Opportunist rodents home in on feed scattered for laying hens, but Mat Manning's session with his air rifle puts paid to the fat raiders
Having an air rifle in the house often proves handy for impromptu backyard pest control. My airguns are called into action in the garden to deal with marauding grey squirrels, but more recently it has been dealing with rats in the hen house.
Grain attracts rats
We keep hens and the ready supply of layers’ pellets and frequent scatterings of grain tend to attract the occasional unwanted guest. Until recently they have never been a serious problem because I have always kept a Fenn trap set in a wooden tunnel along the outer edge of the chicken run. This could usually be relied upon to pick off new ratty arrivals as they tried to find a way in, so the airgun was seldom required.
Things are different this year, though, as Barney the cockapoo puppy has had the run of the garden. Before you question the breed choice, I’ll blame it on my wife and children, though it has to be said that, at 15 months, he is shaping up to be a keen little retriever. Apart from ensuring that there is never a dull, nor peaceful, moment in the Manning household, Barney has also made me reluctant to leave a trap set in the garden.
Unable to use poison or traps
Even with the most carefully secured tunnel, I simply couldn’t relax knowing there is a powerful trap set close to where the family pet is poking around, especially as the little rascal has a fondness for digging. And, of course, putting down poison is out of the question.
As a result of my recent lapse in rat control, the persistent little critters have managed to get a foothold. One or two holes cropped up around the edge of the run, where they managed to burrow beneath the sunken bottom edge of the chicken wire. Over the past couple of weeks, more holes have appeared and I’m convinced that the poultry feed has been going down at an accelerated rate.
The final straw came last week while I was sat enjoying a mug of tea on the garden bench after letting the hens out and treating them to a scattering of grain. A fat rat popped out from under the hen house and proceeded to tuck into the cut maize that was supposed to be nourishing my faithful egg-layers.
Bold as brass
The cocky little rodent was bold as brass; it wasn’t in the least bit bothered by my presence and continued to mop up the kernels while I snapped a photo through the wire mesh with my iPhone.
Tempted as I was to dash in and grab an air rifle, I reasoned that there was very likely more than one rat to be had, and taking pot shots through the wire while the chickens were scratching around probably didn’t offer me the best chance of success. Rather than letting rip then and there, I hatched a crafty plan, which I hoped would enable me to make more of an impression.
Over the next couple of mornings, I placed a small heap of cut maize in the chicken run and carried on with other jobs for half an hour or so before letting the hens out. Even on the first morning, the corn had been snaffled by the time I returned. Rather than trying to thread shots through the wire mesh that surrounds the run, I was going to shoot through the open door — before letting the hens out of their coop — and I intended to use my maize offering to persuade the rats to venture out to where I could get clear shots at them.
I had intended to continue with the pre-baiting ritual for the best part of a week to give the rats time to really grow in confidence, but impatience eventually got the better of me. To be fair, the rodents weren’t exactly shy and, as I hadn’t seen more than two out at once, I didn’t want to give them time to multiply.
Because I was only going to be taking shots at about 15m, I opted for simplicity over sophistication and took my ever-reliable Weihrauch HW 95K from the cabinet. The little .177 break-barrel may not be fancy but it is extremely accurate and has accounted for a lot of garden-raiding squirrels and quite a few rats over the years. I slipped a handful of pellets into my pocket, grabbed my backpack stool in readiness for the mini stake-out and made my way up the garden.
The chicken run door had been left open all night in order to get the rats accustomed to the new arrangement, so all I had to do was dish out a little heap of cut maize and sit back to await the arrival of the diners.
There was a plump rat on the bait pile before I’d even set up my seat. The greedy rodent continued to feed while I made myself comfortable on the stool and loaded up, but the clunk of the closing barrel sent it dashing for cover. I needn’t have worried, though, as a pair of rats ventured back out to feed no more than two minutes later.
Shooting from a sitting position, and at very close range, the shot was a mere formality and I toppled the larger of the rats with a smack to the head. Its mate darted off at the sound of the impacting pellet but I had a feeling it would soon be back for more.
I was starting to regret not taking a mug of tea with me when a rat — presumably the one that had scuttled off a few minutes earlier — poked its head out of a hole at the back of the run. I settled the cross-hairs just behind its eye and squeezed the trigger, ending its feed-stealing days with eight grains of lead to the head.
An uneventful half-hour then passed before hunger got the better of me and I retreated to the kitchen for breakfast. I’d not seen more than two rats at any one time so I assumed that the latest chicken run security breach had very likely been brought to an end by my brief sortie.
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After a hearty breakfast, I went back out and stamped rocks into the holes the rats were using to access the run in an effort to discourage others from creeping in for a feed. I’m pleased to say there has been no sign of unwanted visitors over the past couple of days, but you can never drop your guard when it comes to keeping rats away from poultry. I’ll be keeping a very close eye on things during the winter months.