Thursday 4 November 2010


They are brown and furry with long scaley whip like tails, long whiskers, pointy noses and beady eyes. The good old rat, which Shep has a strong dislike of and which fortunately I rarely come across. Until today that is.

A trip away for the day, towards the coast, to assist the shepherd from out bye to load small bales of hay onto a wagon. It was pissing with rain at home so an ideal day for a jaunt, I was surprised to find we had a terrier to share the journey with us "incase there's rats" was the reply to my query. Oh my god! I'd never considered rats!!

A quick inspection of the stack of hay upon arrival revealed no rat muck (it's similar to mouse droppings but far bigger) there was however signs of a lot of rabbit activity, droppings and later old nests were unearthed but no sign of rats. Thank goodness! Poor ol' terrier was going to have a boring few hours whilst it sat in the vehicle safe from being flattened by bales of hay.

My task was fairly simple, ensuring the flat eight grab had a flat eight of hay to pick up before transporting it to the wagon. Not a stressful job at all and the task was going swingingly until we got close to the bottom of the stack and then...........

A big fat rat ran over my foot. Aargh!!! Now I'm not sure whether it was a wellie clad version of the highland fling or a heavy footed polka but which ever there was a fair bit of louping about went on along with some expletives being uttered, for a split second (or minute or two) Shep lost a bit of her composure. Unfortunately this did not go unnoticed by the shepherd who was on top of the load of hay on the wagon. "Did you get it?"
"Like shite did I"
"what you didn't stamp on it? looked like that was what you were doing?" of course there was a great deal of laughter with this remark as it had been quite apparent that Shep hadn't had the presence of mind to try and kill the not so little blighter and my jumping from foot to foot had infact been a bit of a girlie reaction to a fluffy little creature which shot out and gave me a gliff (fright).

My distaste of rats is well known and the leg pulling continued for the duration of the day. I was offered to swap jobs and hop up onto the wagon to help load it, however my fear of heights is far greater than my fear of rats so the 'kind' offer was duly turned down. Much kicking and tentative moving of bales went on but no further rats came to the surface - what a relief. Mind the fuss I made you'd be forgiven for thinking I'd actually come across a nest of the blighters but thankfully I hadn't, one was quite sufficient for one day I can tell you.

Over the years Shep has many run ins with rats. They are not common on hill farms but lambing sheds can often seem to harbour them and as Shep generally does a night lambing in sheds she finds herself having more than just sheep for company during the dark antisocial hours between dusk and dawn.

I recall being in Leicestershire, lambing a ewe under the artificial electric light of a shed when I had an overwhelming feeling of being watched. Just feet away, sitting under a feed barrier was a plump rat staring at me, me on my hands and knees, with hand up sheeps backside, I stared back, even shouted, but to no avail, the little critter sat there watching the show with glee. Was I relieved when the ewe was succesfully lambed and I could back off. An order for rat poison was put in the following morning.

There was worse to come whilst lambing in sheds in Alnwick years later, there were rats everywhere, even walking along the top rails of the pens, scuttling everywhere they were. I had a veterinary student to work along with and his humour had me jumping everytime as he crept up behind me and emitted a squeak. Didn't matter how I banged buckets, gates or anything else I could lay my hands on it had no effect on the rats - they show absolutely no fear, 'tis left to me to show the fear.

The daddy of them all was a lambing closer to home. There were three lambing sheds which meant traipsing across a shadowy, dark yard to go back and forth between them. I soon learnt wet nights were the worst.

I had no idea what was instore for me on my second night. Sure enough I had seen the odd little 'mouse' scurrying across the yard but nothing to cause any concern, I thought I could smell rats but then there was a lean to shed beside the main lambing shed which housed fattening cattle which were being fed on ad lib silage and barley. You might not know this but silage stinks, far worse than cattle muck it can be quite smelly stuff so I had put down my imaginery rat odour to the feeding of these cattle and was more than happy to stick with this conclusion. I was to learn differently.

To turn the lights on in this lambing shed the easiest access was to head into the outside corner where the cattle shed joined the lambing shed, put your hand up over the top of the wall and switch the light on. I usually crossed the yard without the aid of a flashlight, however, once the shed lights were turned on my eyes were dazzled and so the flashlight would be used to navigate my way around to the gates into the shed.

I merrily trotted into the corner, using the small amount of natural light which is on offer during the night, switched the main lights on in the shed then switched the flashlight on to find my way out of the corner, to find to my utmost horror that there were rats everywhere, I seemed to be standing in the midst of masses of bouncing bodies, ranging from mouse size to almost cat size, how my heart held out I really don't know. I do know I did far more than a rendition of the highland fling and the language would have turned the sky blue if only it could have been seen.

Aargh! Words cannot express my sheer horror, dismay and fear as I scuttled into the lightened shed before standing and studying, looking into every corner and crevice to see where they were. But they weren't.

Unfortunately it wasn't a dream, fortunately though very few of them ventured into MY shed, odd ones would come scuttling in, one even sat on top of the heat box where poorly lambs were placed to keep warm, it was also my 'table' where my bait (sandwich) box and flask lived, I was prepared to die of hunger rather than shoo the little critter away from my midnight feast.

The little mousey things were in actual fact baby rats, they run with backs arched and tails held straight up, actually they seem to bounce rather than run, I studied them often out of the corner of my eye as I crossed the poorly lit yard to the other sheds. I survived by talking to myself, whistling in a nonchalant fashion and keeping my eyes looking forward as I crossed the yard.

There was much jibbering when the farmer arose the next morning and came to see if all was well. The fact he told me he never saw them had me laughing (almost hysterically), they do prefer the darkness of night and I suggested that mebbes he'd like to do the next night shift and see for himself.

To cut a long story short (my stories are always far too long). I learnt a lot about rats during that lambing. They are extremely active on mild wet nights, not so keen on cold frosty night and the hour before day break they go ballistic, I don't know what they do as I never dared look but they get extremely vociforous as though they are having a great big party before settling down for the day. I also know that they grow very big, especially when being fed on ad lib barley, they are also truly carniverous, I didn't know whether to be fascinated or sqeamish when this fact came to light.

Any dead lambs (yes, unfortunately there will be something die on occasion) during the night would be laid outside the front of the shed in the yard. One morning as day light dawned I was stopped in my tracks, frozen to the spot, as I surveyed a carcase I had discarded during the night, it had a woolly lambs body, hairy lambs legs but it's skull was bare to the bone and eye sockets empty, not an ounce of flesh to be seen on the skull of this lamb, I stared with disbelief but there was no doubting what I was seeing. Yards from where I had been working all night, hidden in the shadows of the yard this lamb had been stripped of all skin and flesh from it's skull. It came as a turning point and the rat man was called in, I do believe it was either the rat man in or the lambing man out!

The good old rat has never harmed me, to date I've never suffered any ill effects from working in proximity of them but I really do have an extremely strong dislike of them. They are gregarious, fearless, dirty little critters which I would prefer never to meet and I am so relieved that the night lambing I do in Scotland to date has never seen me have rats for company during the night.