Friday, November 07, 2014

Finding Your First Fox



So you want to go digging on fox .... Well, good luck with that!

You have, of course, been digging on the dogs before?

If not, fox hunting is not (yet) for you.

Instead, take the time to collect the proper tools (including a locator collar and box, a decent shovel and digging bar, a proper vet kit, and a copy of American Working Terriers).

Spend at least a season working your terrier to groundhog and learning how to use a bar, shovel, posthole digger and locator box.

If you have spent the last spring, summer and fall working groundhogs and have found a possum or raccoon or two, you may be thinking you are now ready for fox.

And perhaps you are!

I consider fox easier than groundhog in many ways.

For one, a fox cannot dig away from you!

And, to be honest, no matter how eager you are to find a fox that first season, there's a very good chance you will come up blank.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Both dogs and humans can learn a lot by spending more quality time in the field observing.

A blank day is not a wasted day, provided you have kept your eyes opened. At the very least, you are learning to appreciate the craft of finding wild game. The sport is called hunting (and not finding) for a reason!

But let me try to be helpful.

What is it that you should be looking for, and how do you go about improving your odds?

Well, to start with, let's talk about those odds.

In fertile corn and soybean country in the Middle Atlantic (some of the very best red fox country in the U.S.A.) fox densities are about one for every square mile or so (600-700 acres).

It is true that in the rolling hills of suburbia, fox densities can be higher than this, but it is also true that it is exceedingly hard to get permission to dig in people's suburban yards. And as for the notion of digging in suburban park land bordering a housing development -- this is strictly verboten unless you want to make unpleasant acquaintance with local officials eager for their own story to tell!

Then, there is the little matter of the weather. If you are looking for fox, you want it really cold and preferably windy as well.

If the weather is above 35 degrees and not blowing, the chance of finding a fox to ground plummets, as most fox will lie out on top rather than go to ground.

Was there a massive ice storm last night? Is it now blowing 20 miles per hour? Perfect! Now if only the roads were safe enough for you to get out to the farms ....

The bottom line is that even successful fox hunting promises a long walk in fairly unpleasant weather carrying heavy tools. No surprise then to find that this activity is not quite a growth sport!

Fox work in my area runs from the first of January to the end of February and, for the record, I do not dispatch fox but let them bolt off unharmed. Unlike groundhogs, fox are not a pest unless free-range chickens and ducks are around, and most of the time they are a very powerful force for good, as they reduce white-footed deer mice populations (which are the primary host of Lyme disease).

OK, you have some experience working your terriers to other quarry, and you have made peace with walking a couple of miles in rotten weather while carrying heavy tools. Now what?

Think about the farms you have hunted on in the last year.

As a general rule, fox like to den within a few hundred yards from a water source. That water source may be very slight -- something as small as a permanent puddle in the lowest part of a field swale. If there is no water anywhere on a farm, however, you are not likely to find a fox den -- or at least that has been my experience.

Now think about drainage and soil quality. Fox demand dens that are dry, and so they tend to prefer areas with good drainage. A small slope is good. If the den is on flat ground, it will probably be in a cut-over corn field where previous plowing has made the soil relatively friable and free of stone. Expect dens on flat ground to be deeper than most of the groundhog dens you have dug this year -- four or five feet is a good guess, but six or seven is not out of the question.



OK, so you have thought about your farms and picked a few likely prospects in your mind. Now what?

Well, the first thing is to shut the hell up -- no slamming of truck doors, banging of tools, loud talking or calling the dogs. As much as possible, communicate with hand signs.

Why is this? Simple: even in bad weather, fox are often jungled up at the edge of their holes, nose out, and only lightly dozing. A loud noise is just enough to let them know you are coming down the hedgerow or across the field -- more than enough time for them to slide out of the hole and disappear into a thicket.

Once you have found a hole, how do you know if it is a fox den or not?

Well, it helps a hell of a lot if the terrier enters and begins to bay!

That said, not all fox dens are occupied, and no matter how quiet you try to be, you will often come across a fox den that has been abandoned only a few minutes before.

How can you tell?

Well, for one thing, in December, January and the first week or two of February, an active fox den will smell slightly skunky. This is the musky scent of the female fox, and it serves both to attract the male and to stake out the territory from rival females.

This foxy scent will fade off rather abruptly in mid-February, and by the time the pups are born around the second week of March , there will be no scent whatsoever.

Look for scat at the edge of a fox den. A fox will typically leave a little souvenir as his or her "calling card" at the edge of the den.

What's a fox turd look like? Well, they are tapered on both ends, and are about at thick as your little finger or ring finger, and just about as long as well. If you look closely at the ends, or break it open, you will see numerous mouse hairs inside.

The most obvious sign of a fox den, of course, is that there has been recent digging.

Raccoon and possum do not dig their own dens, and in January all of the groundhogs will be hibernating. Those few groundhogs that might wake up for a quick "latrine dump" in early February will just push their dirt "clean out" plug to the lip and no farther.

A fox, on the other hand, will kick dirt behind it in a rather vigorous plume extending some distance from the hole.

A fox digs just like a dog, and there will be no attempt to pack down the earth. In fact if you have had the presence of mind to leash up the dogs before actually getting to the hole, you may find fox tracks in the kickout dirt itself.

If you check a fox den and there is no one home, do not come back for two weeks; you want the scent of the dog to disappear and the fox to feel comfortable with this den location.

That said, be aware that a fox will not necessarily occupy all the dens excavated. Some dens are "safety" dens dug in case a primary den floods, collapses, or becomes flea-infested. Yes, it's true; fox have a "lair and a spare" plan for life.

Beginning in mid-January the chance of finding a fox to ground will rise as pregnant females become less eager to travel and spend longer and longer periods to ground.

If you have followed directions, and kept quiet while approaching a fox den, I advise you to continue to keep quite while fox nets are set. Then release a single terrier to go to ground.

Most of the time, a fox will bolt to the nets pretty quickly if it hears a working terrier behind it, and nothing chattering away topside.

If the fox bolts to the net, be careful freeing the fox, working from the back feet towards the head while keeping a boot firmly on the body if you are doing this alone. It helps to have another pair of hands, but it can be done alone without losing a finger provided you are careful and hold firmly to the neck scruff and one ear while dislodging the last bit of net at the head.

If you are digging, remember to make the hole big enough. The rule is simple: as big around on at least one side as the dig is deep. Keep the sides square and the bottom flat. If the hole is deeper than four feet, I personally prefer a square hole about five feet on a side, as it gives me room to move.

When you get down to the dog, pull it and stake it out of the wind if you can, being careful to put in a shovel to prevent the fox from bolting. The dog's job is done when it has found the fox and bottled it in a stop end. Protecting the dog from unnecessary injury is the very essence of sound terrier work.

At this point, you will probably have to dig a bit more up the pipe to get a good view of the fox. When that is done, you can then net the hole and drive a bar behind the fox encouraging it to to bolt (this will not always work), walk away from the hole and wait for the fox to bolt on its own (this will not take long if you are at least 30 feet back and remain quiet), or you can dig down to where you can see the fox clearly and then let it bolt to a pole snare.

In the U.K, some brave souls will reach in and scruff a fox out by hand, but in my area, where rabies is very common, I do not consider this "best practice."

All intentional fox work should cease on March 1st.

Fox cubs are generally whelped in early- to mid-March, at which point a vixen will generally move her cubs from an open-field den to a smaller, less conspicuous den in a hedgerow. This den may be nothing more than an old groundhog hole without any significant dirt kick-out at all. There will be no fox smell -- the pheromones will have long since fallen away.

If you are digging on groundhogs in March and April, a sure-sign that you have a fox den, and should back away, is that along with a little fox scat at the den hole, you may also have a few dead voles, a bird wing or a few feathers, an old bone, or a piece of deer hide or two.

These are the remnants of food brought back from the field, and some pieces, such as bits of hide, bone, and an old bird wing, may serve as toys for the fox pups. I have actually found a pet store dog chew toy at a fox den located near a farm house -- stolen from the neighborhood dog no doubt!

If you dig down and find fox pups, simply roll them back into the den unharmed and cover the den over as best you can with pieces of bark and brush. The vixen is not far off and is watching, and as soon as she is sure you have left, she will return and move the pups to another groundhog den nearby.

Fox mortality is naturally high, with an average of 4-5 pups born per vixen, and only three making it to the age of six months, and only two making it to the age of nine months. Starvation, disease (such as distemper and mange), and vehicle impact are the three primary killers of fox, and annual mortality is about 60 percent.

Dog foxes will be driven out of their natal areas by the age of nine months, while young vixens will generally be allowed to stay in the area as "satellite vixens" to help out in the next year -- if they do not go off on their own with a "just passing through" male.

Satellite vixens will not mate or have pups; only the alpha female and the dog fox will do that.

If the alpha vixen is killed or dies of disease, a satellite vixen may take her place, but since male fox rarely live past age four, there is very little deep inbreeding in wild fox populations as the gene pool is always rolling forward and moving out.
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1 comment:

Robert Ballard said...

While hiking a pair of dogs, I once found a fox's den in early April. The surface outside the hole was packed smooth and littered with a rabbit's hindquarter( lunch) and a gleaming white opossum's skull covered with tiny scratches from tiny teeth. I left it and went on my way to fish a while and called my dogs before they found the den. On the way back, I had rod and tackle box in my left hand while the right held the leads of a red-nosed male pit and a Scottish Deerhound. Next to the hole, a fox leapt down to the trail and stared at us a moment or two from ten yards,glorious in his/her red finery. When they were quite sure those creatures had seen them they bounced slowly and noisily away from the nest. I dragged the dogs on to the car. Excellent post. I learn quite a bit from you. Had no clue that the white-footed deer mouse was the lyme vector. Could the increase in the incidence of Lyme be connected with the rise of the coyote who usually eat a lot of foxes?