Rats have long been regarded as a pest and there is no better way to clear them from a farm than with a pack of terriers, says Matt Cross
The first rats came fizzing out before anyone was ready. Even Jay, the very model of lurcher sharpness, was taken by surprise as the rodents fled their burrows and made for safety. The terriers, tied to a gate post outside, burst into a frantic chorus of yelps and whines as their quarry ran past, making for the sanctuary of the drystone wall.
Foremost ratting outfit
It takes a lot to catch the Tweed Valley Rat Pack by surprise. Over the past few years they have built up a reputation as southern Scotland’s foremost ratting outfit and, watching them at work, you can see why. On an icy November morning we were tackling the rats on a mixed farm in the Scottish Borders. Moray, a Penicuik man with the powerful build of a Borders rugby player, was accompanied by the lean and wiry Ed, whose long hair and shark’s tooth earring gave him the air of a pirate. Both were dressed in fleeces and hats embroidered with the pack’s logo. With their smart gear, professional manner and growing Twitter presence, they are the modern face of an old business.
Rats used to be part of daily life for most people. Modern rodenticides, better sewers, concrete and steel have pushed the rat further and further from most of our lives. The adage that “you are never more than 6ft from a rat” has long been debunked and at no time since the brown rat arrived on our shores have we been more distant from them.
As it has been pushed out of our homes, the rat has also been pushed out of our culture. As a child I was given an elderly Guinness Book of Records, which included “the world’s fastest ratting dog”. It seems to have been Jacko, a bull terrier, that fought in the 19th century London rat pits. Jacko killed 60 rats in a record time of two minutes and 42 seconds. The latest Guinness World Records has replaced the champion ratter with a dog that is fastest at popping balloons; Twinkie, a Jack Russell, can burst 100 in 39 seconds.
Ratting in the dark using night vision optics
The phone rang, “Hello Nick, it’s Harry Parsons, what you doing next Tuesday?” A quick check of the diary and…
A special breed created for ratting with terriers
Ratting was once a respected profession and a popular sport. The late Brian Plummer called rats “the unheralded game-animal of Great Britain”. Plummer devoted many years to the pursuit of rats and even developed a special breed of terrier for the job. A good nose, willingness to dig, fearlessness and quick reactions meant that, for many years, terriers were the essential tool of the rat-catching man. But despite having grown up on farms hunting rats with shotguns, airguns, dung forks, traps, poison and catapults, I have never been ratting with terriers.
The Tweed Valley Rat Pack were going to educate me in the science of ratting. We began in the dust bathing area of a chicken shed. Despite the icy temperatures outside, the strong smell of birds, the noise coming through the sheet metal wall and the hunched semi-darkness gave it a feeling of animal heat.
Moray had already reconnoitred it with a thermal camera, which showed moving white patches under the dry soil where the rats were running through their burrows. But even without the video there was the unmistakable feeling of life in the place, something out of sight just below the surface.
Bring up the madness
As Ed, Moray, Jay and I scratched about, the ground unexpectedly came to life. Dust-brown rats streaked across the floor. As the first one made for a gap under the wall, Moray and Ed began to shout to Jay. This was dog work of a kind I had never seen before. I tried to calm my spaniel down as she had a job to do. The many sheepdogs I’ve known work with a cold detachment, but here the game was to excite the dogs, to bring up the madness in them.
For a moment there seemed to be rats everywhere — zigzagging across the ground, climbing the walls and making for the daylight. Jay galloped to and fro on her long legs, grabbing them where she could, the men hit out with shovels, but with the terriers still tied up outside the rats had the better of us. By the time we had the terriers in the best of the action was over and the shed was quiet again.
We moved on to a pile of stones and concrete outside the shed. Our little pack was made up of five dogs. Gwynn, a roughcoated Patterdale/Lakeland/Parson Russell mix, was the top dog. Pip, a white-and-tan Patterdale, was the young pretender to Gwynn’s crown; at three years old she was coming into her formidable prime. Pip’s daughters, Bran and Dee, small, sleek black Patterdales, were the youngsters. At 14 months old they were still learning the trade.
Jay, a greyhound/deerhound/collie/German pointer cross with a loping gait and fiery eyes, looked like the sort of dog the Border revivers might have taken cattle raiding. Describing the ideal ratting dog, Moray said: “They are like fighter jets; the more unstable they are the better they do the job.”
Yelping with excitement
As we approached the small mound of rubble, there was no doubt there were rats in it. The terriers were drawn to it. Gwynn and Pip both had their noses buried deep in holes and the puppies were yelping with excitement. Ed started his smoker, an old chainsaw engine with a pipe welded to the exhaust. He began to pump the oily blue smoke into the mound and, as the fumes crept into the voids, the rats started to bolt. The terriers seized them as they skittered over the mud and frozen puddles; any that made it past the little dogs were snatched up by Jay playing sweeper.
The rat pack were working at full throttle now. Ed filled the holes with smoke, Moray and I dug and the dogs caught and marked. I had never realised how a good ratting dog would mark. They don’t simply mark an active rat hole, but an individual rat. Gwynn and Pip plunged their faces in the earth and the art was to dig just in front of their noses. As each spadeful was lifted away, they would bury their faces again, either holding course or giving a new bearing for the shovel. Sometimes we seemed to be digging and digging but the end was always the same — a frantic scrabble with the dog’s paws, a snap, a shake and another rat for the bag.
Riddled with holes
It took a good while to clear the mound out, but eventually the dogs stopped marking so we tidied up our diggings, bagged the rats and moved on. Our next site was a drystone dyke, the base riddled with holes. Again,
Ed fired up the smoker and Moray
and I manned the shovels.
The rats dashed along the wall, dodging the terriers and diving for new burrows, while a few darted through the gaps in the wall and met Jay on the other side. Men and dogs worked together hunting the rats to their lairs or flushing them into the open.
A few found refuge in the foundation stones of the wall where they sat out the assault, a couple sprinted across the field and into the sheds, but most were despatched.
The final spot was an old trailer that had long been lying unused. The rats were living in a pile of timber on the rotting trailer bed. The test here was very different. There was no need to dig and no chance to smoke the rats out. No man nor terrier will ever beat a rat at the job of dodging in and out of rotting planks, so I climbed on to the rusting hulk and we began to take the rats’ shelter apart. Bran joined me on the trailer bed while the other dogs prowled underneath.
Eventually the rats either tumbled off or leapt to dodge Bran and me. Few escaped the snapping jaws below.
At the end of the day we laid out the bag on a plastic grill. The dogs had killed 52 rats — a good catch, but the Tweed Valley Rat Pack have had better. A longer spell of cold weather would have concentrated the animals in and around the buildings, and as the winter progresses the ratting will improve. It had been an education, both in a form of dog work that I knew nothing about and in how an old art has a place in the modern world.