I follow on from last month’s article about long netting rabbits at harvest time with some more action, from the very same stubble fields. This time the quarry is our old friend with the long scaly tail; the rat. I never actually saw any rats come out of the crop when the combine was cutting it? Mind you all of the straw was left laying where it fell giving them somewhere immediate to hide. Whilst the rabbits ran for safety (or so they thought) any rats could easily have ducked under the rows of fallen straw and sat tight without being seen. The spilt grain would also attract them in after the combine had finished and hold them too. Perhaps this is what happened? It’s surprising how much grain is missed and spilt, for no combine is 100% efficient.
Also attracted by the spilt grain were wood pigeons. It was through the woodies that I discovered rats were present. It came about when we had a good morning shooting the pigeons over decoys. This was just a few days after the harvest. My friend was shooting whilst I sat in the hide with him accompanied by my young terrier. I say ‘sat’ but I was constantly up and down and in and out picking up the shot birds and setting them up in the decoy pattern. My young yearling terrier had no gun shyness at all, especially once she clicked that a loud bang meant dead game to find! I couldn’t stay all morning as I had some things to do. It was as I walked back home, across the field, I noticed the terrier marking a small pile of loose straw. She dived in, flushed out a rat but missed her strike. The rat just made it to the safety of the bordering overgrown ditch. The terrier was excitedly but fruitlessly rooting about after it. I couldn’t stop any longer just then, but decided to return later when I would have more time. Where there is one rat then there is bound to be more. That is what I was thinking to myself whilst I walked home to do my jobs and so it proved to be.
I could hear steady shots going off for the rest of the morning. A couple of hours later my friend turned up at my house weighed down by sixty wood pigeons and two crows. That was my share after he had taken what he wanted. The crows went straight into the ferrets; one for each cage. I breasted a dozen youngish pigeons for the table and then froze the rest in my animal food freezers. He mentioned seeing a rat himself as he was walking back. I was itching to get back now with the terrier.
It was early evening when I returned. Whilst my lurcher is a decent enough ratter I left her at home. I wanted the young terrier to learn to hunt the rats up herself and in her own time. She marked and flushed a few that evening and was very unlucky not to catch one. They preferred to stay under the cover of the rows of straw as much as possible even when the terrier got under herself. Had the lurcher been present I’m sure we’d have made a few kills. It almost certainly would have been the lurcher that made them too. The terrier probably wouldn’t have taken as much from this experience as she would by getting them herself. So on this basis we persevered; just man and young terrier. I wanted to get her working confidently on her own.
One of my favourite sayings is “Failure just cannot live with persistence”. It’s one I regular apply to many aspects of my life, my work and of course my hunting. I’m sure everyone gets sick of hearing me say it, but there is no truer statement. I was determined to get my young bitch, working and catching these rats herself before they disappeared. Once the straw is bailed and the stubble gets ploughed the opportunity would be gone. So we persisted… and boy did we persist. We persisted at every opportunity!
Next morning we were back there and I was armed with a trusty old blackthorn thumb stick to help flush the rat once the terrier was marking it and before she dived in blindly herself. After a few misses she finally connected with a ¾ grown rat using this method. Slowly but surely she began to get the measure of these stubble dwelling rats (as did I) and we had some great sport hunting them. Making some breaks in the rows of straw also helped encourage skulking rats to make a bolt for it. I shot loads of photos, most of which were no use. Ratting is a tricky subject to capture as it is so fast. Luckily A few turned out.
Many of the rats we caught were young ¾ grown ones. I wondered where they possibly born out in the crop somewhere and once it was cut didn’t have anywhere else to go? The spilt grain and cover in the form of the fallen straw was enough to hold them. It gave them food and some sanctuary. The local buzzards were hunting them by day and after dark a barn owl possibly was too. The barn owl was more likely taking the numerous mice and voles but I’m sure they’d take young rats too. This one has been around since spring but doesn’t have a mate. Hopefully one may turn up by next spring for it.
Interestingly one of the rats we killed, an old doe with a scabby tail, only had one eye. The wound was fairly fresh too. I wondered what might have done this? Another rat perhaps, or maybe a stoat? My son was with me when we caught that one and on first sight he immediately suggested it might have been our jill ferret. When we examined it closer and realised it was a fresh wound his suggestion was disproved as the jill ferret incident happened a few months earlier in May. Here’s what happened….
My jill ferret had four young ones this spring. They were only a week or two old and nowhere near opening their eyes. I’d been cleaning them out and carelessly not locked the cage door properly. The jill had managed to get out and promptly disappeared. She’d been gone for about an hour before I discovered she was missing. My wife played back our CCTV and I could be clearly seen not shutting the cage properly… strong video evidence indeed! This clear footage made it impossible for me to blame anyone else! The jill could then be seen getting out of the cage and disappearing into the back hedge. I remember coming in with the dogs around this time after a short walk and noting the alarm call of a blackbird nearby. I always pay attention to such sounds but couldn’t see anything untoward. The crops and bordering cover were high so the chances of me spotting any predator were slim.
It was as I went into the back garden with the dogs that I realised what had happened. I saw the partly opened cage door and raced over. She was gone. I panicked at first. It was whilst I was panicking that my wife was calmly looking at the CCTV. If I didn’t get her back what would I do with the tiny young ones? I didn’t fancy trying to hand rear them. I had no other litters to try and foster them into either. I could actually hear their cries coming from inside their nest box. It’s a pity their mother can’t hear them I thought as that would surely draw her back. Then I had a rare brain wave! I’ve moaned about mobile phones in the hunting field a few times. In fact I moan about their over use in everyday life but I concede they do have their occasional uses. I put my phone onto ‘voice recorder’ and recorded the squeaks of the baby ferrets for a couple of minutes. I then walked around playing back the recording on high volume. Nothing happened at first so I persisted (failure cannot live with persistence). After a while a blackbird started doing its alarm call again in the field behind us. My ears pricked up.
“Wait and watch here” I told my wife. I left the phone, still playing its recording, with her as I ran around to the back field to investigate. I’d no sooner got round there and was climbing over a fence when I suddenly heard my wife shouting “She’s here, come back… quick”. The recording had lured her back. Persistence had paid off.
I ran back around and into our garden just as my wife was picking her up. That was a relief. She’d been gone an hour and a ferret can wander a long way in an hour. I noticed she had a bite on her face and another on her side. She’d obviously encountered a rat, probably somewhere along the hedgerow. It’s possible she’d even been hunting it fuelled by maternal urges to catch prey for her young? Whether or not she killed it we’ll never know. I cleaned her up and reunited her with her litter.
I’ve kept two young jills on from this litter. I am looking forward to adding them to my ratting team once they are old enough and have had some experience on rabbits. The stubble field has now been ploughed up but I have one or two other venues lined up. I’d almost forgotten how much fun ratting is.