An Apprenticeship in Field Sports - Part 5

by Dick Nutt

I've heard it said that whether you're in the town or the country there is always a rat somewhere within twenty yards of you, and, when you think about it, that isn't so far fetched as it may at first seem.

The lady, alighting from her taxi outside Harrods, has probably got several rats much closer to her than twenty yards, in fact within about ten feet when you think how close her shoes are to the drains and sewers under the pavement! They are there nevertheless, and, so it is said, more numerous, larger, bolder and with a growing resistance to certain poisons than ever before.

I don't seem to see as many in the countryside today as I used to fifty years ago, but maybe that is to do with the very different farming practices that have evolved as well as the lack of rickyards, middens, cesspools, swill fed pigs and outside bucket privies! I know that if I had to visit our outside two-seater after dark, a lighted hurricane lamp and a stout stick always went with me. There were numerous brown rats about the small farm and despite the efforts of several cats, as well as my uncle with traps and poison, little reduction was ever made in their numbers.

This was in the days before Warfarin and similar modern rat baits and brings me to something which has always puzzled me.

If I were to advocate today a slow acting poison or spring traps as a means of controlling rabbits, then the reaction of the animal "rights" brigade would be most predictable with hatred and vilification heaped upon me.

Yet one never hears or reads a single word from these people when the same, and even worse, methods are used to kill rats. Now here is a creature with a very highly developed social order and a greater degree of intelligence than many others, which is why they are used in psychological and stress related experiments. It is usually accepted that the greater the intelligence then the greater the ability to feel distress and pain, yet the same person who becomes outraged and upset when I instantly and humanely kill a rabbit, never seems at all concerned at what is done to rats.

Maybe they are simple more moved by something they feel is "sweet" or "cuddly", such as Flopsy Bunny, than by a rat taking several days to bleed to death internally having ingested Warfarin. Funny old world, ain't it? Truly, it is one full of hypocrites.

The standard rat poison used then was called Squill and was certainly a very old concoction as well as a particularly nasty one.

It contained a large proportion of red phosphorus, so the effect of it in the stomach of a living creature can better be imagined than described, and for this reason it was always placed well down rat holes with a long spoon so to be out of the way of other animals.

Wilf would never use his ferrets against rats, as he had far too much respect for his jills to expose them to the sort of injuries that could be inflicted on them, and to this day, like so much of what he taught me, I follow that example. People I talk to at shows often seem surprised when I tell them I never work my ferrets to rats, just as some of you may be, but just consider the following. A ferret, catching a rat in the open, or even in a rabbit hole, will be able to deliver its fatal neck bite without much difficulty as it has room to manoeuvre, and, like a rabbit confronted by a stoat, the presence of a ferret will often cause a rat to "freeze".

However, it takes a small jill to enter a rat hole and it can be quite a tight fit for her. If she should confront, head on, say a doe rat with young to defend, she is straight away at a terrible disadvantage and can get badly bitten about the face and head. If you are lucky enough to get her back at all your problems are still not over, because surely as night follows day, rat bites will cause infection. There is also some considerable degree of risk to yourself, in that grovelling about near rat holes while entering ferrets you will put a hand, maybe with small scratches or cuts upon it, onto ground soaked in rat urine. The urine of about 60% of rats carries leptospirosis, better known as Weil's Disease, one result of which is usually gradual kidney failure and death. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

If you must hunt rats, then a good terrier or two, a stout stick, small bore shotgun or an air rifle are the best tools for the job, and always ensure dead rats are picked up with a gloved hand.

Since my painful encounter with the old 12 bore hammer gun, I'd never mentioned shotguns at all to Wilf, which was probably what he'd intended when he let me fire it! One day, going the rounds of the village delivering freshly charged radio accumulators from the handcart, I told him that we had a fair rat problem on the farm and that my aunt had a particularly close encounter with a large specimen in the dairy. This, I recalled with ill-concealed relish, had resulted in the loudest shriek I had ever heard, a crash as a two gallon bucket of milk hit the floor and the clatter of clogs on the flagstones as she fled the scene. Odd behaviour, I'd thought, from a woman who could single-handed kill a goose, let alone a chicken, but then, in my experience, rats did have that effect on some people.

Wilf chuckled and cut himself a piece of the rank black twist tobacco that he chewed. "Sounds like tha' needs to get fixed oop for a bit of ratting then lad", he said, "best see what we can do".

A couple of days later, I'd gone round to the shop after school in order to do my usual ferret related chores, a great excuse to enjoy handling all his stock, to be told by his wife that he had gone out for a while but shouldn't be too long. I'd finished the ferrets and was tidying the shop's paraffin store, when Wilf pushed his bicycle into the yard and leant it against the wall. I noticed there was something wrapped in sacking tied to the cross-bar, but as he didn't explain, and I knew better than to ask, I waited while he checked what I'd been doing and then followed him into the kitchen for a mug of tea.

After a while, and having finished his tea, he went out into the yard and came back in with the sacking parcel, plus a tin box that must have been in his saddle bag.

"Tha's gettin' on well enough wi' that little .22 and I know you're a bit o' gun sense", he said as he untied the parcel, "But tha' can't use it in the yard or in the barn for fear of ricochets. So, ah've spoke t'thy uncle and he says it's areet for me to give thee this for so long as tha's here."

Inside the parcel was a little single barrelled, folding, hammer shotgun of a kind known as a No 3 or 9mm garden gun, which used a rimfire cartridge loaded with either bullet or shot, and was effective against garden pest birds or rats up to about ten yards.

It had a side lever break action and was Belgian made and proofed. In Boy's Own Papers from before the war there are adverts for identical guns priced at 15 shillings (75p), or to put it into perspective, half the average weekly wage for a skilled man. Today, an Italian made bolt action version in the same bore will set one back over 100, which is, I suppose, about the same in terms of wages. In the box were about a hundred of the little rimfire cartridges, each with a copper base and a body of green and white chequered paper, containing No 8 shot. I've no idea of how much he had paid for it second hand, and he never told me, but I guess now, that with the ammunition, ten shillings would have been about right.

I do know I just stood staring at it in delight and amazement until he told me to pick it up and see how it felt. Fortunately I had enough sense despite my excitement to point it down, open the action and show him it was not loaded. Had I not done so, then without any doubt, the wrath of God would have descended upon one of my ears and the joy of the occasion been ruined. I suppose it was one of his little "tests" that he would apply every so often, most particularly where firearms safety was concerned! He explained that the ammunition was unlikely to be manufactured while the war lasted, so that every round had to account for a rat and therefore there was none "t'be mucked abaht wi'!" Brushing aside my thanks he told me he'd keep it for a day or two until he had made up a cleaning rod and kit for it and then I could keep it at home, unless he ever saw it dirty and neglected in which event it would straight away be confiscated.

In the months after I literally haunted the barns and outbuildings with that little gun! I'd wait for rats to come out of their holes and take them sitting, and after a while learnt how to "lead" a rat with the muzzle so as to take them running. I don't know if I reduced the overall numbers by very much, but I certainly learnt a lot about shotgun shooting whilst still too young and small to stand the recoil of even a 20 bore. Also, I wasn't quite as rationed for ammunition as I had thought I would be, as my uncle found a couple of boxes left from pre-war years in a gunsmith's in Skipton, which he must have considered fair payment for my extra job of rat exterminator!

I don't recall anyone in the village owning a baler at that time, although baled hay could be bought from contractors and barn stored against the possibility of your own crop being insufficient. This was always something of a risk as land was only spread (by hand!) with dung and not nitrated, so you were very lucky to get two tons of hay off an acre and you needed to start the winter with a ton of hay per head of large stock (horses and cows) plus a bit for sheep. Once cut and laid in windrows for a couple of days, the hay was piled into haycocks in the fields, then carted to the rickyard to be built into stacks once it was fully dry and with the green gone out of it.

By this time last year's hay had nearly all been knifed out of the stacks and used, with only a couple of feet of the bottom of a stack left. This, of course, was home to numerous rats who had got a year's free housing out of it and which now had to be pulled down to enable new stacks to be built.

Each farm where this was to be done was visited in turn by a large gang of men and boys from all around, accompanied by a small army of assorted dogs, particularly terriers and whippets.

The men and dogs surrounded the rickyard and it was noticeable that the men wither wore bicycle clips or had their trousers "yorked" below the knee with twine, an obvious precaution in a situation where running rats were going to be much in evidence!

In those days it was almost unheard of for a boy under fourteen to wear long trousers, so we all just stood a bit further back from the circle, forming a sort of "outfield".

As soon as men with forks started to move the old hay, what can only be described as utter and total chaos ensued.

Rats and dogs running, men and boys jumping about and slashing with their sticks, shouting, cursing, barking and yelping, more rats running as more hay was moved, a terrier with a rat fast on his nose, until it all must have looked like Hamelin before the arrival of the Pied Piper!

Amid all the movement, action and excitement it was not unknown for somebody to be bitten by an over exuberant dog, and on one glorious occasion my uncle, who was wielding an enormous blackthorn stick, made a wild slash at a rat, missed, and caught a man who had moved too close to him at just the wrong instant, a tremendous whack across the shins! This not only helped my youthful knowledge of good old Anglo Saxon cursing, but cost my uncle several pints in the "Clarendon" that night to soothe the feelings of the injured party.

While the "Great Hebden Rat Hunt" was in progress, and after her encounter with King Rat in the dairy, my aunt had shut that particular building up tight, stuffed sacking under the door bottom and retreated to the safety of the house, taking the two border collies with her. As for me, due to most of the rats that had managed to escape making for the shelter of the other outbuildings, I had wonderful shooting for several days afterwards.

It was no good however attempting to tell Wilf about some of the bigger ones that I had killed.

"Rats?" he said, "Rats? Tha's nivver seen a big 'un, lad. Now them as we had int' trenches they were and th' size of cats int' bargain. I remember one neet I were Section Sentry and stood alone, I 'eard this scufflin' sort o' sound from nearby . . . . . . . . . . . .

(First published in NFWS News October 1996 Issue No 39)

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