Pete Brookes explains how the airgun hunter may land themselves a very different type of permission, but populated with a very familiar pest
A large part of the enjoyment of airgunning, or most other types of shooting for that matter, is that it gets you outdoors into the fresh air. If you are fortunate to get a permission there’s a good chance it will be in a rural environment and you’ll be lucky enough to be able to go about your sport in our amazing and beautiful countryside.
One such area is the aquatic habitat of rivers, streams and standing water. After all, farms by their very nature were established around water courses to supply livestock and crops, with the knock-on effect of creating a sustainable habitat for wildlife.
Unfortunately, not all that wildlife is complementary to the healthy operation of the farm and food production, so some degree of lethal control is required to keep the numbers of pest species in check.
We could include the canal system as an aquatic environment in all this, but seeing as these are places where the public have 24-hour access , unless employed by the local waterways authority on official pest control duties, it’s unlikely you will get the opportunity to shoot there.
Having a walk around such places will not fill the whole of your day, yet they are worth paying attention to and can result in success for the airgun shooter, so time beforehand giving it a bit of a recce is time well spent.
As per all areas of shooting, common sense health and safety rules apply – do not fall in, do not get bitten and most certainly do not even think about drinking the water!
The much-maligned brown rat (Rattus norvegicus) is an extremely adaptable and resilient rodent, who when combined with an ample food source, thrives in areas within proximity of water.
Rats are competent swimmers and signs of their presence and residence are regular around the lakes, pools and streams near to farm buildings. They will travel further out into the field network making their way along natural water ditches and drainage pipes, and if there is a food supply they will prosper.
One good place to set up ambush on rats is around game bird feeders, particularly where sited near to water. These are placed there by the local shoot to supplement released duck for the oncoming shooting season, and are the rats’ equivalent of a kebab house on a busy Saturday night, attracting them in droves.
A gamekeeper friend of mine decided to set up a trail cam on one of his feeders to see why he was losing so much feed in a short period of time. On viewing the footage, it revealed up to 20 rats crawling over the hopper and the metallic spiral feeder.
Rats are known to secrete urine as they move and are carriers of Leptospirosis (Weil’s disease) within their urine, which, if it enters the human body via the mouth, eyes or cuts, can cause severe flu-like symptoms or even death. Needless to say, my keeper friend now always wears gloves when handling the hoppers.
Another small furry brown mammal that frequents slow-flowing streams and freshwater marshes and is similar in appearance to the brown rat is the more charismatic water vole (Arvicola amphibious).
While owing to its rarity you are unlikely to encounter it, it’s completely off our quarry species list, being Britain’s fastest declining mammal and is consequently protected under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
Records put the late Iron Age population of the water vole at a staggering 6.7 billion, dropping to around 8 million in the early 1900s. While habitat degradation has been the common theme along its history of decline, more recently the impact of the non-native American mink (Neovison vison) assisted in the further reduction of water vole numbers by 94% between 1990 and 1999.
Water vole populations are now almost entirely confined to areas that are protected and specifically managed for ‘corporate’ wildlife conservation. Shooting of any kind is usually very limited in these places and generally discouraged, so chances of friendly fire by the airgun shooter to the water vole is low (but well done for getting that permission).
However, in the unlikely event of a meeting, the distinguishing differences between the water vole and the rat should be noted. Whilst water voles have a more rounded muzzle, the brown rat wears a more pointed snout with protruding ears.
If observed swimming, owing to the buoyancy of its coat the water vole will tend to swim with more of its body above the water whilst the rat will be much more submerged. Just to add confusion, in Kenneth Grahame’s book The Wind in the Willows, the character Ratty was actually a water vole!
Although not as visible as some people may believe, the American mink patrols our water courses and is firmly established in Britain since initial escapees from fur farms in the 1950s.
In my own area, 20-odd years ago 8,000 mink were released from cages by animal rights activists. Fortunately, the vast majority were quickly contained within the proximity of the farm and recaptured, nonetheless around 1,000 did get away into the surrounding countryside.
Not only did the local wildlife suffer massively from the incursion of this carnivorous predator, but so did the mink themselves, with reports of scores of dead and dying littering fields and hedgerows through starvation.
This subject does invoke discussion around the shooting of free-ranging mink with any air rifle. Whilst researching this article I contacted The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) on the matter and I am very grateful for the time they gave me and the information that was forwarded on mink control.
For those that are unfamiliar, the GWCT is a charity organisation that also advises on Government policy, promoting game and wildlife management as a part of nature conservation, whilst working with the shooting community.
Over the years, it’s been the lead on mink control within this country and the development of the successful mink raft which both monitors mink numbers and enables live trapping to protect non-target species.
The debate falls into two parts, balanced between the capability of the airgun/shooter combination, and the probability of the shooter actually encountering any mink on a regular basis.
Within the functioning parameters of both sub-12 foot pound and FAC air, then at the appropriate effective range, a head shot with either rifle would have the necessary effect to ensure a quick dispatch.
That said, the capability and skill of the shooter would have to also be brought into the equation. Achieving an effective and humane shot into the skull of a fast-moving, relatively small mammal with any air rifle would be no easy task.
When seen, mink are usually in the water with only the top of their head visible. They dive regularly, making the task very difficult, and when on land their constant activity makes effective aim points very problematic.
Current (loose) estimations put the UK population for mink at around 110,000 so although you may see evidence of their presence, actual sightings are still uncommon.
There is favorable suggestion that their numbers are in decline, some part to the successful trapping regime promoted by the GWCT and in part as a result in the drop of numbers of the rabbit population which it preys upon. Even from my Rural Crime days when I was a police officer and the hours tasked on fish poaching operations I never once set eyes on one.
Perhaps the debate is irrelevant. Unless you do shoot around commercial fisheries where mink tend to localise and inflict substantial damage to fish stock, it probably is a species that you rarely encounter and would probably not stay still long for an effective shot even if you did.
If your permission does have either a water course or flowing water within it then it is well worth getting the rifle out of the cabinet, putting your boots on and having a look to see what is about. Mostly you will be making a dent in your local rat population, but at the same time it will give you the opportunity to observe the more favorable species of our valuable wildlife.
We are all very much aware of the importance of looking after ourselves both mentally and physically, and although Wellbeing is very much the trendy buzzword, as outdoor people we have known for years the advantages of being outdoors in the countryside.
Personally, I cannot think of many things more beneficial and enjoyable than a trip to the riverbank.