We have a ratting job to do

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OUTSIDE in the dusk, trailers loaded with bales await the morning: inside the barns it is dark and dusty. There is a smell of old straw, damp old wood tainted with fungus, dry old wood pitted with woodworm-holes, the woodworm beetles having departed long ago. Tufts of grass rooted in next to nothing peer from the barn entrances, and crumbling beams criss-cross newer ones, each replaced in their turn. Before the straw is stacked, we have a job to do.

School holidays mean the Sussex Ratters meet, but this year it has been hard to find times when we are all available, so most of our get-togethers have been small and at a moment’s notice. This, however, is one of our favourite venues, and even though the new term has begun, we have a good attendance tonight. Old Tom has taken all summer to recover from his bad turn, but he is here and determined to be useful.

We have put him in a deckchair, and he has the big torch, arguably the most important job. His old Jack Russell terrier is nosing about importantly, ignoring the whippet, the Bedlington terrier, Dreadful the dachshund, the brace of varminty Lakelands and the miniature poodle. Stanislaus is here with his airgun, and Young Tom with his, Wayne, who wants a dog but isn’t allowed one yet, has the sack and industrial gloves for picking up rats, and Bethany is giving orders as usual. June and Jane, nurses from the hospital, are as keen to participate as ever, as well as ready to dispense First Aid should anyone need it.

Wayne’s little brother Bradley and his friend Scott are here for the first time, looking anxious in case they do something wrong. Stanislaus being the tallest, reaches up with a plastic bottle and runs a line of liquid detergent along the tops of the lower beams. Then we fade back into the darkness, and wait in silence. We wait perhaps twenty minutes before the first rats appear, and we let them come, dogs restrained, hands over their eyes. When the time is right, the dogs are slipped and Old Tom’s torch lights up the beams in a swinging arc.

Inside the barn is not the place for shooting. Young Tom and Stanislaus are safe shots, and they are each covering the wide doorways and outside the barn. Inside, the dogs scatter after rats on the ground, and rats that lose their footing on the slimy beams, rats that try to run up walls, and rats swept off with sticks wielded by our younger members. Rats hide behind old bales, and we turn the bales and let the dogs at them.

It is a far better end than by poison, with no risk to any other life forms unless one terrier takes a dislike to another. But while terriers are working, they have no time for combat, and the other dogs we bring have no desire to fight, so between them they leap and snap, catch or miss, kill with a single bite and on to the next. Outside the barn, the security lights give enough illumination for Young Tom and Stanislaus, who are not getting much action compared to us inside the barn, but are picking off escapees neatly where they can. The dust rises, acrid in our noses, coating our faces, making us cough. The poodle is well and truly blooded, each terrier is out for itself alone, and that Dachshund, trouble incarnate except when working, is fitting into places where none can follow, and dragging out rat after rat. The whippet dances, leaping up the walls to snatch rats from safety, or catching those that plummet from the beams.

It is all over in less than an hour. Wayne counts and picks up while we wipe the dust from our faces and check the dogs for bites. Old Tom is grinning from ear to ear and feeling, he says, the best he has for a long time. Flasks have appeared, which contain hot chocolate and brandy, a curious mixture but very reviving. Clean water is provided for the dogs, which are panting and grateful. There is another barn waiting for us, so after a short break, we pick up our equipment, motion the dogs to heel, offer an arm to Old Tom, and cross the yard beyond.