Fire in the hills

On a crystal-clear winter’s day, a growing plume of smoke stood out boldly in the sky. About eight kilometres away a bushfire had started and was working its way up through the foothills and into the ranges beyond. From the vantage point on my patio I could tell the fire was right behind a couple of farms where, for the past few months, I’d been chasing wild dogs. So far I hadn’t had a chance to squeeze the trigger on one, despite considerable effort and time. However, watching the rising column of smoke, it occurred to me those fires might be to my advantage.

The foothills and rugged ranges behind them provide sanctuary and breeding grounds for numerous packs of wild dogs, ranging in size from a single pair to groups of more than 20. They attack cattle and calves, killing a few for food but injuring many more with bites that become infected then often prove fatal. Wild dogs have also been on a rampage against domestic dogs. Many pet and working dogs in the area have been badly savaged, with quite a few killed or dying from their injuries.

I visited the farm, met the owners and went for a drive around. A substantial valley ran along the back boundary, separating the farm from the foothills. Cleared farmland extended up to the edge of the valley then semi-open forest down to the trickle of a creek that wound its way along the valley floor. A wall of dense scrub extended up through kilometres of foothills and ranges beyond, where wild dogs had free reign to raid the bordering farms at will.

I returned with a batch of trail cameras and put them in promising places, sneaking in every few days to call from the edge of the valley before moving down to swap the SD cards in the cameras. The photos largely corroborated what the farmer had said - wild dogs were highly variable in their visiting times but tended to access the valley at a couple of specific locations, a major advantage to me.

One issue was my choice of ammunition. Some years ago I adopted the 60-grain Nosler Partition as the everyday load in my Savage 11 FCNS in .223 Remington and I’m happy with that. Handloaded to a muzzle velocity of 3100fps it has an unblemished record for clean, fast, one-shot kills on wild dogs, boar, deer and goats. On wild dogs it hits particularly hard and invariably exits.

However, the more lightly-forested right hand rear corner of the farm had neighbouring residences near the boundary. This was where wild dogs were often sighted and a spot I wanted to work on when I wasn’t concentrating on the prime spot half a kilometre away. These neighbouring folks were supportive of my efforts, most of them having lost pets to the wild packs. Nevertheless, I wanted to take any reasonable chance at wild dogs there without the risk of an exiting projectile skipping off to hit a roof or bust a window.

So I loaded some 55-grain Nosler Ballistic Tips, using a recipe that served me well in previous .223 Remington rifles, and headed to the range. Pleasingly, the BTs shot to almost the same point of impact at 100m as my 60-grain Nosler Partition load. I tweaked the sighting on the Swarovski z8i 1.7-13.3x42 scope to put the 55 grainers 1.5^ high at 100m. Just to be sure, before I packed up I ran a five-shot group of 60-grain Nosler Partitions through. The group was as it should be, a smidge under MOA, just a little to the right of point of aim and about an inch lower than the 55gn Ballistic Tips. For all intents and purposes, under field conditions both loadings shot to the same POI.

I was getting encouraging but at times frustrating photos from the trail camera in the prime valley floor spot. It was trained on a green grassy glade in an otherwise scrubby and long grass-filled area. Just behind that patch of lawn was the solid wall of dense scrub jungle and it was from there the dogs came.

I laid a series of scent trails through the jungle leading back to the clearing. The camera told me this tactic was working as I had a growing collection of photos of dogs visiting at different times of day and night. The frustrating part was the camera showed I’d missed seeing wild dogs by only minutes on several occasions. The other frustration was the dogs’ random schedule, sometimes absent for a week then photographed several times a day for several days but always at non-repetitive times.

This glade was only visible through a narrow gap in the forest, even when within 50m. Conveniently, the slight prevailing breeze was in my favour so I could sneak into my chosen stake-out point in the dark, about 20 minutes before first light. On these early morning stakeouts I put a 3D camo poncho on and wore a camo soft. There was no point making any sort of structure from branches as inquisitive cattle would be sure to investigate and demolish it. Also, the sudden appearance of a structure might alert the dogs.

A strategically-placed galvanised screw provided an inconspicuous and effective thumb rest for my left hand. Most times I expected to be sitting there motionless for an hour or more. I’ve a habit of resting the fore-end of a rifle across my left wrist while holding on to a steadying object. That way I can have the rifle pointed at the location I expect the wild dog to appear, rifle loaded and cocked with the safety on. With the lowering of my head to the stock and flick of my thumb I was ready to shoot.

The other aid to my ambush point was to remove the few bushes and weeds blocking some of my shooting access. I did this one or two at a time and only when the trail camera showed there had been no dogs there for some days. During the course of a couple of months I greatly improved my zone of fire without alarming the dogs at all. The final aspect of such stake-outs is sitting still. I had confidence my pre-first light entry to the spot and the wearing of 3D camo while sitting motionless was effective, evidenced by the number of wallabies that passed close by without noticing. It was a similar story with birds, so in essence I was part of the landscape.

So it was, after a few months of solid but fruitless effort the bushfires in the hills gave me a new opportunity. I figured the large area of burnt-out bush would deprive the dogs of cover and chase away the wallabies and other game they prey on. More than likely the dogs would move closer to the farms and shelter in the unburnt bordering forest. The next day, with the fires still burning, I changed my routine and set off late morning. I chose to work an area where the bordering forest was thickest, figuring there would probably be a concentration of unsettled dogs present.

A heavy overcast had replaced the blue sky we’d enjoyed lately. There was an intermittent light drizzle so I pulled on a battered oil-skin jacket and, starting from where I normally conducted my early morning stakeouts, set off along the border with the forest.

My technique was to walk slowly from one stand to the next, keeping a keen eye. Here and there a few remnant rainforest trees stood in the pasture close to the solid wall of virgin jungle. I used those as cover and worked my Scotch bellows predator squealer, then waited patiently for 10 to 15 minutes before moving on to my next stand. I was well distant from the neighbouring houses and facing a huge tract of forest. I changed back to my standard load, the 60-grain Nosler Partition, to give me more scope at a fleeting chance.

My last stand was from beside a small, scatty bush, barely big enough to break up my outline. I used the squealer and waited, crouched behind a fence post. After 10 minutes I stood up and put on my backpack and as I slung my rifle over my shoulder, two wild dogs came trotting over the ridge line. I slipped the rifle off and chambered a round. The pair were not quite 100m away and came from the sheltering jungle, trotting with anticipation of an easy meal.

The big tan-coloured male was closer than the smaller black female. I gave a whistle and the black dog stopped to look in my direction. I’d been expecting that and shot her through the point of the shoulder the instant she stopped, the solid thump of a 60-grain Nosler Partition striking home. As often happens, the male was more alarmed by the close-by smack of the bullet hitting his companion than the report of my rifle. He sprinted forward and executed a brisk u-turn which brought him closer to me. As he loped past about 75m off, looking away from me and towards the spot where the bitch had been, I hit him cleanly through the heart. He collapsed in a heap without so much as a twitch.

Maybe it was good reasoning based on knowledge that had paid off, maybe luck. Either way I was happy with the result. I’d put in an extended effort on these wild dogs and it’s good to finally hit pay dirt. The farmer and his neighbours would be more than happy and the episode would cement my relationship with these folks so other opportunities would open. In the meantime I’ll keep doing my first-light stakeouts - there are still plenty wild dogs there and, one day, that technique will pay off.

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