Dave Barham

Dave Barham dis­cov­ers that rats are a lot more in­tel­li­gent that you might think

Airgun World - - Contents -

Did you know that rats have a pho­bia? Nei­ther did Dave, un­til now

Hunt­ing and fish­ing have many sim­i­lar­i­ties. You can go out one day and draw a com­plete blank, or you could go out and pull off a ses­sion of a life­time. Per­haps the great­est sim­i­lar­ity be­tween the two dis­ci­plines is the fact that you never stop learn­ing. Even when you’re hav­ing a bad day there is al­ways some­thing to take home from the ex­pe­ri­ence.

My lat­est out­doors ad­ven­ture was one such trip, I failed mis­er­ably to shoot my in­tended quarry, but I learned some­thing re­ally in­ter­est­ing that I’d never even heard of be­fore.


I’ve just re­turned home from a rather frus­trat­ing day’s hunt­ing with my good friend, Mick Ball. Mick, has hectare upon hectare of per­mis­sions all over Der­byshire, in­clud­ing a num­ber of cat­tle farms, and to­day we’d been asked to visit a cou­ple of farms to try to keep some trou­ble­some rats in check, plus any other ver­min that we came across. I love shoots like this, where there is a tar­get and a game plan, it brings out the mild com­pet­i­tive streak in me and makes me fo­cus more.

Mick had al­ready vis­ited one of the farms the pre­vi­ous week­end to recce the area and clear a few rats. He ex­plained to me that the rats were loi­ter­ing around the yard and try­ing to gnaw their way into the feed bin where the cat­tle feed pel­lets are stored.

He’d man­aged to shoot three rats that evening in un­der an hour, but the main pur­pose of his visit was to put down some ad­di­tional ‘food’ to keep the rats oc­cu­pied and to bait a few ar­eas for our re­turn visit seven days later.

His choice of ‘bait’ is peanut but­ter, which he buys in huge tubs cost­ing un­der a ten­ner. One tub will cover two farms bait­ing for a week or two, so it’s re­ally cost-ef­fec­tive. The aim of the game is to place golf-ball-sized blobs of peanut but­ter on lumps of wood and place them around the area that the rats fre­quent. Place­ment of these baited boards is vi­tally im­por­tant, and I shall en­deav­our to ex­plain why.


Did you know that rats are neo­pho­bic? No? I didn’t ei­ther, in fact I’d never even heard the word un­til last night. This whole dis­cus­sion came about just a few min­utes af­ter we’d turned up at the first farm, where Mick was al­ready talk­ing to the farmer when I ar­rived. It looked like a rather heated, but friendly, dis­cus­sion and as I got out of the car and wan­dered over to say ‘hello’ all be­came clear.

“We might strug­gle tonight, Dave,” Mick said as I ap­proached.

“He’s only gone and moved all the bait boards I put out,” he con­tin­ued.

Now when Mick said the farmer had moved the boards, my in­stant re­ac­tion was ‘so what, where has he moved them to, we’ll just go and

set up there’. How­ever, Mick then pro­ceeded to give both the farmer and me a lit­tle ed­u­ca­tion, which re­ally got me think­ing.

Mick ex­plained that rats suf­fer from neo­pho­bia, which is the ex­treme or ir­ra­tional fear of any­thing new or un­fa­mil­iar.

“I only know about this be­cause my daugh­ter, Ash­leigh, is a zo­ol­o­gist. She tells me all sorts of weird and won­der­ful things about an­i­mals,” he said.

It turns out that the farmer had un­wit­tingly moved the baited boards di­rectly into the path of the runs and tracks that the rats had been tak­ing. He was only try­ing to do the right thing, but his ac­tions had com­pletely scup­pered our plans.

Ob­vi­ously, liv­ing and work­ing on the farm, the farmer had been watch­ing the rats; ob­serv­ing where they were com­ing from, where they were head­ing and where they were dis­ap­pear­ing to, so he had moved the bait di­rectly into the path of the runs, en­try and exit holes, pre­sum­ing that it would be eas­ier for

the rats to find it and make our lives eas­ier. I mean, why would you place ran­dom bait boards all over the place, es­pe­cially well out of the way of where the rats had con­sis­tently been seen run­ning around?


Wild rats like to fol­low pre-set paths or ‘runs’. They have their rou­tines and fol­low the same path night in, night out, ven­tur­ing from said paths when­ever there is the pos­si­bil­ity of a free meal. Un­like mice, which will run straight up to bait and start feed­ing in such cir­cum­stances, wild rats will do the com­plete op­po­site and ap­proach an ob­ject in their pre-set path rather cau­tiously, even su­per-tasty peanut but­ter, then sim­ply back away from it and take a com­pletely new path giv­ing the new ob­ject a wide berth for a good few nights un­til they get used to it. The fact that it is food is com­pletely ir­rel­e­vant to a rat. In their minds it is a ‘trap’ and some­thing to be wary of, be­cause it wasn’t along their pre-set path­way the night be­fore.


This is one of the rea­sons why poi­son-baited traps are so in­ef­fi­cient. The rats will avoid the traps for a num­ber of days sim­ply be­cause they are new to the area. Then, they will be­gin to ap­proach the traps cau­tiously and just nib­ble away at the poi­soned bait, of­ten only eat­ing enough to make them sick rather than scoff­ing the lot, which would kill them. Af­ter this, be­cause of their neo­pho­bia, the rats will as­so­ci­ate the traps with some­thing that made them ill and will avoid them al­to­gether.

Mick had been ob­serv­ing the rats dur­ing his recce the week pre­vi­ous and had worked out where most of them had been com­ing from, map­ping their path to and from the feed bin. He had placed baited boards un­der the feed bin, and in a few other ar­eas just three or four feet away from the rats’ path­ways – just far enough to di­vert the rats away from their in­tended route, but not close enough to dis­rupt their nightly pat­tern. The farmer had seen where Mick had put the baited boards, and moved them di­rectly into the path of the rats’ nightly rou­tine – epic fail!


We stood in the yard laugh­ing and jok­ing for 20 min­utes, dis­cussing the ins and outs of the glo­ri­ous world of farming, then de­cided we would head off to farm num­ber two for a recce and a rough shoot, to see what we could get. The plan was to re­turn to this farm for about 4pm, an hour be­fore it got dark, to set up and see if the rats would come out to play, or if the mov­ing of the baited boards had re­ally had a dam­ag­ing ef­fect on our plans.

When we ar­rived at the sec­ond farm there was a lot of hus­tle and bus­tle go­ing on, and there were cows all over the place, which meant we were go­ing to strug­gle. We spent a good three hours walk­ing around the fields look­ing for signs of quarry, but a fine mist had kept the rab­bits down, and all we could see was a few rooks and the odd squir­rel way out of range. We did find signs of rats in a cou­ple of the barns, so it was well worth a look, but they would have to wait for an­other night – we had the first farm firmly set in our sights, and we were go­ing to stick to our plan.


I de­cided not to take my ri­fle along for the night shoot. I wanted to ob­serve Mick in ac­tion, and be ready to run out and re­trieve any rats he man­aged to shoot – if any.

Even though the fine, misty rain showed no signs of let­ting up, I was quite op­ti­mistic for what the night ahead held in store. We would be holed up in­side one of the barns, which al­lowed Mick to shoot out of an open win­dow – the per­fect cover … un­der­cover.

Within five min­utes of ar­riv­ing, the farm cat made an ap­pear­ance and stayed with us for the du­ra­tion in­side the barn. That was good, I thought, the cat wouldn’t be out there ter­ror­is­ing the rats. Whilst Mick got set up with his night-vi­sion gear, an­other cat, ob­vi­ously some­one’s pet, wan­dered into the yard and all around the in­tended shoot­ing area – not a good sign. I was begin­ning to think that it was go­ing to be a slow night, even then.

As the min­utes ticked on and the sky got darker I could hear the tell-tale squeak of a rat just a few yards to the left of the pel­let bin. Mick slowly swung his ri­fle round and we could both see the rat clear as day on the screen, but then in a flash it scarpered as the ‘pet’ cat bolted across the yard. Luck­ily, it ran out of the yard and back down the lane, pre­sum­ably back to its home, but that was one great op­por­tu­nity we had missed, would there be more?


To cut a long story short, we waited in the cold and damp for three hours with­out say­ing a word (any­one who knows Mick will re­alise what an achieve­ment that was!) with­out see­ing or hear­ing an­other rat.

Just like when I’m fish­ing, I had a gut feel­ing that it just wasn’t go­ing to hap­pen, so I sug­gested to Mick that we bin it off and go warm up in the lo­cal pub with a much needed pint – he didn’t need much per­suad­ing, I can tell you!

I’m pretty cer­tain that block­ing off the rats’ favoured runs with the baited boards was the main rea­son why we strug­gled that night – well, that and the rogue cat. It will be in­ter­est­ing to see how we get on in two weeks’ time, when we’ll be re­vis­it­ing the farm for an­other hunt. We’re hop­ing that this time Mick’s baited boards will re­main in place to give us a bet­ter shot.

The sec­ond farm was very busy, with very lit­tle to take a shot at, so it was the per­fect op­por­tu­nity to zero the ri­fles.

ABOVE: Mick sets him­self up in the barn be­fore adding the night-vi­sion kit to his ri­fle.

LEFT: Mick had the per­fect shoot­ing po­si­tion from in­side a nearby barn.

BE­LOW: We waited and waited in­side the barn, only see­ing one rat for our ef­forts.

LEFT: An old hay barn gave Mick the per­fect van­tage point to take shots at rooks land­ing in the trees above – but there was so much ac­tiv­ity down be­low that it just never ma­te­ri­alised.

ABOVE: As soon as I walked into the barn I could see that Mick had been there the pre­vi­ous week.

At long last, a cold pint and a warm, friendly pub.

The farm cat was quite happy to spend the night with us in­side the barn, rather than be­ing out in the cold and damp, chas­ing rats.

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