With a bobbery pack and a chainsaw for smoking out, a determined bunch, including Editor of Shooting Times Patrick Galbraith, set out for a good day's ratting
It was about 4am with rain falling hard from the London sky and people spilling out of nightclubs on to the greasy streets. As I sat waiting for the red signal to change, I noticed a man slumped against the traffic lights. Then movement at his feet caught my eye, a dark object leaving a wake in the oily puddles. Its thick pink tail was the last I saw of it as it slipped through a grate and slunk off into the sewers.
“What you all the way down here for?” enquired the checkout attendant at the petrol station, three hours later, in a thick Herefordshire accent. “I’m on a day’s ratting with those guys,” I replied, gesturing to the forecourt where a group of men in West Midlands Rat Pack sweatshirts were waiting for me.
“It’s big round these parts,” she said. “When I was a little girl I used to be out most Saturdays.”
Introducing the ratting terriers
The West Midlands Rat Pack was founded around three years ago and is made up of an impressive array of plucky little dogs. To mention just a few, three Sealyhams were in attendance with Will Johnson; a Bedlington was on hand; and Steve Hall had a sweet 15-week-old Patterdale bitch called Tarn. Adrian Ward’s Plummer terrier was never far from the fray and Nell, a smoothcoated Patterdale, was a fiery little savage.
As soon as the boxes were opened, the dogs leapt out and started marking on a pockmarked sandy bank outside a shed. The modus operandi is to remove the bar of a chainsaw, stick a pipe over the exhaust and channel the fumes into the ground to smoke the rats out into the jaws of waiting dogs.
The first site looked perfect but, despite Steve’s best efforts, the rats refused to bolt. There is an interesting hierarchy among ratting dogs — the terriers tend to do all the digging then one of the lurchers, poised like a spring on the edge of the action, catches the rats when they try to escape from the melee unseen.
In this case the lurchers decided that the best place to be was inside the barn and we’d all got it wrong. Bowing to their superiority, we followed them and rooted around in an attempt to flush the enemy. The enthusiasm of the busy pack suggested we were in the right place but as the minutes passed, human optimism dwindled.
A cry went up
Then, from outside the shed, a cry went up: “They’re out here just walking round.” Sensing the excitement, the dogs tore out into the rain, lurchers at the front and Sealyhams at the back, but we were too late. The rats had given us the slip and were making off for Wales.
From there we moved on to a knotted, rooty bank, which proved to be a struggle. Then we dismissed a rat-infested pile of asbestos on health and safety grounds — the dogs’, not ours.
At this point, the mood was at a low ebb. “I gave up my gun on the syndicate I was on this year,” mourned Peter Herbert. “When ratting’s good it turns grown men into little kids.”
“I’m sure things’ll pick up,” I replied in the way we do when we have absolutely no idea how things are going to go. A short drive away there was rumoured to be a hedgerow and some maize that were both teeming with rats but it was agreed we should finish our rounds at the farm and leave the best until last.
“I swear I saw a huge one,” I overheard someone say in a Welsh accent. Rounding a corner, I saw Will Johnson, Sealyhams in front of him, staring longingly at a heap of cow dung. Sam Lynch sprang into action with the chainsaw.
Within 20 seconds two large rats had been accounted for, one of them by Lucas the Sealyham, and the hunt was on for a third. “What did I tell you,” shouted owner Will. Then, sadly, tempers flared. Nell attempted to muscle in on Lilly the Sealyham’s patch and a scrap ensued. It was decided we all needed to calm down and move on to the last spot of the day.
With the exception of a very large rat that popped out of a hole and disappeared into another, the apparently rodent-infested hedge was a disappointment. But as is so often the case in sporting pursuits, fortune favours those who persevere. On the way back to the cars, the dogs started marking along a river bank and we decided it was worth a cursory punt.
Standing below us with his feet in the shallows, Adrian Ward set to work with the chainsaw and smoke started billowing out the holes among the wild garlic.
Suddenly, a large rat broke from the bank and splashed into the water. Roo, a lurcher with an aptitude for jumping, cleared the stream in an instant and chopped the rodent as it scrabbled up the far bank. A cheer went up.
We picked our way through the undergrowth and stopped where the holes were many. The sight of dogs tearing up the stream, biting away in an attempt to pluck the canny creatures from the fast-flowing water, was enough to make even the most seasoned foxhunter holloa in delight.
The weather had not been kind to us. “We don’t like it, the dogs don’t like it, and the rats don’t want to bolt in it. But I hope you’ve had a good day,” said Will as we laid out the slain.
A good service
It had been an excellent day. The West Midlands ratters are one of a new breed of terrier packs, a group of people with stock-broken dogs who recognise the need to provide a good service in order to win new country. Beyond rat control they are doing something important; they are using the likes of Sealyhams and Bedlingtons for their intended purpose in a world where the public, in their ignorance, are turning them into pets.
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A rat pack for south London?
That evening, I eyed up the drain I passed that morning and thought perhaps south London needs a rat pack. A crack squad of terriers to take on those saber-toothed monsters that gorge themselves on chips and live beneath the streets.
You can watch videos of the West Midlands Rat Pack in action on the “Mr Johnson working terries” and “Flying whippet” YouTube channels.