As an apprentice gamekeeper, Charlie Crane knows that work doesn’t stop when the sun sets; the keeper is responsible for his birds 24 hours a day. Enemies such as foxes (and poachers) will take full advantage of the long winter nights, so the keeper must be willing to work all hours and learn to think of darkness as his friend.
Charlie’s mentor, Tony Lowry, uses the dark to his advantage in many ways. Armed with lamp and rifle, he can drive around the estate culling foxes after dark, for instance. He also likes to top up the feed rides in the dark, because that avoids disturbing the pheasants. There are feed ‘rides’ all around the shoot – cleared paths through cover crops and woodland, where Tony has spread a carpet of straw. In addition to topping up the strategically placed feed hoppers, Tony scatters wheat on the rides every day. In the past, the keeper would have walked the feed rides with a sack of corn, scattering it by hand – but nowadays, Tony uses a Kawasaki Mule – one of many modern inventions that make the keeper’s job less arduous.
Fitted on the back of the Mule is a device called a spinner, used by farmers to spread fertiliser on the fi elds. The grain trickles from a hopper onto a spinning plate, which throws it across a wide arc. Tony can set the spinner going and drive from one end of the feed ride to Airgun Shooter is following young Charlie Crane as he and his airgun are mentored by Tony Lowry in the art of gamekeeping. This month, he’s using his air rifle on rats after the sun sets… the other, spreading grain as he goes. In the morning, the pheasants will spend hours scratching through the mud and straw like chickens, looking for the tasty morsels. It helps keep them happy and busy, so they’re less likely to stray off Tony’s ground.
Feeding the rides after dark means the pheasants have gone to roost, so they won’t be disturbed; there are few enough hours of daylight in winter-time, without scaring the birds away from the rides and cutting down their available feeding time. However, even though there’s not a pheasant to be seen on the rides after dark, they’re anything but deserted. They’re swarming with rats.
Tony can testify to this. “As I drive round, I see them in the lights of the Mule, running for cover by the dozen,” he says. “It’s a constant battle with rats. There aren’t too many earlier in the year, but the feed draws them in at this time of year… and they multiply.” He places poison bait in boxes under the feed hoppers, which helps reduce the numbers, but he needs to shoot as many as possible, too. His favourite method is to use a 10-shot semi-automatic .410 shotgun. “I bought it specially for the job,” he admits. It’s made by a Russian company, Saiga, and looks exactly like a Kalashnikov assault rifle. In fact, Tony had to apply for it on his Firearms Certificate, because a Shotgun Certificate wouldn’t cover a magazine-fed semi-auto. “It’s tremendous fun,” Tony says with a twinkle. “We drive round in the Mule with the .410 and a lamp, catching the rats unawares and shooting them as they run for cover.”
Like the poison, it all helps, but there are always more rats that need to be killed, and you can’t drive round letting off a shotgun in earshot of houses late at night… which is where young Charlie comes in. His approach to rat shooting is the opposite of Tony’s. In contrast to his mentor’s shock-and-awe rat assault, Charlie is more of a lone sniper, sitting quietly and waiting for the rats to creep out for a sneaky feed. It’s one of the luxuries of being a trainee – he’s got the time to do it. But both methods work. In fact, they complement one another, accounting for greater numbers than one method alone could ever realistically achieve.
Tonight, Charlie is starting on a feed ride through a cover crop of maize. He’s taking his trusty .177 Air Arms S200, as always shooting Air Arms Diabolo Field pellets. After trying different pellets, he settled on these because they gave the best accuracy in his gun, and they produce clean kills on all the usual airgun quarry. “With rabbits I always go for a head shot, but for rats a body shot to the vital organs – the heart-lung area – works just as well,” he says from experience.
After trying out a new scope, he’s temporarily swapped back to his old Deben Military & Police 4-16×56. He prefers the thinner lines of the reticle, which help him to shoot more accurately at the longer ranges. Somehow he persuaded his dad to accept his new scope in exchange, so now the DMP is a permanent fixture on the rifle. Another new addition to his kit is a full set of Rocky jacket and trousers in Realtree APG camouflage. Charlie had always been a bit suspicious of the claims made for Realtree, but he’s become a real convert: “I realised that wearing the camo was helping me stay out of sight, but the thing that finally convinced me was when I walked under a pigeon in a tree and it didn’t fl y off – that had never happened to me before.”
Of course, on this night-time foray, the camouflage won’t help him – but he wears the gear anyway because it’s so warm and waterproof. There’s a full moon in the sky and temperatures are dropping rapidly towards zero, with the chance of showers later, so it pays to be well wrapped up – it could be a long, cold night. Charlie drives the Mule to the head of the field, keeping a close watch for rats and rabbits as he goes. As he swings in to the top of the feed ride, a dozen or so rats scuttle for cover between the tall maize stalks – it looks like he’s in for some decent action. He parks at the top of the feed ride, and swings the windscreen up out of the way. Sitting in the seat he can rest the bipod on the bonnet – it’s a comfortable way to wait and a rock steady shooting position.
It isn’t long before the rats have forgotten their alarm and come creeping back to guzzle the grain. Charlie has brought a powerful lamp, but when the clouds clear from the full moon, it gives more than enough light. The first rat takes a step too far into the ride and Charlie is on it, taking care not to make a sound with the bipod legs on the Mule’s metalwork.
With his gun zeroed at 50 metres, this 20-yard rat needs a fair bit of holdunder, but Charlie knows his combination well and picks the right mil-dot to use as his aiming mark. Thock! The loudest sound is the pellet smacking into the rat’s body. It rolls over, twitches a couple of times and lays still – a good, solid hit and a clean kill.
Charlie works the bolt quietly to reload and stays still. He knows that the other rats won’t pay much attention to the sound, and the dead body won’t worry them either. Sure enough they’re eager to get at the feed. The action is fast and furious, and before long the ride is littered with corpses. “Nineteen,” says Charlie triumphantly. He has missed a couple, too – perhaps because the pellet hit a maize stem on its way to the target. It’s some time since he saw a rat move, and his air reservoir is running low. Time to regroup, recharge, and drive the Mule back down the ride and on to the next spot.
Tony is delighted when Charlie reports back at the end of the night – no fewer than 58 rats accounted for, plus a couple of unwary bunnies that wandered into his sights. “It’s fun using the semi-auto, but Charlie does me a great job with the air rifle,” Tony admits. “Plus you can keep shooting later into the night without upsetting the neighbours – so I’m more than happy to give him some overtime.”
So it’s been a productive exercise all round – the rat numbers have taken a hit, Tony’s happy, and Charlie has had some great sport. Now he’s off to grab some shut-eye. He needs to be up in the morning for college – he’s at Sparsholt studying his Level 3 Extended Diploma in Game and Wildlife Management. This week they’re off to Richmond Park to study the deer: “We’re looking at everything, from behaviour and habitat to what they eat and what comes out the other end,” he says.
Serious stuff, but essential for the modern keeper – and not many college students get to do such exciting homework the night before.