With the evenings drawing out ever so slightly, I headed for a quick turn around the hill last night after a day sitting in front of a computer. It was half past four by the time I got my feet in the heather, and I spent a good two hours rummaging around through the granite scree looking at roe deer. My freezer is still full, so this was more of an expedition to find out what the summer has in store than any real “stalking”, but I did get close in to two bucks standing together on the moss and was quite impressed by one of them. These hill bucks are nothing like as good as some of the beasts from further down towards the sea, but one in particular looks set to be head and shoulders above his peers.
As the darkness came on, I followed the steep cliffs in a diagonal line back down towards the gate, watching a short eared owl meander through the whin scrub below me. And all the while I had an eerie and inexplicable feeling that I was being watched. I stopped twice, and since the dog was with me, she sat and assumed an expression of terrible gravity. I looked up over the massive corrie of scree behind me with the binoculars, but the fading light made the stones look like a broken kaleidoscope of tone and texture. You could have hidden thirty men on that hill and I wouldn’t have seen any of them. Slightly unnerved, I continued to plod on down the sheepwalk, just at that time of night when the snipe start moving and the first woodcock come sweeping crazily out from the undergrowth.
Pausing at the gate, I turned for one last look. My changed perspective had brought a tall mound of bare granite into the centre of the horizon. I looked up at this striated sugarloaf and spotted a very familiar shape on its summit. Two bat ears broke the skyline as the sun died with rasping breath of creamy yellow. I had been under fox surveillance for the past quarter of an hour, and from such a fantastic and unassailable turret of raw stone that not even the finest general could have chosen a more secure lookout. A grand full moon rose through a whisp of cloud and some distant geese winked in the breeze, setting their course for the shore.
I wondered what to do. He was three hundred yards away and sitting against the horizon. Not only would a shot be unsafe, but it would be pretty damn chancy. I crept back behind a stack of stone and peeped carefully over. He was still there, but the light was fading fast. My Redfield telescopic sight cost me £30, and while it has served me fantastically well over the past four years, it simply cannot deal with low light conditions.
On the spur of the moment, I decided to roll the dice and scrambled quickly up the ridge to his left to see if I could get a shot below the horizon at a more reasonable range. Sweating, puffed and with my heart roaring in my ears, I unfolded the bipod a few minutes later and peered carefully through the lens. Nothing. The horizon was now a line of stone half a mile distant, and I couldn’t even see the rock the fox was sitting on, even though it was less than two hundred yards away. The dark was creeping in all the while and everything below the horizon was a single, inscrutable block of black. Grouse cackled. I pressed my eye to the ‘scope and longed for some clue, but there was nothing. In the Redfield’s defence, it was now so dark that even my Minox binoculars could only make out a vague grey shape of granite and heather.
I stood up in fury, calling the dog and stamping off downhill again, certain that my uproar would have sent him silently off. But as soon as the rock broke the horizon again, there he was, unmoved and unmovable. In thirteen years of shooting foxes, I’ve never known a fox stand such close and unsubtle observation. For a second I wondered if he was just a trick of the light, but then he yawned and the confirmation held such nonchalant indifference that I laughed aloud. I wondered afterwards if he was so relaxed because he thought I couldn’t see him. But now I wonder if it was because he knew I could and yet could do nothing.
I considered throwing a stone or sending the dog, but as long as he thinks that this little turret is safe, he may be persuaded to sit there again when the odds are less in his favour.
As is the way with so many wildlife encounters, the image of the fox against the sky was burnt into my mind with extraordinary clarity. Some friends came down to stay for the weekend and lent me a digital graphics tablet which I intend to use for an animation project that we’ve been talking about since University. In order to get the hang of the tablet (and to learn how to use photoshop), I drew this picture (above) of the spectacle which confronted me last night. Tablets feel like clumsy things and this is my first real effort, but there is definitely some truth in the end product.