Brer Fox

I have such a love/hate relationship with this guy. We have farmed sheep here and on other farms nearby for nigh on thirty years now, (and far longer elsewhere). When we first moved here Col Francis, a (now late) friend I used to go deer hunting with came around and managed to spotlight 34 foxes on our (home farm of) 25 acres in a single night!

We used to shoot a lot of foxes in the 1980s when the furs were still worth something (sometimes A$30+ per skin!. My friend paid for a brand new Toyota Land-Cruiser out of fox skins in a single year! They certainly paid for all our family Xmas presents back then – though it was a smelly unpleasant business getting them off, pegged out etc.

For years every Sunday I used to go hound hunting for foxes with my friend (the late) Dick Davies of Tarwin Lower. There were usually about half a dozen of us including Ray Quinney, Ken Fisher, John Harris, Brian Holcombe, Max Butterworth…half of us gone today.

We would normally surround a ‘fox patch’ (any small remnant piece of scrub) on local farmland, then let a couple of hounds in to flush them out. It was quick, exciting and simple work. Every year we shot over a thousand foxes! And sold their skins to people who wanted (wickedly) to wear them.

Dick also had a couple of Jack Russells (‘den dogs’ as he called them) which could be put down a fox’s burrow to harry it out. You should always have a couple of these about the place – as we do. These little guys are incredibly plucky. Though smaller and lighter than a fox they have more courage than any other dog known. They would not hesitate a second to fight a fox. After a few minutes they would be bleeding profusely from the nose – and you could bet Brer Fox was too.

It was then that you would catch the dog and put it back in the truck, and wait patiently and quietly. In almost exactly a timed five minutes that fox (or foxes) would come out of the earth like a shot fired from a cannon. You had to be right on the ball to ‘nail’ him or he would be gone. As much skill required as shooting a snipe – if you are old enough to have done this (legally) since the Government donated all our snipe to the Japanese years ago.

We once had lots of farms, some owned, some rented, some we used for free. But we are old now so have shrunk the acres down to this small patch which we will only leave for the grave.

There have always been so many foxes here, as we live in a small valley. Behind us is forest comprising numerous ‘Land for Wildlife’ small holdings where they breed up. Each night they flow down the valley like a small flood to raid the vast Morwell River flats and the neighbouring University town of Churchill.

I used to bait them starting back in the early 90s. I would put out two fox baits morning and night on opposite sides of the property (on ‘game’ trails – as you would). I scent marked the buried baits with a little (sild) sardine oil, which works very well to lure them in. Every day four baits were taken – equaling four dead foxes.

I did this for over two hundred days before there was a break – which lasted for only about a week, then another one hundred days of four dead foxes a night…The bush behind us was littered with dead foxes – yet I made no real impact on them. I did this for years.

This ‘Land for Wildlife’ is just protecting foxes, large macropods (kangaroos and wallabies) and innumerable wombats, all of which come down of a a night to freeload on our land – and the neighbours’. Well they don’t get to feast on our place much as we have had it ring-lock fenced with electric outriggers since around 1990, but they sure pass by in large crowds.

It is as nothing to see sixty kangaroos late afternoon in the paddocks on the opposite side of the valley. No-one else does anything to control all these pests. People’s stocking ratio is terribly limited by them. Between the wombats and the roos there is no vegetation at all under the bush in back of our place – just bare dirt. A veritable native plague. There is nothing for anything smaller to eat and nowhere to hide – and the innumerable foxes would lap them all up anyway! Land for wildlife…

We also have a plague of kookaburras in our valley. Since everyone else’s land was subdivided all the townies who have moved in feed these blighters. They are veritable foxes of the air. There is a roaming flock of over a dozen of them here. They snap up every smaller bird they see if it is found out in the open. We hardly ever have a pair of wagtails any more. They actually even ate out all the Indian Minahs in our valley!

They need to be relocated, or an open season declared on them. They monopolise every tree hollow so there is nowhere for parrots and other birds to nest. Anything which becomes too numerous becomes a pest.

As I have mentioned here, we are slowly working our way to building a ‘vermin-proof fence’ around our entire perimeter. Another year or so and it will be complete. There will then be no repetition of the tragedy I found when hanging out the washing this morning.

Some time ago a ring-tailed possum had moved in. He often used to greet us by walking across the front gate of a night as it opened for us (you can see he is a male). Recently he built a large nest in the shrubs we planted along the slope at the back of the house. Here it is:

He had put quite a lot of work into that mansion no doubt in the hope that Mrs Possum would soon be moving in to join him. Over the years we have planted many hundreds of useful edible type trees for them to dine off. We will continue until the whole 25 acres is so covered. There will still be lots of feed for the sheep under. More actually, counting the nutritious leaves and fruits which tumble down and our sheep just love to vacuum up!

Not the rubbishy native weeds other folks plant: gums and wattles, which are just the rubbish that comes up as a result of aboriginal burning and denutrification as nothing else will grow in phosphorus poor soil – appalling land management practices. They knew no better. It is why there were only a few hundred thousand of them in 1788 in a country which feeds nearer fifty million today, on a fraction of the land!

They had practically starved themselves out. It has been a lot of work to restore the productivity of farmed Australian soils. Our aim has been to have dozens of species of food trees producing at all times of the year. We have done the same on previous farms. About ten years after we first began, it came to be called ‘Permaculture’. Lots of native critters appreciate our efforts. They come from miles around to our ‘diner’.

So unfortunately does Brer Fox. Last night he dined (as you can see) on Mr Possum. I am deeply shattered by this. I will be (borrowing money if necessary to) complete our vermin proof fence this autumn. That way we will never lose another possum, nor another lamb either. These red menaces have been gnawing their way through between a third and a half of every lamb born, lambs which are actually worth a lot of money to us. In future they can go elsewhere for their free-loading.

Most of the time we have lived here we raised only rams on our home paddocks, so there was not the pressing need to protect lambs here. Baiting nowadays would kill many wandering pet dogs. Shooting would draw complaints. We will just fence them all out, and mop up the rest with one or two carefully controlled Maremmas which will likewise be contained when the fences are complete.

I think it will be surprising what (native) critters return after the foxes can no longer prey on them. Obviously first, lots of birds. We do love birds.The ducks will once again be able to raise their large waddling clutches on the farm dams. Quail will once again boom at dusk.

Before the Myxomatosis epidemic in 1956 everywhere you went there were endless bandicoots, pademelon wallabies, antechinus, infinite native jumping rats and mice, native and tiger cats (quolls they call them now – they have even forgotten there used to be a larger striped one!) – and, of course innumerable rabbits.

When ‘The Myxo’ killed the rabbits there was a huge stench of dead and rotten meat that lasted nearly a month. The odour was overpowering. We sincerely wished we could take a ‘holiday’ from it. Something like Bergen Belsen it was. The foxes, starved for anything else, ate them all out. To this day I have not seen a bandicoot, a quoll or a pademelon in the wild – though sometimes I see sign of them (bandicoots especially). They used to make these strange conical holes (with their noses) when feeding. Unmistakable. My hope is that they will come back when the predation ceases. They are back on my cousin’s property at Paterson where my great-great grandfather Thomas Westbury was sent out as a convict back in 1828.

Poor little guy:

PS: You know it was a fox as they always eat from the head down. With such a predilection for devouring brains you would think they might have evolved some horrid disease such as Kuru which inflicted the people of Highland New Guinea when they were cannibals – imagine a life form whose only means of transmission was feasting on the brains of the dead! Life will certainly ‘find a way’. Its symptoms were not unlike motor neurone disease. You wish just such a nasty end to a fox who does this.

Foxes are however a beautiful life form which I admire very much much – as I also loathe their abominable habits. What great survivors they are – and how clever. I once watched one ‘de-flea’ itself by holding a stick in its mouth and walking slowly into a dam until only the tip of its nose was out of the water but all the fleas had climbed out onto the stick!

We once hunted foxes out of a dead whale on Andersons Inlet with bloodhounds! What a din and a stench that was. If you have never heard a bloodhound belling from the stomach of a dead whale you have not lived! You can imagine ‘Trusty’ from ‘Lady and the Tramp’ pursuing the evil Reynard therein. Perhaps that is how he lost his sense of smell! Dick Davies’ ‘Tracker’ certainly did not. What a mighty voice he had. ‘Thunder’ is also a popular name for bloodhounds!

Another day we put the hounds into a large dryish dam – nothing but a patch of an acre or so of cumbungi. There were an even dozen foxes in there, so many the foxhounds could not sort them out at all. Only ‘Tracker,’ Dick’s favourite old bloodhound was up to the task.

Punctiliously he followed the trail of each one out to its corpse in succession – we shot them as they came out, you see. On this occasion I shot a pair of foxes together, one with the right barrel of my father’s old double barrel Breda shotgun and one with the left. Tracker had been on the scent of only one of them. He sniffed it peremptorily then went back for the last one.

It must have taken him well-nigh ten minutes to untangle and chase its trail right back to its corpse which had all along been lying not ten feet from the first one he was on. He had an amazing nose, that dog. he could scent trail across running water. I have sometimes seen him cross the Tarwin on a scent (a fox or betimes a tiny delicate hog deer) that I would have thought would have been carried far downstream by the current. He was the sire of my great old Bloodhound, Belle.

Oh, to be young again! Back then I got up on a Saturday morning in winter around 2:00am and drove over 200 kilometres to be eg on the Jordan River at 7:00am to hunt sambar deer (after a walk in leading dogs of 7 km!). Often I would not be home again until after midnight. Then I would be up again in the morning to make my lunch and help Dick load the hounds etc and be off fox hunting around Tarwin Lower at 8:00am Sunday.

Some days Harpoon, my best foxhound would have his pads worn down to the flesh by running all day. There were days he must have traveled nearly a hundred kilometres on them. On a Sunday morning he would be so footsore he could hardly drag himself out of his den. One morning I remember I felt sorry for him and purposed to leave him home. He would have none of it. he rushed over our electrified dog fence like a mountain torrent, exclaiming a couple of o loud doggie ‘Ouches’ as he came!

He was such a great blackberry dog. The bloodhounds were really too big and slow for blackberry patches. Harpoon had no thought for personal safety. He went through blackberry bushes like grease through a goose. in the winter time all the fur on his muzzle was always quite worn away and bald.

For many years I killed several hundred foxes. Like all deaths even theirs touched me with some regret. One day years ago I walked up the creek on our property into the ‘Land for Wildlife’ zone beyond. You can do this with impunity as the owners never venture into their ‘back paddocks’. The valley of over a thousand acres behind us was subdivided years ago so that people could build houses on the very top of the rim, then neglect the other 99% of their properties (save for putting the compulsory ‘virtue signalling’ signs at their front gates).

In the bottoms of the valley it is just a wilderness of weeds and vermin: tussock, ‘Purple Top’, blackberries, ragwort – you get the picture… Still, it was quite beautiful to come upon a vixen’s earth inhabited this spring morning by her litter of kits playing together in the dappled sunlight. Such a beautiful sight as they tumbled together in their joy and innocence. Much the way atomic bombs are awesomely beautiful but wholly destructive, I guess.

Despite my continuing war on foxes and my ongoing efforts to build a vermin-proof fence around our entire property so that wildlife may flourish undisturbed by their ‘ministrations,’ you should understand that I am not a ‘conservationist’. No farmer is. Ask any of the virtue signalers. We are all to a ‘man’ (even though better than half of us are of the fairer sex) rapacious despoilers of the land. If you actually do anything to improve the lot of wildlife by your own efforts and using your own money, you are (by definition) not a conservationist.

To be a real conservationist you need first to ‘have your heart in the right place’. Ergo, no hunter could possibly be. Despite the fact that most of the ‘duck swamps’ in Victoria were donated to the State (and maintained) by Field and Game (and like) members – & etc. Second, you need to seek the warm inner glow of conniving that it is the Government which spends other people’s money (and effort) on your pet projects, though well over 90% of this money goes to pay an army of uncivil servants – who do absolutely nothing! And will not.

Therefore those who advocate for vast, unmanaged ‘National Parks’ where weeds and vermin may proliferate and wildfires episodically destroy everything, (yet everyone is excluded from) are ‘true conservationists. If you would rather see no national parks, as I would, but a more sensible ‘conservation’ strategy (on public and private land – but without property confiscation) which might have really positive outcomes for real creatures (and plants), and maybe see people getting a livelihood too – and making a profit, (say from grazing, logging, mining, tourism etc) then naturally you are just base, and beneath contempt. Cheers, Steve.

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5 thoughts on “Brer Fox”

  1. This entry reminds me of what I’ve read of the dry west of my country (US). Fencing and over-grazing have contributed to desertification. The reaction to this was a philosophy of conservation where no access was allowed to much of the land, either by livestock or farmers. The end result of this “conservation” was that the condition of the land worsened even more, and wildlife left. Those who realized livestock were a critical piece of the system did research into reintroducing them and grazing a carefully controlled, appropriate amount. Amazingly, the land in those areas started to hold water again, the grass came back, streams came back, bushes and trees started to grow, birds returned, then other wildlife. This is all a bit of an oversimplification, but you can read all about it with the liberal application of web searches. The point is that we, the human race, are custodians of the wild. We don’t always get it right, but the worst thing we can do is abandon it.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful reply Nate. Too many folks think they can just virtue signal by decreeing vast areas to be ‘National Parks’ or some such reserve and that by so doing they are forever ‘saved’. Unfortunately they are mistaken. Everything has a way of working. We must learn what it is and help it along. The idea that a positive outcome can be obtained without work is just a magical idea. If anything public land needs as much work as farm land. This can be even harder as it is not so easy to apply industrial scale machines to do that work. Leaving it alone though means that other huge kinds of ‘work’ such as uncontrolled wildfires will be the result. Cheers, Steve

  2. Thanks Steve I’m heading that way very soon, I was actually looking for a feed of crays but couldn’t find any and it was nice to stretch my wonky and somewhat lanky legs… lets call it preseason training!.

  3. Vulpes Vulpes aka the red fox is the bain of every Australian mammal, reptile and bird and should be destroyed on sight, along with all feral cats[ I hate them more than foxes!],Yet people want to protect these vicious disease carrying wildlife KILLERS!?, $10 per head as a bounty isn’t enough to encourage hunters to shoot and skin these stinky buggers and the department of name changes wont accept scalps at all their office’s… WHY????, I’ve lost count of how many of those murderous things I’ve shot..but I still get a big smile on my face every time I knock one over!!, we’re lucky on our farm cause we are Beef farmers and the foxes get belted by the cattle if they get to close but occasionally we’ve had them chew the tongue of a new born..But not very often, I don’t class Macropods as vermin… they were here way before us and this land is their home, down here on the Mornington Peninsula a big effort is being put in to bring back the Bandicoots and Quolls and the reduction of foxes[foxwatch],Don’t watch just SHOOT I say… anyway that’s my 2cents worth. BTW had a chance to have a wander around the Tarago and Latrobe rivers yesterday, both pretty low and blocked by fallen trees, found some very big stag prints and rubs but no smell so must have been a couple of days old??. t was just so nice to get back in the bush!.

    1. There certainly needs to be fewer foxes – but in our area there also needs to be many fewer wombats (at least they are a declared pest and you can shoot them on sight) and many fewer kangaroos and wallabies. We also have a plague of kookaburras. The only river with enough water is the Thomson, as I told you before. There is a much larger concentration of deer farther East. Cheers, Steve.

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