I always feel a bit depressed at this time of the year when the shooting season is well and truly finished. However, I was recently invited to the Ramridge Ratters? annual rat-hunting foray near Kimpton, in Bedfordshire, and any blues immediately disappeared. I was excited about the prospect of spending a morning watching a pack of terriers and a couple of lurchers working, and it was also a good opportunity to try out a new camera.
At the farm we were greeted by mugs of steaming coffee and plenty of freshly cooked biscuits ? this wasn?t like any rat hunt I had ever been on before. There was also a health and safety chat: no-one wanted any accidents to humans or dogs. The Ramridge Ratters were formed about five years ago after one of the team was asked by a local farmer if he knew of anyone who could help out with his rat problem. A few phone calls later, his rat problem was on the way to being solved. The lads all went to school together and, though they openly admit that ratting is good sport, they also take the clearing of rats seriously and are thorough in their work.
There was an excellent turnout and a particularly good collection of dogs, including some tough-looking Patterdales, a few Jack Russells and three lurchers. The boys had already planned their campaign; as well as having a bit of fun, they were there to do a job and reduce the farm?s rat population. Before we could start on the bales, the farmer had asked if the team could take a look around the hen house. Anyone who keeps chickens will know that, normally, where there are hens, there are rats, and in no time at all the terriers were marking some well-used holes underneath the shed. For those who have never experienced the excitement of ratting, there are various ways of getting the rodents to leave the sanctuary of their holes. You can use ferrets to make them bolt but, with the number of hot-blooded terriers around, that could have got messy. Another way is to use a smoker, and the team came well prepared. It wasn?t long before the action started. I don?t know what it is about rats that turns tough men into screaming banshees. Voices go up a few octaves and people start jumping about, waving sticks in the air, shouting: ?Here, dogs! Here, dogs!? After a busy half hour, it was decided to move up to the bales and everyone?s heart rate increased, as the dogs were marking frantically at the bottom of the windbreak.
The team had decided to tip the bales over by hand and to do every other one. I had to steel myself, as I wanted to get some eye-level shots and that meant I would be right in the middle of bolting rats and chasing terriers. As the first bale went over all hell broke loose; rats ran everywhere, hotly pursued by the dogs. I?m not sure how many came out of the first bale, but many got away by running to the next one along the line. Then the lads? strategy became clear. With every other bale tipped over, the ones left standing became the rats? sanctuary, which ensured plenty of work for the dogs when it came to moving those particular bales. Watching dogs ratting can look brutal, but the rats die instantly: a quick shake and it is all over. Even after the first set of bales had been finished, the dogs got to work marking the holes that the rats had made and, as a couple of the lads got to work with a spade, rats started to bolt from under the ground. We could have spent all day digging and smoking out rats from under the first set of bales, but time was drawing on and there was another line of bales that needed doing.
With the second set of bales, the lurchers came into their own as the rodents tried to make a run for it across the fields. As the terriers got stuck in under the bales, the sight hounds kept watch for the escapees. The tally grew and it wasn?t long before the magic 100 came up.
A prolific pest
Though it was early February, we found numerous nests with young, which only goes to show what a prolific breeder the rat is. They can have up to eight litters in a year with up to 20 young in each and they can start breeding as early as six weeks old. I am no mathematician, but even I can appreciate that one female rat can be responsible for an incredible number of offspring in one year and, with the price of grain at £200 a tonne, along with the increase in pellet costs, the food they take can represent a significant loss to any shoot.
By mid-afternoon, the dogs had worked hard and, to everyone?s surprise, the final tally was an incredible 151 rats. I am sure, given a couple more hours, we could have easily gone over the 200 mark, but the promise of more coffee and sausage rolls and the falling temperature was enough to persuade the team to call it a day and to retire to the warmth of the farm buildings. Thanks must go to all the Ramridge Ratters and, though everyone had great fun, it must be noted that the day was also about dealing with a prevalent pest in a humane way, and credit must be given to everyone for the way they went about their business.