It was a cold February morning; the air was damp and chilly. The shooting season had finished and though our shoot had a successful return on our birds, there was still a lot of work to do. It is a family shoot, the cornerstones of which are the beating and picking-up team ? a small but dedicated group that works tirelessly throughout the year to provide the sport for the Guns. Without their experience, graft, sticks and dogs we would have no shoot, and this should never be forgotten. In return, the shoot provides an abundance of sporting opportunities for those eager to continue during the close season.
We carry on feeding after the season until ample wild food is available, but the harsh weather has drawn some unwanted visitors to the feeders in one of the pens ? Rattus norvegicus, the brown rat. Steeped in folklore and myth, this creature is despised by man and has the tenacity to survive almost anywhere.
In February, like many others across the country, our shoot opens up for a spot of roostshooting and wildlife management. With the rat encroachment in mind, I organised for everyone to meet up on the first Saturday of the month to partake in a spot of ratting before the pigeon. Expectations were high as the team gathered at the site ? ratting really gets the adrenaline pumping.
Ratting is one pursuit that I defy anyone to call dull or uneventful. It costs nothing in monetary terms, but the value of the sport and the companionship it provides are priceless. All you need are rats, a few able bodies with sticks, dogs and a smoker ? which is effectively a chainsaw with its chain removed. The machine pumps over-oiled exhaust fumes into the rats? burrows and nests through a hand-held pipe. When the rats bolt, either a dog?s mouth or a stout stick can despatch them. Steve Nice, a good friend and hunting companion of mine owns a smoker, so he was to be in charge of manoeuvring it into any likely crack or crevice.
The rest of us were armed with nothing more than plastic pipes, hazel sticks and plenty of enthusiasm.
Smoke ?em out
After a team talk and risk assessment, we were off. You have to be careful when ratting to treat and protect any open cuts or wounds, as rats are carriers of Weil?s disease. The threat of infection is not a risk worth taking, so anyone handling rats should wear gloves to protect themselves. If bitten, dogs should also be treated.
As the baton-wielding mob walked slowly behind Steve and his smoker, the bare oak plantation filled with what sounded like applause in the still winter air ? not from spectators, but from a flock of woodpigeon as they took flight. I knew where the rats? runs were and where they would run to, so blocking their escape routes was relatively easy once we reached the pheasant pen. The mesh pen door swung open and, like the Pied Piper, Steve and his smoker entered the pen with his line of followers. He started the engine and we were in business.
Men, women and children stood shoulder-to-shoulder waiting for a rat to bolt. The dogs, Andrew Wells-Baker?s ?Walberswick whirriers?, were eager to stamp their authority on the proceedings and to beat us to any rats that bolted. Flash, Gracie and Sparky are three lurchers of terrier and whippet-infused blood. They are quick, tenacious and obedient ? an ideal mixture for this sport.
We were starting to grow impatient, waiting for some action, and as the smoke filtered through the rat warren, I killed nothing except time while demonstrating my de-luxe rat squasher ? a bendy drainage pipe cleaner with a brass fitting on the end.
As the smoke made its way to the lower levels of the burrows, the first rat, unable to take any more noxious fumes, spluttered into fresh air and made a dash for safety. It wasn?t very successful. Barely a foot into its journey, the vice-like grip of Flash?s jaws put the first rat in the bag. It was held aloft from its scaly tail by a gloved hand, and a loud cheer went up. The dogs were busy, always on the go and marked the rats well, illustrating the versatility of lurchers. The three dogs caught the next few clinically, not giving the rats any time to turn back and hide.
Andrew?s sons, Hugo and Cairns, along with Simon ?Chuckie? Muirhead, could reach places the adults struggled to, and Simon?s grandfather, Roger, chuckled as grown men ran after rats like youngsters. Slowing the pace a bit, we then dug out another couple of nests to witness the phenomenal speed with which the dogs could strike.
The smoker used more oil than fuel, but as the fumes billowed through the small pipes, another head poked out. A shout went up: ?Rat!? Giving me the eye was one ugly rodent. This scabby customer must have known that I was the weak link in the surrounding group, as it ran directly towards me. This was the moment I had been waiting for, but my usually good hand-to-eye coordination went to pot. With a swoosh and a bang, dirt flicked up off the ground as I hit a branch. The rat headed between my legs as I swung again. I turned around to give it another whack, but it seems that it is not only when shooting that I miss with both barrels. The rat had almost reached the tree when suddenly Flash snatched it into the air and gave it a crunch and a shake. My pathetic attempts to splat this rat drew much laughter from my companions.
No place of safety
After a brief flurry of action, the spade was called for again. We broke through to let some light and air on to the rats that would rather choke than dash for safety ? there would be no hiding inside this pen today. As we dug down to a snug nest we uncovered a secret stash of grain ? more than four hands full ? that had been taken by these rodent thieves.
All too soon, we had run out of rats to kill. At the end of the session, we had let not one rat escape, and we walked away with 14, which had reached a good size courtesy of my feeders. This was no big bag compared with larger- scale ratting expeditions, but we did our best, and the dogs worked in an exemplary fashion. Once in the grip of the lurchers, there was only ever going to be one outcome. None of us was comparable to Jack Black, Queen Victoria?s famous rat and mole catcher, but what we lacked in skill we more than made up for in enthusiasm. We all had a fantastic day and both the canine and human ratters were satisfied with their work. At least the feeders were once again free from these rodents and the grain could reach its intended beneficiaries.
To me this day encompassed all that post-season ratting is about: fun, vermin control and the chance to share great moments with your friends.
Ratting may not offer the glamour or food that other sports can, but it does provide something special ? it allows us to rid our pen of rats without the use of toxic substances and it enables everyone, no matter how old, to run around like children.