Hunting: Rat psychology (yes really) with Dave Barham

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

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

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

Mick had the perfect shooting posistion from inside a nearby barn.

Mick had the perfect shooting posistion from inside a nearby barn. - Credit: Archant

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.

You dirty rat

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.

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

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

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.

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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.

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

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

Did you know?

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.

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

At long last, a cold pint and a warm, friendly pub. - Credit: Archant

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?

Neophobia explained

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!

More problems

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.

Look and learn

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?

Gut feeling

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.


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