Poultry and rats go hand-in-hand, and most keepers will tell you that the same can be said for pheasants. Although game birds live a more natural life, being farmed much less intensively than their more domesticated cousins, they still attract vermin. Wherever there’s a free meal, you can usually expect uninvited guests to arrive. More often than not, the corn put out to feed pheasants in their woodland release pens quickly attracts attention from grain-robbing squirrels. Those same feeding stations are also likely to be used by rats – except you probably won’t see them unless you venture out after nightfall.
A friend of mine who runs a shoot on his farm recently complained that he’d spotted several large rats lurking around one of his release pens. It was late autumn and the first frosts were just starting to set in. This is the time of year when natural food gradually becomes less abundant, forcing wild creatures to look to other sources of nutrition to sustain them through the tough months that follow. My guess was that those rats had been attracted by the copious amounts of grain put out to stop the pheasants from straying.
I always enjoy a bit of after-dark rat control, so I agreed to visit with my airgun and night shooting gear the following weekend. Most of my nocturnal ratting sessions take place around farm units, where barns and sheds provide shelter from the elements, and usually a comfortable place to sit, along with a stable shooting rest. Such buildings are often scattered with hay bales, feed sacks and pallets that can be arranged to create the perfect rat shooting base.
But the woodland environment is different. Without the man-made comforts of the farm, I’d have to take my own shooting platform. Apart from wanting to sit comfortably and shoot steadily, I also wanted be well off the ground – I’m quite happy to sit on the woodland floor when I’m waiting to ambush squirrels or woodpigeons, but I didn’t fancy being sat on the deck when there were rats scurrying around. To that end, I decided to base my attack from my IdleBack Shooting Chair. It’s a hefty piece of kit to cart into the woods along with my airgun and night shooting gear, but I reckoned it would be well suited to this job. I arrived at the woods about an hour before dusk, to give me time to investigate the area, work out my tactics and settle into position. Initial observations revealed a steep bank that was clearly home to several resident rats. Looking at the holes that had been excavated into the soil, my theory about the recent snap of cold weather forcing the hungry rodents into the pen didn’t exactly ring true – it looked like this colony had been holed up for several weeks at least.
At first glance, the bank appeared to offer the perfect backstop – but closer inspection identified a scattering of rocks among the sandy earthworks. Worried that the flints could produce a dangerous ricochet, I elected to wind down the power of my FAC-rated Daystate MK4 to somewhere nearer the legal limit – more than enough knock-down power for ratting over ranges of 15 to 20 metres.
With an obvious target area established, I set about getting the IdleBack in position. I opted for a vantage point on the brow of a hillock between the bank and two pheasant feeders, working on the premise that any rats that wanted to feast on the corn would have to get past me first. The adjustable legs on the IdleBack proved invaluable on the sandy soil; this nifty feature is handy for levelling-up the seat on hard ground, but it’s even more useful when the legs are sinking into soft earth.
At this stage, I was planning to set up bait spots, but the pheasants were still scratching around and I was concerned that they’d obliterate my carefully placed attractors before they had a chance to work. So, I busied myself connecting the NiteSite NS50 to my scope while I waited for the birds to go to roost.
When it comes to rat shooting, I’m still a big fan of conventional scope-mounted lamps – I don’t think anything can beat them when it comes to simplicity and affordability. However, I expected these rats to be a little more skittish than those encountered on the farmyard. Farm rats are less wary of human disturbance because they become accustomed to the comings and goings of workers, the clatter of machinery and the footfalls and calls of livestock. In my experience, woodland rats are much more on edge, and I was concerned that they would be spooked by normal lamplight. The NS50 enables the shooter to see through the dark without having to shine a bright beam of light at his quarry; I felt this would be a distinct advantage.
I noticed a rat dart from one hole to another on the bank as I quickly connected the NS50’s camera to the ocular lens of my scope, and wired it to the top-mounted screen and its substantial battery pack. The system was assembled and functioning in seconds, and I was soon rummaging in my backpack for that all-important bait.
Over recent years, I’ve been experimenting with all kinds of bait to keep rats still long enough for me to deliver a shot to the head. Favourites include marmite, peanut butter, chocolate spread and very small fishing pellets. These baits attract the attention of hungry rats and hold them still, because they can’t run off with big chunks – they have to stop to feed. But of all these ratty treats, nothing beats the classic liquidised cat food. This stinking, fi shy soup is messy to make and equally messy to slop out, but rats can’t resist it. With an abundance of grain on offer, I felt compelled to offer the rats something really whiffy to keep them where I wanted them.
The light was fading fast and, although it wasn’t a particularly long drop, I took care as I clambered down the slope towards the bank where I spooned piles of the liquidised cat food close to rat holes and in full view of my shooting position. It would have been more treacherous in complete darkness, and I was pleased that my friend had told me not to worry about retrieving shot rats at the end of the session.
My careful preparation paid off, and the fi rst rat of the evening soon appeared on the screen of the NiteSite. Thanks to my super-steady shooting platform, the head shot was a formality. The smack of the pellet hitting home was swiftly followed by the plop of a lifeless rat tumbling into the stream at the bottom of the bank.
I was well pleased with my set-up, although there was one flaw – the lack of magazine-loading. My first choice for farmyard ratting is my old faithful, mag-fed BSA SuperTen. However, rather than removing the lamp mount from its scope to make room for the NiteSite’s fixture, and because I was hunting in less confined conditions, I’d decided to give my usual MK4 ‘day gun’ a try instead. While the rifle performed perfectly well, I’d overlooked the fact that I’ve dispensed with its magazine in preference of the improved long-range accuracy, and the ability to fit a low-set scope, afforded by single-shot loading. That’s all very well when hunting by day… but it made a real faff of reloading in the dark.
It was a still, cold evening, with the only sounds coming from the occasional contented purr made by the pheasants roosting above my head, one or two expletives as I struggled to fumble pellets into the loading tray, and a couple of heart-stopping screeches from tawny owls that sounded a little too close for comfort.
It was just a bit too cold, though, and I reckon more rats would have ventured out on a milder night. Nonetheless, the scaly-tails that did break their cover were quickly picked up on the LCD screen of the NS50 as I scanned the various bait spots – and I managed to nail five in the space of about two hours before I was tempted away from the woods by the lure of a warm house and a spot of supper.