The Countryman: ratting by lamplight

Mat Manning goes old school and heads out after the scaly-tails with a spring-powered gun and a scope-mounted lamp.

Rat shooting is synonymous with winter evenings, and as the year gradually rolls around it is starting to take up more and more of my time. My ratting rounds are becoming so hectic that I’m doing my best to cram in short sessions whenever I can and that means using gear that’s always ready to go.

Modern pre-charged airguns and night vision gear are usually my first choice of kit for stealthy after-dark ratting, but this type of gear isn’t always quick to set up, as air cylinders need to be filled and NV units need to be charged up.

When ad hoc opportunities to get out and nail a few scaly-tails crop up, I need something that I can just grab and go. Simple, reliable equipment is usually the best option in these circumstances.

With this in mind, I have been doing a surprising amount of ratting with just a spring-powered airgun and scope-mounted lamp this year. I know that my trusty springer is never going to run out of air and leave me high and dry, and by being clever and keeping a couple of spare batteries in the boot, the lamp is always good to go at any moment.

Apart from its simplicity, this setup is a lot more affordable than my usual one. Not everyone has the means to splash out on state-of-the-art gear and although there is no denying that high-tech kit can give you an edge when the going gets tough, traditional methods still work as well as they ever did.

The farm tonight is a mixed holding with plenty of food and shelter to draw the rats in when life gets hard in the open countryside. According to the farmer there are a lot about, and the mild, overcast conditions are favourable, so I’m expecting to see a few scaly-tails after darkness closes in.

The quarry: brown rat

PEST STATUS: This rodent spreads disease by toileting around stored crops, animal feed and drinking troughs. Rats also chew wires and burrow into banks or through walls.

HABITAT: Rats are found in a wide range of habitats. Farms suit them well because they offer plenty of food and shelter.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Rats breed rapidly, so populations can quickly spiral.

16:15 – Ratty activity

It always pays to get to the farm before nightfall if you can. The opportunity to have a proper look round before it gets dark will enable you to spot any potential hazards and also to earmark the areas where rats appear to be most active.

It’s not unusual to find signs of the odd rat around farmyards at any time of year, but these disease-spreading pests usually become far more abundant during the winter months.

The rodents know that they can always find food and shelter around the farm, which must be a very tempting proposition at a time of year when natural food is beginning to run low and cold, wet weather is making life uncomfortable out in the open countryside.

This mixed farm holds a lot of attraction. It is home to beef cattle and turkeys, and the feed put out for the livestock, along with the large grain stores, provides rich pickings for rodents. Add to that the cosy nesting sites provided inside the large barns, many of which are stacked high with hay bales, and it’s like a five-star hotel for rats.

The attraction is clear to see. Walking around the holding, Mat spots numerous signs confirming the presence of rats. Holes and runs are apparent along a bank close to a slurry pit, wet mud is riddled with their footprints and it doesn’t take long to find the rodents’ slug-shaped droppings around the areas where they’ve been feeding.

16:45 – free offering

Rats are extremely wary and can be reluctant to venture out from cover, even after dark. They are also very twitchy, which can make it tricky to line up for a reliable headshot.

In order to coax the rats out from their hiding places, Mat is putting out small heaps of fishing pellets. These pellets are similar to the turkey feed that the rats are used to eating, but are more smelly and much smaller.

Apart from being very appealing to rats, Mat hopes the fishy offerings will also help to keep them still – the particles are pretty small so hungry rodents will have to settle if they want to get a substantial mouthful.

Although bait heaps can help to entice rats out from cover, these skittish rodents are usually reluctant to creep out too far from the places where they feel safe.

With this in mind, Mat puts small piles of pellets close to where he expects rats to be on the move. Key areas to target include open spots along busy-looking runs, just outside of burrows and close to pallets and other structures that rats could be using for cover.

Another handy thing about bait heaps is that you can use them as range-markers. Mat paces out the distance between his free offerings and his shooting position so he knows exactly how far away the rats are when they settle to feed.

17:05 – Getting set

Although Mat’s setup for tonight’s shoot is very simple, there are still a few preparations to be made. Targeting rats around bait spots from a fixed position is a waiting game, so he starts off by setting up his stool. Apart from making for a comfy seat, the stool also enables Mat to shoot from a stable sitting position.

Once he’s made himself comfortable Mat clamps a lamp onto his scope. He favours a lamp with an adjustable beam as rats are easily spooked by a very bright light. Mat has also fitted the lamp with a red filter, which further softens its beam. A quick scan through the scope with the lamp switched on confirms that the light is aligned with the sight and ready for action.

With his gear ready to go, it’s time for Mat to load up, and the spilled light from the lamp provides handy illumination for loading. When it comes to pellet selection, Mat rates accuracy above anything else.

Pointed and dum-dum type ammo may look tempting, but it doesn’t count for much if you can’t put it in exactly the right place. Mat wants to ensure clean kills by striking rats squarely in the head – his HW95 K shoots very precisely with Rangemaster Sovereign pellets, so that’s the choice for tonight.

17:25 – Rats on the move

If rats are present you can usually expect to see them out and about as the light starts to fade. It takes a while for the rodents to show themselves after the disturbance caused by Mat’s arrival and setting up, but he eventually picks one out in the lamplight.

The usual approach when ratting with a lamp is to keep the light off and then switch it on every few minutes to see if any rats have settled on the bait spots. Mat’s first few scans proved fruitless, but about 15 minutes after he settled in he now has a clear sighting.

Sweeping the beam from one bait heap to another as he looks closely through the scope, Mat spots the tell-tale red bead of reflected light shining back from a rat’s eye. Following it in the sight picture he quickly realises that this rat isn’t on the bait, but has crept to the edge of a large puddle to drink.

Mat steadies his aim and the rat remains at ease as it sips at the muddy water. The scaly-tail is only 12m away so the shot needs a touch of holdover. As the crosshairs come to rest, Mat squeezes through the trigger and his pellet slams into the unsuspecting rat’s skull, flopping it into the puddle with barely a twitch.

19:30 – Going mobile

Mat’s initial ambush produces a steady trickle of shots, but it’s not been as busy as he’d expected. He manages to account for eight rodents during the first couple of hours before things go extremely quiet.

With the rats now refusing to show themselves, Mat decides to get up and have a mooch around. This is where his daytime reconnaissance pays off because he has earmarked a safe route around the farmyard and has a good idea of where he might expect to see rats.

Even if you are familiar with the layout of the farm, you need good illumination to move around safely at night. A scope-mounted lamp provides a source of light, but Mat is also wearing a headlamp, which casts a beam wherever he looks.

The decision to adopt a mobile approach proves to be the right one, and Mat manages to add four more rats to the tally as he circles the yard and investigates a couple of barns.

Resting the bait spots around his first ambush zone has also given the rats a chance to feed undisturbed and regain their confidence. With this in mind, Mat decides to settle back onto his stool after completing his walkabout.

21:40 – Clearing up

Apart from enabling Mat to stretch his legs,  warm up and bag a few more rats, the rove around the farm proved to be very beneficial. The scaly-tails around his initial target area had ventured back out and he manages to account for three more before the action dies off again.

After drawing the session to a close, Mat has one last task to carry out before he heads for the warmth and comfort of home. Dead rats can pose as much of a disease risk around the farm as live ones, so Mat needs to round up the bodies and dispose of them on a fire site as the farmer had requested.

Mat keeps a litter picker in the boot of his car so he knows he has something to transfer the rats into a bucket without having to get his hands too close. If you don’t have a litter picker, you should be able to find a shovel on most farms.

It hasn’t been the easiest of sessions, but Mat has still managed to get a haul of 15 rats. That’s not a bad tally, but the most important thing with pest control is to keep the pressure on. Rat numbers can quickly increase as the winter wears on, so regular visits are essential – Mat will be back for more before the end of the week.

Expert tip – Stay safe around rats

The pest status of rats is largely based on the fact that they can spread diseases to livestock and humans. It is important to take measures to avoid infection when shooting around areas wherever rats are likely to be encountered.

Eating and drinking during a rat shoot is not a good idea as you really don’t want to put your hands anywhere near your face. Wearing gloves is a very sensible precaution – take them off at the end of the shoot and if you keep some hand sanitiser in your car you can even scrub up before you drive home.

Don’t pick up rats with your hands – even with gloves on there is a risk of being bitten by a wounded one. Always use a shovel or a litter grabber to clear up dead rats when you finish  your shooting session.

If you ever feel unwell following a ratting session, visit your doctor. Rats can carry Weil’s disease, which needs to be treated promptly. 

Mat’s gear

GUN: Weihrauch HW95 K

OPTICS: Hawke Airmax 2-7×32

AMMO: Daystate Rangemaster Sovereign

GUN LAMP: PAO LumenMAX 900 IR System

HEAD LAMP: Fenix HM65R ShadowMaster

JACKET: Ridgeline Grizzly III
(Dirt Camo)

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