A dead fox, urban sheep, countryside cowboys

Sheepcote valley

Just back from a brilliant ramble around Sheepcote Valley on the eastern edges of Brighton, an area of chalk downland now undergoing conservation grazing by a flock of ‘urban’ sheep. As we moved down from the ridge into the valley, Paul the ranger almost stumbled over the corpse of a fox, a young male about one or two years old; dead for at least a couple of weeks, it had until recently been covered by snow. He mentioned having heard about a likely lamping expedition 2 or 3 weeks ago, just before the snow fell across the Downs, and only the 2nd such incident in the Valley he knew of in the last 2/3 years.  He turned over the corpse with his feet to check on possible causes of death, saw a large hole in its side, most likely from a rifle shot.

Lamping is a method of night hunting using off-road vehicles with high-powered spotlights, that uses the eyeshine of animals to identify and target them. Spotlights are used because of the tendency for many animals, such as foxes and rabbits, to stare into the light rather than run away, as they would from humans. They are immobilised by the light and are then shot. Importantly, In Britain, while lamping foxes using dogs is now illegal, lamping then shooting is legal. However, no-one can kill a badger in Britain without a licence.

dead fox

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) publish a code of practice for lamping specifically as pest control, carried out with a landowner’s consent:
The night shooting of foxes and ground game is necessary to ensure that damage to game, wildlife, livestock and growing crops is kept at acceptable levels. It is a safe and effective method of control.[…] There are no specific legal restrictions on the night shooting of foxes. Authorised persons may legally carry out this form of fox control. Ensure you comply with previous guidance in this code.

But we also have The Hunting Life, that describes an essentially illegal activity: Lamping with lurchers at night can provide fast action and really get the heart racing […] Lamping with air guns and high-powered rifles at night can be lethal for pest and predator control at longer ranges, and provides great sport for the hunter.

in 2004, a boy of 13 was shot dead in a lamping incident near Totnes, Devon. Subsequently, an investigation by The Independent indicated its widespread illegal use and persecution of wildlife, from blasting at rabbits and hares, more organised deer poaching, to persecution of badgers. The RSPCA described illegal lampers as ‘thugs of the countryside’ and a redneck culture across Britain of people going out into the countryside ‘blasting at anything that moves’. At the 2004 Liberal Democrat conference, a member of a Montgomeryshire hunt explained how lamping was leading to a new type of ‘countryside cowboy’.

Scientific evidence suggests that the fox is not a mass killer, as popularly described, but has an important role to play in countryside ecology, and that fox populations self-regulate without the need for human intervention.

Sheepcote valley lies below the racecourse, on the eastern edge of Brighton, now included in the South Downs National Park, but very much on the urban fringe. It is public land, not private, and anyone taking part in a lamping expedition would have been doing so illegally, Sussex ‘cowboys’ with rifles.

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