Shooting Times editor Patrick Galbraith goes out with a team dedicated to having fun and changing the reputation of ratting
I’ve been to a meet or two in my time: beagle packs on village greens; minkhounds on crumbling stone bridges that look as old as the river which winds beneath them; and foxhounds in the courtyards of austere country houses. But this was a little different. Bleary eyed, smelly, and in a foul mood, I was mooching around a small Scottish petrol station waiting for the arrival of a man I knew only as Moray.
My condition was no fault of my own. Upon arriving home in Dumfriesshire the previous evening, I discovered our poor gentle boiler had boiled its last so the bath I had been dreaming of all the way since King’s Cross simply was not to be.
After 15 minutes my patience was wearing thin and there was one other person on the forecourt: a red-faced, pensioner-type in a garish golf jumper. Unlikely I thought, but as the saying goes, do not judge a sausage based on the appearance of its casing. “Are you a member of the Tweed Valley Rat Pack?” I shouted across to him in the most affable way I could manage. He stared at me then said emphatically: “No, I am not.”
Some minutes later my phone rang. “We’re round the back, parked up by the hardware shop,” said the caller. Things were taking a turn for the glamorous. I rolled round and we launched into conversation.
A one-man mission
Between drags on his e-cigarette, Moray explained that he set the pack up three years previously on “a one-man mission to change the reputation of ratting — in essence, I wanted to create the most professional, friendly and fun pest control service I could”.
After learning that Moray’s surname was McHattie and admiring his terriers — Gwynn, a Lakeland-Patterdale cross, and Bran, a six-month-old baby who is still learning the ropes — I got back in my Jimny and we trundled up to the farm to meet the rest of the field.
Harriet, my dainty seven-year-old Jack Russell, clambered tentatively out of the car after me. It was to be her first proper day’s ratting. In her youth, her squirrelling skills were quite the talk of the town, but after an unfortunate incident with an angry badger last Christmas, the poor girl’s gone a little vegetarian.
“We’ll be looking at the century today,” predicted Danny Cassidy, as he revved up his smoker, which would hopefully have the rats bolting from their runs. “When you get a new contract you can often expect at least a hundred rats. Our record is 152,” he added proudly.
Danny was reflecting on his 12 years as a grouse keeper in the Lammermuirs when a gravelly voice sounded from behind me, “you’ll need this”. I turned and a piece of blue piping was thrust into my hand. “A whacker,” said the ponytailed man, who later introduced himself as Ed Glass, a pest control expert from Edinburgh. “Mind and always hold the red end,” he added, “the other end’s for the whacking.”
Smoking them out
At this point, pandemonium erupted. The first rat of the day slipped its run and ran the canine gauntlet, out underneath the hedge and down the dusty farm track.
Amid the melee, I saw my own terrier spring into action. “On you go,” I shouted, my voice cracking with pride. Then, as quickly as it began, it was all over. Moray’s terrier Gwynn had dashed in, nabbed the rat and crunched the life out of it. I was crestfallen. Hattie came and sat beside my feet, panting dejectedly in the midmorning sun.
Where to find rats If you have permission to shoot on a farmyard or on ground that’s managed for pheasant…
For the next 20 minutes or so, Ed and Danny moved across the bank, pumping chainsaw fumes into every hole, resulting in rats, most often in twos and threes, springing out of the ground to the waiting dogs. “You chose a grand to day to come,” Moray announced cheerfully. “Sometimes they’ll just turn their back on the fumes and block up the pipe. You can burn through tank after tank of 2-stroke on occasions like those and come away with sod all.”
After a while, it appeared we had exhausted the bank so we headed inland to the barns. Danny Cassidy stopped suddenly and started eyeing up what to me looked like a fairly nondescript cluster of flagstones. Waving his chainsaw in the general direction of the messy agricultural feature he turned and simply mouthed the words, “in there”. Just as grayling fishermen know where to cast their fly out into the swim, and those who shoot snipe know which areas of marsh will hold the little birds, the members of the Tweed Valley Rat Pack displayed an extraordinarily sharp sense of the where the rats would be.
The ratting terrier in action
“Get ready,” said Danny, with steely authority in his soft Borders accent as he pulled his gardening gloves from his pocket. He was Field Commander Cassidy and we were his men. This was the frontline and we were going over the top. I looked around to see terriers looking as ready as terriers ever have, little black noses pushed to the ground in anticipation, with owners taking up the rear, whackers held aloft like bayonets, ready for the charge.
Suddenly Danny pulled up the first slab and a mass of squeaking grey fur and thick pink tails spilled out across the yard. The terriers flew into battle. As slab after slab was lifted, more rats entered the fray, and were efficiently accounted for.
The final stone appeared to have just a single occupant hiding beneath it. Harris, a plucky Lakeland cross, was first on the scene and had it by its head. In the name of a thorough job, Danny’s Labrador-pointer cross — a somewhat unlikely ratting dog — grabbed the back end and a tug of war ensued.
Little Harris swung back and forth as the gundog fought to take possession of the prize. But all good things must come to an end and, like some grotesque Christmas cracker, the rodent went pop and entrails flew. Hattie looked on, rather shocked, and all of a sudden the Greggs Tuna Crunch baguette I was eating seemed a little less appetising.
Pièce de résistance
At this point the spring sun had reached its highest point in the sky and the bag contained well over 50 rats. A considerable dent in the farm’s population but “the best”, Stuart Bracknen, a charming local farmer, assured me, “was yet to come”. The pièce de résistance was to be a rather well-used grain bruiser that looked as though it might have come right out the pages of a Steinbeck novel.
Ed and Danny set to work with their chainsaws, blowing fumes into the cavity below the bruiser. The dogs gathered round, standing paw to paw, waiting for their quarry. The saws revved on and on but nothing happened. Three minutes must have passed before six rats finally broke and tore across the floor to seek refuge beneath some wooden pallets, with the terriers flying after them.
Somewhere within the stack I heard a familiar yap and I noticed that sheepish little Hattie was no longer milling around my wellies. Running to where the noise was coming from I found her rather ineffectively trying to pull the pallet apart with her teeth.
With the ferocity of a grumpy stoat with a grievance, I thrust my whacker beneath the pallet and shook it vigorously. Out leapt the rat, ousted from its refuge, and in seconds it hung lifelessly from Hattie’s mouth, all 14½in of it (I measured it meticulously later).
No longer a disgrace to her breed — and a testament to the fact that a middle-aged dog can learn new tricks — my little terrier paraded her trophy round and round. Most of the dogs didn’t notice. They were far too busy dealing with the remaining rats. Those that did simply looked on in bemusement and tilted their plucky little heads as if to say “what’s the big deal? We do it every weekend”.
We wandered out through the barn door and lay down on a mossy bank. The sweet smell of wild garlic hung in the warm spring air. Ed shared out his “rollies” and we told tales of terriers we’ve known and loved.