Rat numbers have boomed on the farm and the cocky rodents are even venturing out in daylight. Mat Manning sets up an ambush to keep them in check.
Rats are a constant cause of irritation on most farms. Attracted by an abundance of easy food and plenty of snug places to nest, populations quickly establish and can soon get out of hand.
Problems posed by rats are numerous, and the worst one is their potential to spread some very nasty infections, including Weil’s disease. Infection is usually passed on through contact with rats’ urine or faeces, and bacteria can survive out of their body for some time.
Rats can be a danger to farm workers and livestock as their droppings inevitably find their way onto tools and machinery, and into animal feed and water troughs. They also pose a health risk to the wider food chain as most farms grow and store produce that’s destined for human consumption.
The mixed farm where I’m shooting today really suits rats. It’s used for the production of livestock including cattle, sheep and poultry, and their feed inevitably attracts opportunistic rodents. Add stored grain to the equation and it’s a ratty paradise.
Most of the shooting I do here is done with night vision kit on autumn and winter nights, because rat numbers tend to spike when cold weather pushes them in off the fields.
However, the scaly-tails seem to be having a bumper summer, and I’ve already had to deal with more than usual on other farms and around my backyard chicken run this year.
Even more exceptional is the fact that these farmyard rats have become so bold that they’re venturing out in broad daylight. That’s a relief, because night vision hunting at this time of year means putting in a very late shift since it still takes a while to get dark.
When I shoot around farm buildings during the summer months, it’s usually because they offer a cool, shady place to avoid the sweltering sun. It’s not such a good day today though, and I’m more likely to be using the barns to shelter from showers. Hopefully the wet weather won’t discourage the rats from coming out.
Brown rat (Rattus norveglcus)
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.
08:15 – ENCOURAGING SIGNS
Although wandering around the farm and popping off a few rats will help to keep their numbers down, a more systematic approach will usually produce better results. On most holdings, the rodents will be most active around one or two different areas.
These places are usually either where the rats are nesting, where they are feeding or the routes they are using to travel between those two areas. Target these hotspots and you should get plenty of shots.
Even if you don’t see rats out and about when you arrive there should still be plenty of signs to guide you to the places where they are most abundant. Rat droppings are very distinctive slug-shaped cylinders that are usually dark in colour. They’re not difficult to spot, and moist, fresh ones indicate very recent activity – find these and the scaly-tails won’t be far away.
Look out also for rat holes, which are usually to be found along banks, around areas used for rubbish storage and places where rubble, pallets or tyres are stacked.
Burrows that are free from debris and appear to be freshly excavated will almost certainly be active. Less obvious, but often very productive, are rat runs; the routes these rodents tend to stick to when they travel from one place to another.
Rat runs usually follow straight edges, so look along walls – if they pass through vegetation such as grass and nettles, you should see smooth runs worn through the undergrowth. If rain has left the ground muddy, you might be able to see rats’ footprints.
Mat soon finds a very promising-looking spot with holes, droppings and runs close to where the poultry is kept. This certainly seems to be the obvious place to start.
08:30 – KEEPING THEM STILL
The best way to ensure clean kills on rats is to shoot them in the head, but that can be tricky when you’re dealing with such a fidgety target. These skittish rodents can be even more reluctant to keep still when they venture out in daylight, but there are ways to make them linger.
Putting bait along rat runs should encourage them to stop and feed. Years ago, Mat used to simply put out a few handfuls of whatever the rats were feeding on, but if the particles were too large, the rats would often just grab one at a time and dart back into the undergrowth to devour it.
Over time, Mat has devised numerous clever baits to distract rats. Liquidised cat food and sweetcorn work well because the rats have to stop to lap it up, and chocolate spread and peanut butter can also be effective. Today he is using tiny fishmeal pellets produced as fishing bait.
These fishy-smelling morsels are hard for rats to ignore, and because they are so small, they have to stop and snaffle at them if they want to get a decent mouthful.
Mat sets out five small heaps of the pellets in places where he expects rats to be moving. Before putting the bait piles down, he makes sure that they will be clearly visible from where he plans to set up his ambush.
EXPERT TIP: Winding down the mag
High scope magnification can help with precision when you’re tackling long-range targets, but that doesn’t mean you always have to crank the zoom right up. In fact, there are several scenarios when lower magnification can be an advantage, and close-range ratting is one of them.
Because rats are often fidgety, it can be hard to find them when you look through the scope, and the tunnel vision caused by high magnification will only make the problem worse.
Wind down the zoom to something around 4x or 5x, and you’ll have a wider field of view and a longer depth of field, which makes it much easier to pick up on small, fidgety targets.
And it doesn’t just help when hunting by day. Turning down the magnification also improves light transmission, which results in a brighter sight picture. It can make a significant difference when you’re shooting in gloomy conditions or by lamplight and are struggling to spot your quarry.
08:40 – COMFORT AND STABILITY
Because he’s shooting from a static position, Mat is able to pace out the distance between his bait spots and his ambush point. This means he will know the exact distance to any rats that stop to feed so he can then apply correct holdover or holdunder to keep his shots dead on target.
All of today’s bait heaps are between 12m and 20m from where he’ll be shooting from, so the shots should be fairly straightforward as long as the rats keep still.
Stability is another important factor when tackling small targets, so Mat has brought along a seat. The backpack he uses to carry all his ratting essentials has an integral stool, which unfolds to create a seat off the ground and out of the way of the rats wherever he sets up.
Apart from providing somewhere comfortable to sit while he’s waiting for the scaly-tails to creep out, it also makes for a very steady shooting position.
Mat has added even more stability to his set-up by using a set of shooting sticks. The legs of his Primos Trigger Stick Tripod are free to extend and retract when the trigger is pressed in, and then lock into position when it’s released.
This rest also has a swivelling gun support, so Mat is able to cover a wide range of angles without having to reposition it. Taking rested shots is not cheating, it is a very effective way of boosting accuracy by eliminating wobbles caused by the movement of your body.
The final preparation is to load up the FX Impact MKII’s 26-shot magazine. Mat will have made quite a bag if he gets through all those pellets.
08:55 – THE RATS ARRIVE
Apart from offering shelter from the elements, the building that Mat has chosen to set up in also provides some welcome concealment. Sitting still and quiet, and tucked away in the shadows, he’s not easy to spot from outside.
This sort of ambush usually takes a fair amount of patience, and the disturbance caused by your arrival can sometimes make rats reluctant to return. That’s not the case today though, and the rodents appear to be eager to get out above ground.
The first sighting is a very quick one. A rat briefly shows itself in a gap between two patches of nettles before slipping back into cover. With cats and dogs wandering the farm, these rats know it’s not wise to linger in the open for very long.
Mat sits tight, and it’s not long before another rat ventures out. This one is a lot less edgy and although it’s away from the safety of the undergrowth and hasn’t clocked the bait heaps, it doesn’t appear to be in a hurry.
Mat quickly picks it up in his sight picture and follows it as it trundles along. The careless rodent makes the mistake of pausing for just a moment to sniff at the ground and Mat settles the crosshairs onto its head and rolls it over with a smack to the skull.
Less than 10 minutes after Mat’s first shot, another rat creeps out, and this one stops to tuck into one of the bait heaps. At around 15m, it’s not a difficult shot – especially from the sticks – and Mat promptly adds another scaly-tail to the morning’s tally.
09:45 – MORE SCALY-TAILS
The farmer told Mat the yard was overrun with rats when he called him to see if he could come and thin them out. It’s the sort of statement that Mat usually takes with a pinch of salt as the expected plague of rodents can often fail to materialise when you turn up with your airgun. Nonetheless, there do seem to be quite a few around on this holding, even if it isn’t quite an epidemic.
After just over an hour in position, Mat has accounted for seven rats, and there are still more on the move. The bait spots have been working well; keeping rats out in the open long enough for Mat to make telling shots.
Some of the scaly-tails have been less keen to show themselves, but Mat managed to pick off a couple while they were hiding in the undergrowth rather than waiting for them to come out for a munch.
A quiet spell followed the initial flurry, but there was still plenty going on to keep Mat occupied. A family of swallows are nesting up in the rafters of the barn, and he’s been watching them swooping in and out with their beaks filled with grubs for the chicks.
Another rat creeps out as Mat is distracted by the birds, but he soon spots it out in the open when his thoughts return to the job in hand. At about 14m, the shot is more or less smack on Mat’s primary zero, so it requires no aim-off.
Thanks to the support of the sticks, the crosshairs quickly come to rest on the rat’s head, and Mat squeezes off the trigger to make another addition to the bag.
10:50 – CLEAR UP AND MOVE ON
Ratty activity is really slowing down now, but it’s hardly surprising as Mat’s tally is now into double figures. He’s been perched on his stall for more than two hours. Time passes quickly when you’re getting regular shots, but now seems like a good time to get up and stretch his legs.
It’s important to clear up properly after a ratting session as decaying corpses can pose as much of a disease risk as live rats. Most farms will have a waste site where you can dispose of shot rats, so make sure to ask the farm manager where to put them.
On this farm Mat has been told to leave the dead rats on a fire site, but he’s not to pick them up with his bare hands. You should be able to find a shovel and a bucket for clearing up on most farms. Mat always keeps a litter grabber in his boot to ensure hands-free rat retrieval.
After picking up, Mat decides to not head for home just yet. There’s no doubt that there are still a lot of scaly-tails on this holding, so he’s going to seek out another spot that looks like it might yield a few rats and settle in there for an hour or so to see if he can account for a few more.
EXPERT TIP: Keep it clean
The risk of disease posed by rats is not limited to farmworkers and livestock – shooters need to be very careful when operating in areas where rats are active.
Rat-infested farms are not the place to sit and eat sandwiches while you’re waiting for your quarry to arrive. It’s a good idea to wear gloves when rat shooting, and it’s worth scrubbing up with some anti-bacterial handwash at the end of the session.
It’s also important to be vigilant when clearing up and disposing of shot rats. Always use a shovel or litter grabber to pick them up, and not your bare hands. This reduces the risk of picking up the diseases they carry and also eliminates any chance of being bitten by one which hasn’t been cleanly killed.
You can also do your bit to keep the farm clean by disposing of shot rats in the most appropriate place – usually a fire site or incinerator. Ask the landowner or farm manager where you should leave them at the end of the session.
GUN: FX Impact MkII
SCOPE: MTC Mamba Lite
MOUNTS: Sportsmatch two-piece
AMMO: Air Arms Diabolo Field
STICKS: Primos Trigger Stick Tripod
JACKET: Ridgeline Pro Hunt