The short days and long nights of winter signal peak ratting season for airgun shooters tasked with controlling farm rats, and night vision optics bring a whole new dimension to the annual crackdown.

Though conventional scope-mounted lamps still work well, night vision optics take stealth to a much higher level, enabling the shooter to sit in complete darkness and pick off unsuspecting rats one after another as they go about their night-time mischief. Best of all, good quality night vision units are becoming a lot more affordable.

Though you’re likely to see the odd rat around the farm during daylight hours — especially if the holding is seriously infested — their nocturnal habits mean you’ll encounter many more after sunset. Behaviour varies from place to place, and is affected by disturbances and the availability of food, but rats tend to become active as dusk sets in. The hours after twilight usually bring a flurry of activity as hungry rats scuttle around in search of tasty titbits before skulking, full-bellied, back to their hiding places.

Optical options

To take advantage of the evening frenzy, the rat shooter needs a sighting system that will cut through the gloom. There are lots to choose from. Scope-mounted lamps will do the job, and I regularly use a Deben Tracer unit to good effect. Because rats are twitchy I tend to use the lamp on a very low power setting and with a red filter to dim down the light and stop it from spooking my quarry. On holdings where rats are particularly skittish, and when sustained shooting pressure has made them lamp-shy, night vision optics can make a big difference to the bag. The obvious advantage to using such a set up being that there is no beaming light to scare them.

It took me a long time to embrace night vision for my ratting rounds. Early models were heavy and expensive, and produced a relatively poor sight picture compared with a standard day scope and clip-on lamp. With those shortfalls in mind, it was hard to justify the outlay or the rigmarole of removing a trusty telescopic sight and going to the trouble of re-zeroing with a night vision unit just for the sake of a few hours’ rat shooting.

Gradual progress came in the shape of more recent night vision adaptor kits that fit to your day scope to enable you to see in the dark. These systems were less of a fiddle, and far more affordable, but still tended to be rather unwieldy once clamped onto your sight.

Night vision convert

This season, I’ve switched over to the Pitch Black Night Vision Hunter — one of the new breed of affordable night vision units. Rather than a scope converter, it is a dedicated night vision optic, so you’ll either have to swap scopes when you need it or couple it with a gun of its own. However, compared with the outlay for some night vision optics, the Pitch Black Night Vision Hunter’s £350 price-tag will leave you with enough change to buy a decent airgun — and it works just as well in daylight as it does in the dark.

The brainchild of lighting expert and obsessive airgunner, Nic Wenham, the Pitch Black Hunter is a cracking little unit. The power unit is self-contained so there’s no external battery or connecting wires, yet you still get five hours’ continual run-time per charge. The 5x magnification is just right for ratting and an easy-to-follow on-screen menu enables you to change image colour, sharpness and intensity and set up multiple aim points in a choice of reticule colours.

In spite of its modest price, the Hunter produces a pin-sharp image in both full daylight and complete darkness — not only at typical ratting ranges but also out to well beyond the distance that any airgunner could hope to shoot at. I’ve coupled mine with a BSA Ultra Multishot, and the result is a compact little rig that handles brilliantly around farm buildings.

Ratting reconnaissance

My night vision ratting sessions tend to start an hour or so before nightfall, to give me time to peruse the farm before darkness closes in. Apart from looking for any dangerous obstacles that I’ll need to bear in mind after the sun goes down, I also scan for signs of rats. Rather than roaming around trying to spot and shoot rats on the move, I prefer to ambush them from a static position, so a daylight recce is a good way to ensure that I set up in the right place.

Holes, droppings and other clues such as ratty footprints in soft mud help me to work out the habits of my quarry and to identify the places they’re visiting most. Once I’ve narrowed down my search to one or two busy-looking areas, I turn my attention to finding a place from which I can take shots from a steady position and in a safe direction.

Even when you’re using night vision, rats can be frustratingly fidgety. When shooting these robust rodents with an airgun, I prefer to take them with headshots to ensure clean kills, but it’s not easy when they’re scuttling around. The solution is to use a bait to keep them still, and my favourite is liquidised cat food.

The stench of success

This bait really stinks and is virtually guaranteed to stop passing rats dead in their tracks. Blitzing it in a food processor reduces it to a thick soup with no chunks for rats to grab and dart off with. If they’re really going to eat their fill, and believe me they’ll want to, they’re going to have to stop and lap it up — and that gives me plenty of time to get a steady bead on them.

When I first hit upon the idea of using liquidised cat food as a holding bait for rats, I used to transport it in freezer bags and spoon it out along rat runs. It was a messy business and I’ve found that an empty drink bottle works much better. All I do is unscrew the top and squirt out dollops along rat-runs between 12 and 20 metres from my hiding place.

Productive nights can result in dozens of dead rats. A lot of landowners will want you to clear up the corpses at the end of the session — usually onto a fire site — and that leads me on to a few less obvious night vision shooting essentials.

Because rats can carry some thoroughly unpleasant infections, including Weil’s disease, I always pack a tough pair of gloves to keep my hands covered when it’s time to pick up. You’ll be able to find a shovel on most farms but I also take a set of tongs (just cheap barbecue ones) so my hands never get too close to shot rats.

My final night vision shooting must have sounds glaringly obvious but, believe me, it’s easy to forget. Always check and double check that you have a torch or headlamp packed. The importance of a reliable light source is often overlooked when you know you’ve got the latest night vision technology clamped to your gun, but you will, quite literally, be lost without it. The good old lamp is still invaluable for tasks like loading up, retrieving shot rats and for making your way safely around the farm after nightfall.