Sitting in the living room watching the news the other evening my attention was drawn to a report on the water vole and its decline in our waterways. This brought back memories of when I was growing up, as back then the water rat was well and truly on my quarry list, in fact it was probably at the top of that list along with the brown rat.
I lived in a council house that had a railway line running along the bottom of the garden, and I do mean the bottom of the garden. Behind that was the local sewage works and alongside that the canal, or cut as its called in these parts.
The ditch each side of the railway cutting led to an embankment each side and was a haven for rats, rabbits and foxes, but had its hazards. Mainly trains. I lost one of my best mates to a train on that line; at the time I was in hospital after winning a game of chicken on the road the week before suffering 2 broken legs, numerous broken ribs, and a smashed up right hand side of my face from the tarmac as I was thrown along for a hundred yards or more.
My two mates continued the game on the train line the following weekend and one was hit by a high speed train. It killed him instantly and a few weeks later my other mate was found drowned in the canal after going swimming with his brother. No such thing as health and safety back then.
At the time I owned two Russells, Cindy and Timmy. Cindy was a smooth coated leggy type and Timmy was the stumpy type in more ways than one as he too had succumbed to the trains, loosing a back leg one afternoon whilst we were rabbiting the embankment. The loss of his leg did not phase him one bit, in fact it seemed to spur him on all the more.
There was a gang of us who after school would grab our air rifles, a mixture of meteors, ospreys and the odd air sporter along with our motley assortment of canine companions and we’d head for the cut to hunt the water rat. Old ratty was a cunning opponent, submerging at the first sight, sound or smell of trouble. Any hint of danger would send him heading for the underwater entrance to his home where he could wait for the danger to pass, but we kids had knowledge and dogs with noses that could sniff a mojo at two hundred yards, we had also learned to follow the air bubbles rising in the water as he swam.
We shot hundreds if not thousands over the years, and dug to just as many with the terriers, all this whilst people were merrily walking along the tow path. Back then kids with dogs and guns was as normal as kids and computers are today, nobody batted an eyelid, imagine that in today’s PC correct world! Both Cindy and Timmy excelled in hunting old Ratty but little did I know it would lead to Timmy’s demise.
One winter’s day the canal was frozen over but a boat had earlier passed through leaving the ice in the middle shattered and just stating to refreeze. As we were walking along, old ratty bolted from the dead reed bed, ran across the ice and dropped in a gap between the smashed ice. Timmy followed, disappeared through the ice and vanished. Eventually I found him dead under the ice near where I was standing on the bank, he died as he lived; for the moment.
Now I was left with just Cindy who was a whole different ball game to Timmy. She was as smart a Russell as I have ever seen, and her intelligence would soon become apparent.
My mates grandad had died and I was asked if I wanted one of his ferrets. After much grovelling to my mother and acquiring an old hutch, the day had arrived to collect the ferret. It turned out to be the biggest hob I had ever seen with an attitude to match his size. Now I had a new problem, I needed a ready supply of fresh meat. The rabbits had all but vanished on the railway embankment, so I came up with a new plan. This plan involved roosting birds and a catapult.
The first trip proved fruitless as it was that dark I couldn’t see a thing and nearly managed to blind myself on the bramble. I needed a new plan, so I persuaded my father to lend me the big rubber torch he kept in the shed. That night I decided to take Cindy with me. As she was walking alongside me in the darkness, she stopped and started looking up into the branches. I quickly looked, saw nothing at first glance, then looked again. Sure enough, there in the fork protruding from the trunk was the silhouette of a pheasant. “Whack!” A direct hit, but it was now stuck in the branches about eight foot up. To my surprise, Cindy was off climbing up the trunk of the tree and reached the bird in seconds. I now had a dog that marked in trees and retrieved feather. We soon discovered that the best places to hunt were the spinneys that were illuminated from the roads, and industrial estates around the area. So that was food sorted it was now time to start to work Sid, ‘the ferret from hell’!
Sid as I had named him was horrible, he would bite for no reason other that he enjoyed it and once placed on the ground there was no way going to let himself get picked up again without a fight, so working Sid involved a welder’s glove and tail hold combination.
As rabbits were no longer an option we turned to the water rats but after a couple of soakings Sid had decided that him and water were just not compatible. He would just take a sniff at the entrance and then run back into his box.
A new quarry was needed, this I found by accident. My father had landed a job at the local sewerage works and he had to work every other weekend. One weekend he asked me if I wanted to go with him, with nothing else planned I agreed. After an hour of watching him open and close valves that caused smells like you couldn’t imagine, boredom had well and truly set in, so I decided to have a wander about. Now, at the main gates there was a machine with metal fingers that separated all the… shall we say, solid bits out out of the incoming sewerage from the liquid. This machine was housed in a cutting with two grass banks, one each side. These banks were covered in holes, at first glance they looked like rabbit holes but on closer inspection they were indeed the home of the fabled sewer rats. Legends had been told of the size and audacity of these rats and here I was with access to their lairs. Sid would have a new quarry!
One afternoon I set a cage trap baited with bread next to the machine, the next morning in this trap was a rat of leviathan proportions its body filled the whole trap and its tail was as long again.
It was now Sunday and Sid had been tailed and placed in his box and the box strapped to the rack on the back of my chopper bike. I set off for the sewerage works as dad was working so I knew I would be able to get through the gates. With Cindy running along side me we made our way to the machine near the gates. I placed the box on the grass and let Sid out – he nearly had hold of my finger in the process – after a good sniff Sid entered one of the large holes and vanished below ground. Twenty minutes later still no sign, then I spotted Sid’s splayed out tail backing out of one of the holes; as he exited, he was followed by a rat even bigger than the one I had caught in the trap. Sid was in trouble and was jumping about like a kangaroo, but Cindy had spotted it and despite its size its speed was no match for Cindy. Sid had received a few good bites so we headed back home. A few weeks later Sid was entered again only this time he never came out, despite waiting for hours and going back for several days.
Thinking back to those days, the world we live in now has changed so much, our freedom has been taken away from us. No, not all the things we did were good but we had the freedom to try them and evolve, attitudes have changed too. As I said, back then, nobody phoned the police if they saw a kid with an air rifle walking the canal tow path, in fact they would be more inclined to ask if you had shot anything.
Dogs roamed the streets in packs all day whilst their owners were at work and kids played out from dawn till dusk, coming home covered in mud with grass stain’s and holes in the knees of their jeans.
Back to the decline of the water rat, the program on the news was blaming predation by mink but the decline started here long before mink became a problem, the main reason for the decline was the success in promoting the canals with people now using the tow paths and waterways for more and more leisure activities. The banks were crumbling with the extra traffic going up and down the canals, so the water board decided to counter this with metal beams along the edges of the bank and then fill the gap with the dredgings from the boat channel, this left the water voles no access to the banks from underwater. What had been their stronghold for decades was now no longer suitable for their needs.
These days the sewage works is unrecognisable and the local canals are full of narrow boat hippies living life on the cheap, hundreds moored up everywhere they can park, anyone who dared to venture on the tow path with a gun would soon find an armed response unit descending upon them. Nowadays you have to be a Lycra wearing jogger or cyclist to be allowed to use the tow path, it’s very rare to even see a fisherman never mind a water rat!