Led by professional pest-controller Neil Aspinall, the team of amateur rat catchers started the day with glasses of champagne and sloe gin. “We treat ratting days like any other sporting day out,” Neil said. “Yes, we are here to do a dirty job, but we try to keep the day civilised.”

The first place to clear of vermin was a municipal landfill site in Chorley, Lancashire. I was hit by the overwhelming stench of rotting household rubbish as I walked on to the site. As I banged an alkathene pipe on broken television sets and bags of kitchen refuse to help flush the rats, the terriers switched to hunting mode. I scanned the 20ft pile of rubbish in front of me, watching for movement. Then, from under a mattress, four enormous rats bolted and attempted to escape under a ledge. Snooze, a well-built Parson Jack Russell, and Tilly, a Border terrier, speedily despatched one of the rodents and set about squabbling over the carcase.

“In an environment such as this, where there is abundant food, ratting with terriers is the only effective method of control. Poison is useless as the rats are not interested in the bait,” explained Neil.

In charge of smoking out the rats was seasoned ratter Kim Fell. Using a carbon-monoxide smoker made from a disused chainsaw, he placed the rubber tube into one of the small rat holes under a pile of discarded tractor tyres. Kim knew from experience which path the bolting rats would take and hastily directed the rest of the team to block all possible exits with broken bricks. As the gas smoked its way deeper underground, Kim told me that he once lost a dog to a rat. “A few years ago, my prized black Patterdale terrier contracted leptospirosis — or Weil’s disease — after being bitten by a rat. It was devastating at the time, but it is a risk that ratters take to get the job done,” he said.

The smoking out proved extremely fruitful as rat after rat fled straight into the waiting jaws of a terrier. Even Sascha, an eight-year-old brindle Staffordshire bull terrier cross that had never been ratting before, became an astute hunter and managed to grab a rat trying to make a getaway through the

open warehouse door.

As seagulls called to each other above our heads, the ratters moved on to the next area of the dump, a grassy bank strewn with litter and pitted with rat burrows. Armed with piping and golf clubs, the team formed a semicircle around the bank and waited quietly for the quarry to emerge. Suddenly an enormous rat darted from the bank, attempting to escape across a deep puddle before the terriers pinned it up against a rusty shipping container.

Down on the farm

The venue for the afternoon was a nearby chicken farm in Little Hoole. Craig Blackburn, whose pest control company Wipeout UK has the contract on the farm, explained that our presence there would be welcomed: “Farmers appreciate big groups of rat catchers like us working hedgerows, smoking out every last rat.”

Hidden beneath wooden warehouses full of laying hens were dozens of rats. “Putting down poison to eradicate rats only does so much. Ratting is one of the most traditional forms of pest control and it is a rural occupation that has stood the test of time simply because it is so effective,” explained Craig.

As they waited for the ratters to set about smoking out the rodents, the dogs’ excitement boiled over and they occasionally nipped each other. Sure enough, rats started to bolt from underneath the hedgerow. With an almighty crack, Duncan Thomas managed to despatch one of the rats using his piping.

“I don’t think I have ever done that before. I had to give it lead, just like a pheasant!”

“One man’s vermin is another man’s sport,” exclaimed Duncan, who took his wife, Jo, ratting on their first date. “Ratting is a proper day out. Who’d have thought such inhospitable places could produce so much fun and sport?”

It was impossible to know what our final bag was, as many of the rats were destroyed by the dogs. “The bag is probably near to 30,” said Kim, “which is very satisfactory. Some people don’t like the idea of ratting, but it is the sport of kings in my opinion.” 