What you need to know about lamping rats with your airgun and bait.

Airguns and lamping rats

Airguns can be put to good use controlling rats around farmyards and outbuildings during the winter months. Cold weather and the subsequent disappearance of natural food sources often creates a mass migration by these scaly-tailed pests from their homes in hedge banks and ditches to the potential easy pickings and shelter available on a farm.

The following will act as magnets for rats who are looking for cover from harsh weather.

  • Heaps of rubble
  • Dilapidated sheds,
  • Stacks of logs
  • Piles of scrap metal
  • Log stacks
  • Animal feed and grain

Add to the above the rat’s ability to breed year long, and it’s no surprise that many farms become overrun when the temperature plunges.

Of course, there will be measures in place to manage rats – usually poison – and an airgunner can offer a useful addition to the constant battle campaign.

Ratting terrier

Ratting with terriers

I’ve been to a meet or two 
in my time: beagle packs on village greens; minkhounds 
on crumbling stone bridges…

Why airguns are particularly suitable for rat control

Quite wrongly, the limited power of legal limit (sub-12ft/lb) air rifles is often regarded as a drawback. In fact, lower power levels and the consequent reduction in the distance of carry and risk of ricochet can often be a huge advantage — especially when carrying out pest control in confined spaces or close to livestock. With sensible use of backstops — most often concrete walls in a farmyard scenario — an airgun can be safely and effectively used in places where you wouldn’t dream of firing a shotgun or rimfire rifle.

Experimenting with bait

Even though rats are disliked as pests, they should be treated with the same respect in terms of swift despatch that a hunter should try to give any quarry. Rats are surprisingly hardy creatures and I try to take them out with headshots — this sounds like a tall order until you consider that farmyard rat shooting is rarely done at ranges much beyond 15m. With practice, most people should be able to group shots within a 25mm circle when using a pre-charged airgun to shoot at 15m from a stable sitting position. The tricky thing, however, is getting rats to keep still long enough for you to get a steady bead on their head. I find that the best solution is to stall them with some bait.

Talking rat bait

Over the years, I’ve experimented with all kinds of bait. Early favourites included smelly cheese and tinned sweetcorn but, despite these offerings proving tempting, the scaly-tails would never stop to feed for very long — often pausing for a quick sniff and a nibble before grabbing a chunk and darting back to their hiding place.

Frustration led me to try liquidised baits. Heaps of blitzed sweetcorn produced good results and then I moved on to liquidised cat food, which gave amazing results. Rats can’t resist piles of this smelly, fishy sludge, and the fact that it has been turned into a soup means they have to pause and lap it up if they want to get a bellyful.

The disadvantage with liquidised cat food is that you’ll need a dedicated food processor and it makes a heck of a stench if you knock it up in the kitchen. It is also messy to handle, and sticks to everything it comes into contact with. However, it can be transported and applied quite cleanly if you funnel it into plastic bottles and squeeze it out when you need it.

If you don’t fancy the rigmarole and mess of preparing and using liquidised cat food, there are less rancid, though slightly less effective, baits to try. Rats will stop to sniff and lick at chocolate spread, peanut butter, garlic purée and Marmite if you spread it along their runs, and there must be dozens of other tempters that I haven’t even considered.

The best time of day to start ratting

Rats start to become active at dusk. So arrive on the farm an hour or beforehand and take some time to look for the runs they use to travel between their nests and the places where they feed — maybe at a silage clamp, feed store or among cattle that are inside for the winter.

Find yourself a place to sit and wait about 12m or 15m away, then set out your baits where you can easily see them and take safe, unobstructed shots. Baits can be placed outside ratholes if you can’t locate the runs, although the occupants can become spooked and refuse to venture out. I usually transport my kit — which includes bait, torch, headlamp and stout gloves — in a small backpack that incorporates a fold-up stool. Apart from it being useful for carrying my ratting essentials, this also means I have a stable place to sit and shoot from if I can’t find a convenient stack of hay bales, feed sacks or pallets.

Ratting by lamplight

Obviously, nocturnal ratting sessions require a light to shoot by. My advice for after-dark shooting is “keep it simple” — so I use a conventional scope-mounted lamp usually.

Clip a lamp to the top of your scope and you’ve got light wherever you point the gun. Bearing in mind the close ranges you’ll be shooting at, there’s no need to splash out on a super-powerful lamp. In fact, lamplight that is dimmed down with a red filter is much less likely to spook rats than a dazzling beam.

Which airgun for ratting?

If you’re choosing an airgun specifically for ratting, go for one with compact proportions, so you can quickly swing on aim without fear of bashing the barrel when shooting in the confines of farm buildings. A magazine-fed loading system is also a help when shooting at night, as it will save you the hassle of blindly fumbling  into the breech when rats are scurrying about in front of you.

Familiarise yourself with the place by day

Finally, some words on safety. Farms can be dangerous places, so make sure you get to know the location in daylight and will be aware of any potential hazards that might be missed in the dark.

Rats can also be dangerous. They are known carriers of some nasty, potentially fatal diseases, including Weil’s disease. Infection can be picked up from contact with their urine, which could be literally anywhere. Never take foot and drink on a ratting trip.

Never handle rats with bare hands – that’s why you need stout gloves in your backpack. And if you’re clearing up the shot rats, move them with a shovel or space – and wear your gloves throughout.