Out-foxing the fox

He was only in his thirties, but already the wrinkles in his weather-beaten face ran like chasms down his cheeks. Bruce was a bushman and everything about him was Aussie bush; his long, easy stride ate up the miles and his eyes roved over the scene in front of him with a casual attentiveness. The single shot .22 rifle that hung balanced in his right hand looked like it was a part of his body; Bruce always carried his .22 when he was away from camp – you never knew when you might need it. He was proud of this gun; he’d taken the barrel and mechanism from a Lithgow target rifle and he’d grafted it onto a lightweight BSA stock. The result was a light weight rifle that had much better accuracy than most hunting rifles.

Even though Bruce had never been to this particular spot before, he knew the bush he travelled through like the back of his hand; every tree, every plant and every animal were familiar to him. His eyes scanned the trees ahead for the movement of birds, even as he searched the track ahead of him for animal tracks and droppings. People who didn’t live and work out here, like Bruce did, never understood this fascination with animal droppings, but to Bruce they were like street signs; they told him what animals had been here, how long ago and even what they had been eating.

If you want to hunt in this bush you need to know what prey was around and what was already hunting it. He’d already noticed the fresh fox scat, full of rabbit fur stained purple by the blackberries the fox had been eating; Bruce knew that each of these droppings, full of blackberry seeds, was the makings of yet another blackberry bush to choke up the bush he loved.

The bushman also knew that any fox would prefer to steal rabbits out of his traps than to hunt for themselves; for Bruce, every rabbit lost, was money out of his pocket. He’d been trapping this area for three weeks now and he thought he’d wiped out all the foxes, “this one must have wandered down from the hills” he thought to himself.

The first few times Bruce had gone round his line of a hundred traps, in the early half-light, before the sun rose over the hills that surrounded the valley, he’d found the telltale signs all over the place; the ground torn bare in a circle around the long peg the held the steel-jawed trap. The telltale signs where a rabbit had clawed frantically, trying to escape the advancing fox, the broken rabbits foot left clamped in the trap where the fox had torn the rabbits carcass from Bruce’s trap and in that same move, torn money from his pocket. When he’d started, that single foot was all that was left in about twenty of his traps every time he went round them; a good part of his income had been torn from his hands to feed feral animals that were also killing native species at an alarming rate.

After he’d finished his first trap round, Bruce gathered all the traps that hadn’t caught anything and set to work sorting out the foxes. Before he set a single trap though, he needed to prepare; foxes were harder to trap than rabbits and one mistake would warn them off. First he hung each trap over his campfire for a few minutes so the smoke would disguise the human smell, then he collected a large bunch of the tender, new shoots from bracken fern – these he rubbed over his shoes, knees, and hands to hide his smell as he set the traps. Finally, Bruce set to work resetting the traps that the foxes had stolen from on rabbit runs close to their original positions, then he set three or four traps around each of these but instead of driving their pegs into the ground he tied their chains to logs. A man like Bruce knew, from long experience, how a fox hunted; it would circle its prey, watching it before going in for the kill. If he set the other traps well enough, he knew that one of these surrounding traps would catch the fox long before it reached the trapped rabbit at the centre.

Unlike rabbits though, Bruce knew that a fox would pull hard enough against the trap to pull its own leg off; tying the traps to logs meant that the log would drag behind the fox and exhaust it without enough resistance to pull its leg off. Even with all these precautions he’d still have to check these traps before first light; once the sky paled and sun hit them a fox would chew its own legs off to escape.

He’d give the traps two days, if they didn’t work he’d shoot a roo as bait; he’d tie fencing fire around the roos legs and throw it on a fire to cook it up a bit. Once the skin was burnt off, he’d drag the burnt carcass around the valley by the wire before hanging it in a tree in the clearing down by the creek; the scent trail left by the burnt roo meat would ensure that every fox that came into the valley ended up under this tree. A few well placed strychnine baits around the tree for the foxes to find as they circled in and he’d find dead foxes all over the place. Bruce had used this trick often; the fox would follow the burnt roos scent trail, when they came to where the roo hung, they’d circle it, finding the baits as they went. Within minutes of gulping down the small pieces of roo and rabbit liver they would die a quick, but agonizing death as their head and neck muscles began to spasm, starting and the spasms quickly spread to every muscle in their body, the continuous convulsions increase in intensity and frequency until the animals backbone arches continually. Finally death comes from exhaustion from the convulsions or their lungs are paralyzed and they suffocate.

Bruce hoped he didn’t have to use this method because he knew that it killed other meat eating species too; scattered amongst the dead foxes would be eagles, hawks, crows, dingoes and quolls. Any species that could swallow the small bait whole would die; those small enough to need to tear up the bait would be warned off by bitter, acrid taste.

There wasn’t as much return from hunting foxes as rabbit trapping, but he needed to stop them stealing his rabbits; the skins were worth good money and the Government paid a small bounty for fox scalps but they were hard to hunt so there was a lot more money in rabbits. While he cleaned the foxes out of the valley, his income would be halved at least; still, there was a depression going on, so he was doing better than a lot of people.

It had ended up taking Bruce a full week to clear out all the foxes and now there was another one of the mongrel things around. At dusk tonight, he’d try squealing it up; he was better off scaring the all rabbits away from his trap line for one night than spending days trying to trap one fox. As soon as he got back to camp, Bruce set to work cutting up an old jam tin; he cut a strip of tin about two inches long by one inch wide, before setting to work rounding its edges by rubbing it on a rock. Once the edges of his piece of tin were nicely rounded he bent it in half and poked a nail through the middle of the double thickness of tin.

Holding the doubled piece of tin between his lips he blew a series of short blasts; the high pitched squeal that came from his home-made whistle was a near-perfect imitation of a rabbits distress call. Rabbits only squeal when they’re in trouble and to a fox that usually meant an easy feed.

Just before dusk Bruce picked up his old twelve gauge shotgun and headed for the edge of the gully, near where he’d seen the droppings. Settling himself down amongst some rocks, he placed his whistle between his lips; as a rabbit trapper, Bruce had heard enough rabbits squealing in pain to imitate the sound to perfection. It only took minutes to get a response; foxes usually respond to a rabbit squeal in one of two ways, either they dash across the area at a full run and look what is happening as they go, or they circle in slowly, creeping from cover to cover, ready to bolt at the first sign of danger. Bruce didn’t often use his shotgun but if he used his rifle he had no chance if the fox came at a run.

Bruce saw the fox coming long before it was in effective range of the shotgun he carried; slowly he changed position so that he faced the direction the fox was coming from, one wrong move and the fox would not respond to his whistle again for days. For five long minutes he sat motionless, except for his cheeks, as he continued to blow his whistle, luring the fox in to its death; he needed to balance the range of his shot with the risk of scaring the fox – if he shot too early, the range would be further and he may not kill his prey, if he waited too long the fox might pick up his scent and escape.

Finally, he lifted the gun to his shoulder in a slow, even movement; even this single movement could scare the fox and lose him another nights trapping. Bruce didn’t move to aim at his prey, rather he waited until the fox moved into his line of sight. The stock of the old shotgun hammered back into his shoulder and the barrel bucked upward when he pulled the trigger; his gun had a full choke, which meant that the barrel narrowed, holding the pellets into a tight ball as they left the gun. By the time they reached the fox twenty yards away, they had spread out to a rough circle about a foot across. Bruce had always been a good shot, and the cluster of pellets hit the fox full in the chest; its body lifted off the ground by the impact, it died instantly.

With the damage to the skin from the pellets it was useless so Bruce simply stripped away the skin from the bony tail for the bounty the Government would pay. Bruce wondered if it was even worth going round his traps tonight; with the squealing and report of his shotgun, he doubted if any rabbits would be out till long after dark.

About a foolhardy florilegium

Nullius addictus iurare in verba magistri, quo me cumque rapit tempestas, deferor hospes.
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