shooting sticks to create a stable elevated platform.

“You don’t want to shoot from an unstable position because you’ll miss or wound. I had used shooting sticks with clients in South Africa, so after a bit of experimentation and talking to mates who used them, I made a set using five stakes tied together. They’re very effective, but you’ve got to learn to use them.”

With a stable platform at hand, Marc still wanted more stealth and better vision. So, he turned to thermal technology, purchasing a thermal imaging handheld spotter and a thermal scope.

“The reason I went thermal is because the animal is visible whether it’s looking at you or not. Now I go out on foot and I am completely incognito. On a dark night they have no idea I’m there. All I carry is a rifle on my shoulder, shooting sticks and a spotter, so I can walk anywhere and negotiate fences easily.

“The handheld monocular is vital because you can’t walk around looking through the scope for very long! The scope and spotter can both take videos and stills, so I’ve recorded phascogales, possums, bandicoots, and fox behaviour. The scope also has a range finder, so I know how far I am from the fox, I know where my bullet is going to fall. At 250 metres distance I’ve got to aim differently compared to 100 metres, so it’s super effective.”

With thermal imaging monoculars ranging in price from about $1,500 to $6,000, it’s quite an investment. However, Mark says that with a handheld spotter, the scope doesn’t need to be thermal.

“You can have a regular scope with a light and headlamp. With the spotter you can get within range before they know you’re there, then flick on the torch and shoot. That’s a very good option.”

The handheld spotter is vital to find pests and move into a good shooting position while they often remain unaware of his presence.

The next part of his approach is the use of whistles and calls to attract foxes.

“When you blow a whistle or play a call, they’re convinced. They often come in because there’s nothing to tell them they’re in danger, it’s very effective.

“I’ve called foxes in the daytime. That’s very good, but time consuming. The reason I do it at night is that it’s after hours. I usually go out after supper when it’s convenient.  Generally, foxes are actively seeking a feed around sunset or early evening but they can be active at any time.”

The final piece of the jigsaw is camera surveillance to tell Marc when and where foxes are active.

“I’ve got two texting cameras that alert me to a fox every now and then. They send me an email and I’ll go out that night. I’ve also got non-texting trial cameras as well that I put around bush corridors, dams, sheds and the like. They’ll also come readily to baits like fermented eggs or carcasses. I look at the footage and if there’s a fox coming in I’ll go and get it.

“However, checking cameras can be time consuming and only helps me kill foxes in those spots. For the rest of the farm it’s about being out there with the spotter and whistles.

For two months earlier this year, Marc put his approach to the test, recording the number of foxes controlled over two months from late March to late May.

“I shot two cats and 18 foxes, three of which were vixens. It was a fantastic result!

“There weren’t 18 foxes here all at once. I was most likely creating a vacuum every time I shot a fox.  You’ll never shoot them all. That’s just how it is. But if you have vulnerable areas you want to protect, shooting is the way to go.”

Finding the best time of year to shoot depends on the farmer’s availability.

“Summer and autumn are very good times before you start seeding because the foxes call readily and that helps. Our dogs start barking and out I go. Young foxes are out from late spring and good numbers can be controlled.  However, it depends what you’re doing it for. If it’s for lambing, then you want to do it just on lambing. It’s a hard one because you can get a rogue fox, and you can create a space for a rogue fox, so really you need to take an annual approach.

With camera surveillance, thermal imaging, stability associated with shooting sticks and the use of calls and whistles, it’s fair to say Marc is as cunning as a fox!

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