Friday, February 29, 2008


I don't think that rats are very lovable, even though people keep them as pets. Mind you, these are nicely sanitized creatures compared to the wild brown rat. This little fellow is linked to some of man's greatest moments of squalor, like the Black Death and the trenches during World War One. Outbreaks of bubonic plague are now rare, but rats still carry diseases, like tetanus and Weil's syndrome, both of which can kill.

Obviously you don't mess with rats, but if one bites you see your doctor straight away. It is these undesirable aspects that make people dislike rats so much. Even though they're clean little animals, the diseases they carry are about as appalling as the filthy places where they live - sewers, rubbish dumps, and neglected areas. During the summer, rats spend quite a lot of time in the fields, often in colonies along the banks of ditches. Then they aren't easy to shoot because the cover is generally too long, although a bit of pruning will improve your chances of a clear shot.

You should remember that rats are fair game to cats, owls, and foxes. This is quite enough reason for them to be very shy at times. Once the cover goes, many rats make tracks to farm buildings and similar sheltered areas where they can spend the winter in dry, comfortable conditions, with plenty of food close by. This migration starts soon after harvest time, especially if heavy rains come early. You'll notice the occasional specimen that has been flattened on the road. You don't have to wait until this late in the year to get to grips with rats, lots of them linger around farm buildings throughout the year. It is here that they do most damage, especially to sackfuls of feed and seed, and most farmers would prefer to be without them. Whether or not you'll be allowed to shoot around the farmyard is something else again.

Some farmers may have visions of you blinding the cowman, causing hugely expensive claims for damages. A lot depends on the farm, though. Modern farm buildings and yards consist of areas of solid concrete. This denies rats the cluttered corners and overgrown ditch banks where they build up stable warrens. However, there are still plenty of scruffy, old-fashioned farms around. When shooting rats around farm buildings, you probably won't want a powerful rifle because of the danger of ricochets in a confined space. This applies particularly when shooting inside barns.

Rats live among the rafters as much as under the walls, so frequently you will be presented with opportunities to swat them out of the roof. If the gun is too powerful, you could end up smashing tiles. Even worse, you may break a window. If broken glass falls among hay for feed, you'll have to explain it to an angry farmer. First, you have to find your stock of rats. Look for their runs, holes, droppings, and for signs of foraging. The classic case of the nibbled sack, with corn running out of the hole, is only too familiar to farmers everywhere.

Indeed, these animals are so indiscreet that they readily give away their presence. You have to study them, though, just like any other wild animal, if you're to have worthwhile shooting instead of a long, lonely wait. They're pretty active by day and by night. It all depends on the amount of disturbance they are subjected to, so obviously this has to be borne in mind. However, rats become most active once the sun has set. Get up on the bales of sweet-scented hay and wait for the action. Settle yourself comfortably, for under these conditions you can ensure maximum steadiness by shooting from the field target competitor's sitting position, or by using a bale as a rest.

Below you, in the pens, calves are settling for the night, and the piglets have gone into a huddle in a straw-filled corner. Apart from the occasional contented grunt or soft rustling, all is quiet. A lone bulb hangs low from the rafters of this ancient, flint barn. At its opposite end, just twenty yards away, the feed milling machine lies silent in the cold glare at the lamp. Beside it stands a wide, stone-walled bay. It's piled with barley - and rat droppings. And there's the first. Keeping close to the wall, a dark shape comes sidling out of the darkened corner, heading for the bay.

Through the scope you can see it scuttling a few feet, then stopping to case the joint, its bright eyes and twitching whiskers reaching out for signs of danger. Center the cross-hairs just below the ear and a little in front. The back legs twitch a couple of times, but it's all over.

Moments later, a movement from on top of the wall beside the bay catches your eye. There's another one, sitting on the edge of the shadows in the corner, hunched up and watching, its scaly tail drooping over the side of the wall. Through the scope you see not one, but two rats, one partly hidden by the other, and it looks like the front one is staring straight at you. Disconcerting though it is, it's just coincidence. There's no way the big old critter could detect you. Center the crosshairs between its eyes and squeeze before it shuffles away. With a reflex leap it jumps into the bay and sprawls amid the barley. At the same time there's a terrified shriek as the other rat races along the wall and dives for one of the emergency exits.

Don't break cover, though. Ten minutes later, another rat comes out, this time from the same corner as the first one. Seeing the first corpse, it stops and goes to investigate. It seems to be sniffing it most intently. Through the scope you observe just how repulsive rats really are - this one is lapping the blood of its fallen comrade - much more nourishing than barley. Keep a steady bead and make sure it catches the next shuttle to the great sewer in the sky.

It's a good sport for two people on a winter's evening, and bags of a couple of dozen or more are common. It trains you to shoot quickly. You can set up the same type of baited trap in deserted buildings, rubbish tips and other rat havens.

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