Richard Saunders and friends crack down on some farmyard rodents.
Although I shoot throughout the winter, it’s a huge relief to get out and stalk the hedgerows for rabbits in the pale spring sun.
That doesn’t mean I can put my night vision gear away just yet though; one of my permissions is a free-range egg farm, and my rat control duties are a year-round obligation. With more than 6,000 birds, there’s always plenty of feed, and while the activity slows down in the summer, there are numerous rats as well.
A recent visit with my shooting buddies Neil and Kev coincided with a warm spring evening. We arrived with about 40 minutes of daylight left, and spent the time drinking tea and chatting to the farmer.
It was time well spent, as he told us about some new rabbit holes that had sprung up on the far side of the farm, before wishing us good night and reminding us to switch on the anti-fox electric fences when we left.
Shooting in a relatively small area in the dark increases the potential for injury and accident – especially when there are three of you. To make things safer, we’ve divided the yard into zones. Each of us is assigned a different area, and we rotate throughout the evening.
There are more than enough rats to keep us all busy, and I’d drawn one of the large chicken sheds. During the day, the chickens peck about in fenced-in fields, but when the sun goes down, they troop into the hen houses for the night.
The birds nest on shelves a metre off the ground, and a conveyor belt delivers food within pecking range, supplementing whatever the chickens scratch up in the field. The drop beneath is full of what comes out the other end, and I don’t mean eggs.
The rats are drawn to the constant supply of food, and thrive in the warmth and security of the chicken muck. It sounds revolting, but to a rat, it’s an all-inclusive five-star resort. As a result, the rats don’t have much need to move about, and we only get to shoot them when they travel between sheds.
We’ve tried baiting before, coming up with increasingly pungent and disgusting recipes along with the tried and tested peanut butter and cat food tactics, but none have really worked.
We put it down to the fact that the rats already have easy access to as much food as they want. I also think that, after thousands of years evolving as a species, knowing just about everything else wants to kill and/or eat you, rats instinctively know to be cautious of anything out of the ordinary.
A pile of some smelly thing, no matter how yummy, is therefore likely to be met with suspicion, especially if it appears in the middle of a well-worn rat run. In this case, you’re better off putting it in a part of the yard that you’ve never seen rats before.
Putting bait out in the same spot for days or even weeks would likely overcome the problem. Even better, focus on areas where rats are used to finding food.
And that’s why the chicken shed I had been allocated was such a hot spot. The large hopper that distributes the chicken feed is right next to the shed. It’s topped up every few days so there’s a constant supply of spilled food to be had.
Stood behind my Primos trigger sticks, I was using my legal-limit .22 BSA R-10. Behind me, facing another chicken shed, Kevin used his Ratworks-tuned .22 BSA Ultra SE, while Neil completed our triangle between a chicken shed and some storage containers.
His preferred gun for the night was a .22 GunPower Stealth. All three of us used NiteSite infrared night vision systems.
After the initial commotion of arriving, walking about the yard and then setting up, we settled in and waited for the rats to show themselves. We passed the time by scanning our shooting zones through the NiteSite gear, yearning for a pair of beady eyes to be reflected back at us.
Though we used laser rangefinders, familiarity meant we already knew the distances to most of the features in the yard. We were expecting to take shots anywhere from 12 to 20 metres, and thus all our guns had been zeroed accordingly.
After what seemed an eternity, I heard Kevin mutter “there’s one”. A second later the muted shot broke the silence of the night and we were treated to a graphic description of his successful takedown.
We congratulated him – Neil even sounded like he meant it – then huddled over the heads-up displays of our NiteSites once again, hoping to get a shot of our own.
At last, after Neil had opened his account and Kevin had added two more to his, I saw some movement underneath the chicken shed. A big rat made its way out of a hole and paused, feeling safe under some pallets.
In the grey glow of the NiteSite, I tweaked the magnification up a notch and squeezed the trigger. The AA Diabolo 16 grain pellet hit with a meaty thwack and the rat rolled over, lay still for a few seconds, and then did the funky chicken as its nervous system shut down.
Relieved at getting off the mark, I turned the magnification on my scope down again to resume scanning. Almost instantly, I saw another rat heading towards me down the side of the shed.
I tracked it, hoping it would stop and not disappear into a hole. Thankfully, the rat obliged, and I sent the ersthwile scavenger packing with another head shot.
Just as things were improving for me, a majority two-to-one vote decided on a tea break, after which we swapped shooting zones. I decided to make my way into one of the electrically fenced enclosures.
An area in which several thousand chickens spend all day is a pretty unpleasant place to be, especially after any rain. Their constant pecking and scratching means the ground is a minefield of muddy, poopy craters.
It really isn’t the kind of place you’d want to slip over, no matter how much free entertainment you know you’d provide your friends.
Picking my way across as quietly as I could, I made it to the back of the shed. I stopped at the junction with a second, slightly smaller shed, where some drainage pipes are a favourite spot for the rats.
I put the R-10 on the trigger sticks and switched on the NiteSite. Sure enough, three of the rodents sat still looking back at me. The laser rangefinder confirmed a distance of 18 metres, and I was able to take the first one straight between the eyes.
The others ran off, but one stopped long enough for me to take a shot and put it down as well.
I tracked both dead rats to make sure I’d know where to pick them up at the end of the night, and then moved around the back of the shed. An extraction fan blasted ammonia as I passed, as quickly as I could, and I was able to shoot another couple of rats before heading back to Kev and Neil, glad to be out of the slippery chicken field.
Both had been able to add to their tally, and with time getting on, we agreed on a final cup of tea and another of Neil’s fags before tidying up the yard.
I subscribe to the maxim that you can never be too far away from a rat, especially a dead one, so we donned latex gloves and grabbed metre-long litter pickers and torches.
Kev and Neil had the job of extracting the rats from wherever they’d fallen. My job was to hold the bucket we collect them in. I don’t mind, except that I wish Kev would oil his picker, as it has an unnerving, very rat-like squeak to it when he drops the dead rats in.
Eighteen rats was average for a relatively short session. Fortunately, the farmer has an old skip that’s used for incinerating all kinds of rubbish. It’s operated twice a week, so we popped our kills in, happy in the knowledge that they’d soon disappear in a pile of ashes.