Ratting was a most popular pastime for myself and a small group of my friends throughout most of my life in Kingsley. I suppose my first experience of this particular diversion was during my early years at Woodfield. Actually it wasn’t ratting at all it was, in fact, vole hunting. Although, at the time, I think most of us thought we were rat hunting.
At the time I refer to there were quite large numbers of water rats all along the stretch of the river from Oakhanger right the way down through Kingsley and on beyond Sleaford. These, however, were not water rats they were the delightful, and now rare, water vole. Since the river and its banks featured prominently in many of our boyhood activities it was inevitable that our attentions would be attracted to the unfortunate water voles that inhabited the area. Walking along the river banks in those days always resulted in the familiar plop of the voles as they jumped from their perch on the bank and into the water. Again, this is one of those sounds that one never forgets as it has a distinction all of its own and is probably unique in so far as most other water side creatures tend to slide quietly into the water. I suppose it’s a bit like dropping a biggish pebble into water but once familiar with the sound it remains lodged in the mind. I am confident, in spite of not having heard the sound for many years, I would recognise it at once should I hear it today. So the plopping was the usual method of locating the voles. Having gone into the water they would swim beneath the surface often entering their holes from below the water and hence out of sight. On other occasions they would re-emerge downstream several yards below their point of entry.
Whilst fishing it was common to see the voles as they went about their business as sitting quietly with rod and line, (and stationary ), the voles, undisturbed, would be seen swimming upon the surface of the river and collecting reeds and various vegetation. They would quite happily sit opposite the angler and crunch away at their food, this also had a loud and distinctive noise to it. Holding stalks in their front paws they gnawed away at the thick bottom ends discarding bits and pieces out the side of their mouths as they fed and all the time manipulating the stalk with their hand like front paws. The water vole, I believe, was the creature that Ratty in Wind in the Willows was based upon and in using him in this way Kenneth Grahame did the water vole no favours at all. In fact, for lots of country people this inevitably linked the creature to the much more troublesome brown rat. I know as children, my friends and I always referred to the water voles as water rats and, to our eternal shame, treated them as such. It was considered a good days sport to wander along the river banks with air rifle in hand and shoot the hapless creatures. Fortunately, due to the noise we made and the speed of the voles, we didn’t get that many and for as long as I can remember the vole population remained a healthy one. I imagine it declined, as most water vole populations did, with the onset of chemical usage in agriculture and the subsequent seepage into the river systems.
However, what those early vole hunting trips did for a number of my friends and I was to instil in us the thrills of rat hunting which thereafter focused our attentions upon the brown rat. I don’t suppose there are many people, then or now, that would leap to the defence of rats. They are both dirty in their habits, spreaders of disease and from a farmers point of view, very destructive. Most crops in the days of which I write were stored in sacks made from hessian and stacked in large numbers in sheds and barns. The damage and, therefore, wastage that was caused by the holes gnawed into the sacks by the rats was considerable. A sack of, for example corn, would be lifted from its position in a stack and the entire contents would spill out through the rat made holes. All of which added time and cost to a farmers labours. On the other hand, it’s an ill wind as the saying goes. What this, for the most part, ensured was a welcome and an open invitation for those of us whom had an interest in ratting.
During the summer months the rat population spends much more of its time away from the farm yard and resides in hedgerows and fields where food is plentiful in the form of many wild plants berries and seeds and, of course, an abundance of cultivated foods. Cereals and root crops were all grown by the farmers of Kingsley. Wheat, barley, a few oats and potatoes, sugar beet and fodder beet were commonly grown. Quite a healthy menu for the summer rats. During this period of the year we pursued the rats along the hedges and banks of ditches with rag, tag and bobtail groups of dogs. For the most part these were terrier like mongrels with the odd larger dog for good measure. School holidays and evenings were popular times for such activity. These impromptu hunts took place off and on over a long period of time and we still occasionally went rat hunting in teenage years whilst no longer at school and working.
Winter was the time when rat hunting became a welcome source of sport for the dedicated ratter. Dean Farm was our favourite venue. The Mr. Doggerells, Roy and Alec, grew crops of corn, kept pigs and poultry and bought in large amounts of cakes and biscuits, which were out of date, to feed the pigs with. All of this sought to provide a most attractive larder for rats. They had a largish shed which ran parallel with the stream bank which flowed by the side of the farm yard. In this shed large numbers of corn filled sacks were stored and these attracted the rats. The rats resided in the stream banks opposite the shed in question and would swim across the water and make entry into the corn shed from beneath the floor. At the time Monty Othen worked on Dean Farm and it was he that arranged, probably, our most popular rat hunting exploits. This is how it went.
The corn shed was stacked to the rafters with the full sacks of corn and fortunately for the rat hunters the shed had a row of windows along its length just below the eaves of the building. When opened the windows dropped forward which was also a major advantage. Monty erected a couple of light bulbs which gave light upon the water of the stream and, to which, the rats quickly became used to.
Although I have described the activity as a rat hunt it was, more accurately, a rat shoot. The activity would begin in the evening after Monty had finished his work upon the farm and had time enough to have his tea. We would then gather in the farm yard and take up our positions in the corn shed, windows open, along its length. All armed with air rifles and a plentiful supply of pellets, we lay in wait for the rats to appear and begin their swim towards the corn shed. Located above the stream in the comparative comfort of the shed, upon the top of the corn sacks, we had a clear view of the creatures as they crossed the stream. Keeping quiet was an essential part of this operation as rats are both wary and equipped with good hearing. Waiting in silence until the creatures were mid-stream an array of rifle barrels all pointed downwards waiting for the right moment. A whispered command would be given and all hell let loose broke out. Pellets from every gun rained down on the rats. Sometimes there would be as many as eight or nine shooters in the shed. The great advantage of this system was the simple fact that each dead rat, and we got many of them, was carried away downstream by the current never to be seen again. This activity went on for weeks on end, was highly popular and, no doubt, contributed to a welcome decline in the Dean Farm rat population.