THE old piggeries contained forty years or so of accumulated detritus, and when the new owners started to clear it, they discovered rats had made homes in the warmth and shelter of all the rubbish.
And so we Sussex Ratters gathered in the late morning, suitably clad for what promised to be quite a hunt.
You don’t want a rat down the inside of a Wellington boot, and there are better experiences than a sudden rat up the trouser leg, so our ‘hunt uniform’ includes stout short boots and gaiters, trousers well tucked in, and shirts buttoned to the neck, as rats can jump as high as a man’s shoulders, and you don’t want a rat down your shirt either.
Wayne our tallyman wore protective gloves for picking up the slain, and the rest of us ranged from scarecrow chic to the bright colours favoured by the ladies, and the tweed, cords and Tattersall-check shirts of our smarter set. Bethany handed round festive paper hats, which some of us wore over our own, it being chilly.
Our ‘lawn meets’ work the other way round from most hunting, as we like to get started right away, before the terriers fall out or Dreadful the dachshund gets into trouble. Today we also had Tickle the teckel, out for the first time, plus the usual team of assorted ratting dogs.
Teckels are the true type of hunting dachshund, being wire-haired, longer in the leg and shorter in the body than a show dachshund, and with a moustache to rival that of Stanislaus.
As soon as we had all assembled, we set off for the pigsties, and we had not even lifted the first pile of cardboard before Dreadful struck and nabbed a good big rat.
The rest of the dogs fanned out and started marking rat scent, which was so strong even we could smell it, a powdery rank odour that catches you high in the nose.
When we had a good mark, one of us would use a long pole to lift the rubbish until a dog was able to dive in and either catch or bolt a rat.
We moved quickly and quietly, sides to middle, trying to work the rats to the centre, to give our dogs more chance at them.
The poodle was in there with a rat in its mouth and then we had a starburst of bolting rats, with the whippet pulling off his up-the-wall catch and the bedlington smashing straight into a pile of old furniture to pull a rat out of the remains of what had once been a shapely sofa but was now largely down to horsehair and springs.
Smaller terriers were burrowing under, emerging with a sneeze and a rat, and all the time we moved the rubbish round the edges to send rats to the dogs in the centre.
Cardboard, hardboard, newspapers, old tyres, lifted and moved with small grey rats, big brown rats, carbuncled old rats and pink baby rats, and we rattled poles and moved cover quickly and carefully.
When you go ratting with us, there is no wild swinging of sticks, because it is our job to move the rats and the dogs’ job to kill them. Apart, that is, from the old Labrador, who likes to retrieve the dead ones, which doesn’t make Wayne’s job any easier, but the dog enjoys it.
Tickle the teckel got well and truly blooded by his first rat, which bit him on the face, but after that surprise he was quickly into his stride, swinging deftly right and left, striking at bolting rats like an old hand.
We finished the run of the piggeries with the dogs panting and gleeful, and Wayne filling up a sack with dead rats to be incinerated.
While Bethany and Julia found some water for the dogs, the rest of us went up to the old dairy, where we could wash our hands and turn our attentions to the table laid with food and drink for the social part of our lawn meet. Stanislaus had brought some small crisp iced cinnamon cakes plus a large soft loaf filled with marzipan and dried fruit, and was indulging his taste for English mustard by way of Old Tom’s massive ham sandwiches, courtesy in turn of Bethany’s mother who had baked the ham and the bread too.
Ahmed had brought rich spicy savouries, and my contribution was a proper pork pie. Wayne’s mother had sent mince pies and gingerbread, and there were cold beef sandwiches with horseradish from our hosts, who had also provided hot tea, coffee and chocolate.
The dogs lay looking alertly at our hands in case we dropped anything, except for Dreadful, who had been shut in the car before he did something illegal involving quarry that wasn’t rats. The whippet was curled up against the bedlington for warmth, and the labrador was worshipping the table.
Conversation rose and fell, but my eyes strayed across the yard, for I had caught movement in the shadows, and it seemed to me that another visit would be in order soon.