Where there is feed for pheasants or farm animals you can be sure there will also be rats. Mat Manning explains how to help control these opportunistic rodents when the sun goes down

Where to find them

If you have permission to shoot on a farmyard or on ground that’s managed for pheasant shooting, the chances are there will be rats. Like most other pest species, rats are attracted by easy feeding opportunities, and they don’t take long to find them.

On the farm, these opportunistic rodents are adept at sniffing out animal feed and quickly set up home close to places where they can steal a meal from troughs and silage clamps. Grain stores are another favourite, and rats can cause major problems when they find their way into places where foodstuffs are stored. The cost and disease risk posed by rats helping themselves to animal
feed is a major nuisance and, for obvious reasons, becomes an even more serious concern when they’re helping themselves to produce that is intended for human consumption.

How to use an airgun for rat control

Holes are usually the first sign of an influx of rats

On the shoot, rats usually show up in areas close to feed hoppers. Like grey squirrels, they’re quick to exploit a ready supply of grain — especially if it’s close to a bank or log pile, or some other place where they can set up home.

In both instances, numbers tend to peak during the coldest part of the year, when natural food starts to become scarce. Last winter’s cold weather came late and, as a consequence, the rats were slow to move in on most of the places where I shoot. The late influx has been a substantial one, though, and I expect to be shooting large numbers of rats well into the spring this year.

Kit and tactics for using an airgun for rat control

Farmers and gamekeepers are likely to have their own rat control regime in place, but most will appreciate any assistance you can provide with your airgun. A productive night’s shooting can yield 40 or 50 rats — often many more — so an airgun shooter’s contribution can be a significant one if you get it right.

In my experience, rats tend to be most active during the last hour of daylight and until two or three hours after nightfall. For this reason, I usually opt for lamping or night-vision tactics, and make sure I’m on site a couple of hours before sunset so that I can get set up in time to catch the peak of the action.

Much fuss is made about the supposed advantage of using the larger .22 and .25 airgun calibres when shooting rats at close range, but I actually prefer to use the .177 and limit myself to head shots. This isn’t too challenging when you consider that you’ll generally be shooting at ranges of between 12m and 20m.

How to use an airgun for rat control

Night vision units like the Nite Site enable you to bag skittish rats without using a tell-tale lamplight

While I acknowledge that hefty .22 and .25 pellets have more knockdown power, they also have a significantly curved trajectory when fired from a legal limit (sub-12ft/lb) airgun. range estimation can be tricky when you’re shooting by lamplight or with night vision, and I’ve often found myself missing over the top or underneath my target after misjudging the range by a few metres. a faster, lighter .177 pellet has a much flatter trajectory, which makes it far more forgiving if you don’t get your hold-over or hold-under exactly right. consequently, it makes it much easier to land a head shot right on target — and if you hit a rat squarely in the skull, you’re going to achieve a clean kill whatever calibre you’re using.

When it comes to choosing a telescopic sight, I like a model with variable magnification — usually with a range of 3-9x or 4-16x. While the higher end of that zoom range may be handy when I’m shooting long-range rabbits from the stability of a bipod, I tend to wind down to 5x or 6x at night. The lower magnification helps to improve light transmission and results in a wider field of view, which makes it easier to spot rats while scanning through the scope.

Gun lamps designed for airgun shooting seem to be getting more and more powerful, and often boast far more candlepower than you’ll ever need for ratting. Make sure you opt for one with variable power so that you can wind it down to a very soft glow. Rats are often suspicious of lamplight, so the last thing you want is a beam that will light up the hills 400m away.

My other rat shooting essential is a stable, comfortable seat. Though you can shoot plenty of rats by wandering around the farm and picking them off as you go, you can often shoot a lot more by setting up an ambush in a place where they’re particularly active. You can give them a good pasting before moving on to another spot. I use a cheap little backpack stool; it provides a steady shooting platform and room to stash a torch, hat, gloves and other night shooting essentials — it’s also reassuring to know that you’re well off the ground when there are rats scuttling about.

Keeping them still

One of the toughest parts of using an airgun for rat control is getting a telling shot at these fidgety rodents, but it’s much more easily done if you use some bait. My favourite approach is to target rats either as they emerge from their burrows or as they make their way along their runs between their nesting site and wherever they’re feeding. Place a tempting offering where they can’t miss it, and they’ll probably stop to investigate. Liquidised cat food is one of my top rat baits.

How to use an airgun for rat control

It may be messy but liquidised cat food is great for keeping fidgety rats exactly where you want them

These opportunistic rodents can’t resist its fishy pong and, because it’s in liquid form, they have to stop to lap it up. This gives you plenty of time to settle the cross-hairs on their heads.

If you don’t fancy stinking out the kitchen by preparing a batch of liquidised cat food, there are some less messy baits you can try: chocolate spread, peanut butter and Marmite have all worked for me. I’ve been experimenting with the fishmeal pellets you can buy from angling shops, too; they’re clean and dry, rats seem to like them and, if you buy the really tiny pellets, they have to stop to get a decent mouthful.

How to use an airgun for rat control

If you don’t want the hassle of using cat food, small fishing pellets will keep rats still while you take aim

Night vision

As previously mentioned, rats often become suspicious of lamplight, especially after a few nights of hard shooting. With night-vision kit getting more and more affordable, this high-tech gear is a realistic alternative, and enables you to pick off unsuspecting rats without having to use conventional illumination.

The Yukon Photon night-vision scope has a loyal following among airgun shooters. I’ve also made some huge tallies using the NiteSite Viper and the Night Master Atom. These two digital add-ons connect to your normal telescopic sight, using a camera to see through it and converting the sight picture into a digital image. I prefer to use add-ons rather than dedicated night-vision gear because you can use all the usual aim points on your scope without having to re-zero, and you don’t need a separate airgun to dedicate to night-vision shooting.

Stay safe

Most shooters won’t need reminding that rats can carry some seriously unpleasant infections, including Weil’s disease, which can survive outside their bodies in damp conditions. I avoid eating and drinking while out ratting to ensure that my hands stay away from my mouth.

How to use an airgun for rat control

A litter grabber means you won’t have to run the risk of touching rats, which harbour diseases

It’s also a good idea to carry a litter grabber so that you can keep your hands well away from rats when clearing up after a productive shoot, though you should be able to find a shovel on most farms.