Fox Drive

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Cattle come thundering over the rain and the hay blows ahead of them to snag on the wire and fly like a riot in the trees. When all is fed and the tractor returned sweating to the shed, we meet at the hill-road for a drive or two at the foxes. There’s fag smoke and plastic mugs of coffee in the back of a pickup; gunslips slick with mirk and dog slavers, and bulbs of rain running round your bunnet brim.

It’s a rough piece of ground, this, and there are few other ways to gather up the foxes here. You can hardly shoot them with a rifle, and snaring’s been made so hard that nobody dares try it now. But these foxes have to go, and the keeper’s a good man so we pitch in beside him. He took on this ground a decade ago, and he’s slowly conjured up some blackgame from the final dregs. That makes this place special in Galloway, and the birds are a constant well of pride for him. I count seven cocks on the lek in May, and that’s a good number for us. But a jolly wobbler in springtime is not free; birds depend on him to do this kind of work on days like today when killing foxes is the final thing you’d choose to do.

We line out and make a stand in the lee of dykebacks and slaebushes. We’re black and glossy in our oilskin hoods and the rain drives on in a reek of tobacco and dead grass. It’s just a line of men and dogs ahead, and they walk with their bellies bagged out in the wind. A few woodcock slide away from the trees like scraps of wrappy old sacking. They’re off downwind and no sooner gone than a pair of roe deer come out and by us, tossing their heads and hating the water. We crouch and lie and steel ourselves against the creeping rain as it runs down the ribs of our guns and lies in beads like frogeyes. The skin of our hands is white and puffy as towelling.

The first drive is a blank, but we find two foxes running together in the second. And they only come when a pair of blackcock have risen up from the myrtle and hurled themselves along with the rain. One passes me at head height; I watch his tail trail behind him like ribbons; eyes wide, beak open and pounding like a cormorant. Smirk, wink and nod him past – I’ve seen these two boys before.

It’s become a joke that I never shoot the fox. I’ve stood a hundred days like this and only killed him two or three times. Folk laugh that I should leave my cartridges at home, but I did that by mistake one time and guess where the fox came? Gunshots come flat and drab from down the line, and I look over to the heather and the purple run of birches. Two of them killed in the rain, carried by the tail and slack as jackets. Remember it’s eight weeks till the curlews come; this is a good piece of work, but somehow more important to see your neighbours and remind yourself that you’re not alone in this stifling hurl of coughing cattle and blue dusk.

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