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Garden ratting – Mat Manning sets up a bait trap

Mat Manning sets up a bait trap to rid the flowerbeds of rampaging rodents

If there is a pest that people really don’t want close to their homes it has to be the brown rat. These revolting rodents have a reputation for spreading disease and are also in the habit of gnawing through everything from fence panels to power cables. While most farmers accept the inevitability of having a few rats around their livestock pens or grain stores, this pest is never welcome in or around the home and garden – and rightly so.

Nonetheless, plenty of rats make it past our defences and into the backyard. It is a problem that seems to be on the rise, and I’m getting more and more calls from anxious homeowners struggling to keep the rodents at bay with traps and poison stations.

The latest domestic rat infestation I dealt with was one of the worst I had seen for a while. A fairly large overgrown pond at the rear of the garden provided the perfect habitat for the rodents, while messy heaps of branches and logs created further nesting sites away from the main hub.

The pond borders farmland and, in all honesty, it is inevitable that it would be populated by a few rats, but their numbers were certainly getting out of hand. The problem was compounded by the fact that the owner of the property liked to scatter the backyard with birdseed, but rather than attracting feathered visitors it was mostly creating a feast for the rats.

As is often the case, a combination of trapping and poisoning had been attempted in the past, but not on a scale that would make any significant impression on so many rodents. My intention was to hit the rats very hard over a few nights in order to really drive down their numbers and then leave it to the owner to use poison stations to prevent them from bouncing back.


Scouting out

Looking around the garden during my preliminary visit, it was clear that there were a lot of rats present. Their burrows were numerous, and so big that I would have thought they were the work of rabbits, had I not seen rats crawling in and out. And these appeared to be very bold rats – they were quite happy to dart about in full daylight while I chatted with the lady of the house.

While talking, I explained as politely as I could that a tidier garden would be less appealing to rats. I then suggested that the bird feeding should stop, at least until the rodents were far less abundant. Both these comments were met with agreement.

The biggest problem for me was the fact that the rats were present around much of the garden, but weren’t easy to spot among all the mess. A situation like this can make for really frustrating shooting, with rats constantly showing themselves but not in places that offer clear shots. What I needed to do was lure them out.

I had already envisaged this obstacle and brought along two of my grey squirrel feeders, which were to be reappropriated as rat feeding stations for this assignment. The feeders were placed about 20m apart in open areas along a bank that was evidently popular with the rats.

Thanks to that bank, the spots offered safe shots at about 14m from where I planned to sit and shoot. The hoppers were each loaded with about 5kg of cut maize and left for a few days to work their magic.

The owners’ effort to control the rats with poison was having little effect on their numbers.

Just as I had hoped, the sudden disappearance of the bird feed quickly forced the rats onto my offerings and both feeders were almost empty when I returned four days later. The owner explained to me that she had been keeping a close eye on the setup and, while a few birds had been dropping in to feed, the rats had been gorging on the maize.

Not that I needed her to tell me that, as they were tucking in as I set up.

With all the pets locked indoors it was safe to start shooting, but I decided to get myself properly settled in before taking a shot.

These rats were clearly very accustomed to human activity and took very little notice of me, so there was no point in rushing or taking opportunistic pot shots.

Having witnessed how confident these rats were by daylight, I had arrived about an hour before dusk. My intention was to set up and hopefully get a few shots before nightfall, but I expected the shooting to really pick up after dark. With that in mind, my Weihrauch HW100 was adorned with a Sightmark Wraith 4k Mini. This brilliant little digital sight produces a great infrared night vision image, but also provides very clear colour viewing by day, so I expected it to be perfect for the job.

Although it is a night vision scope, the Sightmark Wraith Mini also enabled Mat to frame rats in full colour by day

Perched on my usual backpack stool and with my Trigger Sticks Tripod for support, I had a stable, comfortable and very familiar shooting position that enabled me to cover both spots with minimal shuffling about. It was immediately put to test as the rats were not in the least bit discouraged by my presence and were still on the grub.

The first rat to learn a lesson about feeding stations was a really chunky customer that had clearly developed a fondness for the maize. It had been trundling back and forth between the cover of the bank and the feeder while I was messing about with my kit, but this time I was ready to deal with it.

The greedy rodent soon settled to munch on the grain and, peering through the Wraith Mini, I could see its whiskers twitching in the sight picture.

Thanks to my careful preparation, I was lined up for a rocksteady shot and knew exactly how far away my target was. The crosshairs quickly came to rest on the rat’s skull and I squeezed through the trigger to roll it over stone dead with a solid smack to the head.

However bold rats are, their behaviour changes rapidly after the demise of a mate. Sure enough, that first loss made the rodents noticeably more cautious and they were reluctant to venture back out for a while.


Ratting by thermal light

Although the light was just beginning to fade, it was still a while before dusk and the rats would have been able to see me very clearly. Judging by their behaviour, they didn’t appear to be afraid of me, but they were certainly aware of the fact that the garden had suddenly become a less safe place to be.

The pull of the maize was strong though, and I only had to wait about 10 minutes before another rat ventured cautiously from the undergrowth and over to the feeder
for a nibble. Again, it was a very straightforward shot, at a clearly presented static target, and a second rodent was swiftly added to the tally.

I shot two more rats over the following 45 minutes before the light really started to go. Connecting an external power pack to increase the Wraith Mini’s runtime, I switched over to night vision mode and turned on my IR illuminator in readiness for the graveyard shift.

It is usually safe to say that if you see a few rats by day you will see a lot more after dark, and that was certainly the case on this occasion. Scanning from one feeder to the other, I seldom had to wait more than five minutes between shots, and the tally gradually crept up to double figures.

Action really picks up after dark, and Mat uses his night vision setup to good effect on the unsuspecting rodents.

Apart from being more abundant, rats also tend to be more confident after nightfall and the rodents in the garden were definitely less spooked by their dead mates than they had been by daylight.

The majority of the rats I accounted for were shot at the feeders, and most of them seemed very at ease as they tucked into the maize.

With the nights drawing in so late at this time of year, it is difficult to fit in long after-dark sessions when you have to work the next day. I kept at it until midnight, when I decided to call time with a total of 16 rats.

The important thing for me to do now is to shoot that garden as frequently as possible over the next week or two. Although the feeders are helping me to eliminate the rats, they will only attract more if I’m not there to deal with them. I hope that three or four more hits like the first one will really set the rats back.

After that, my feeders will be removed and the owner will set up more effective poison stations, which should pick off any stragglers or new arrivals.