Ratting with terriers offers a traditional check to the rise of the poison-resistant super rat. But which terrier is the best ratter?
Ratting with terriers gives rise to the obvious question. Which breed of terrier makes the best ratter. The debate is like huntsmen discussing the merits of modern English foxhounds, Old English or a combination of the two and the subsequent hound judging. Geography often plays a part, the Border terrier holding sway in the north while Parson Jack Russell’s terrier has a loyal following in the Westcountry. The terrier may be the ultimate country house dog, but they are also the stars of the ratting world.
“Let me go into a strange kennel; let me have pick of the pack, and first and foremost, I’ll take the plain looking ones; there is sure to be good stuff in them or they would not be there,” was Russell’s view. According to David Hancock, in his authoritative Sporting Terriers: Their Form, Their Function and Their Future, Russell “favoured a terrier with length of leg, a narrow chest, a well-boned skull and a thick, hard, dense, close-lying coat”. Of the Border, Hancock writes, “There is in the expression of a Border terrier an implacable determination which is seen in no other breed.”
RATTING WITH TERRIERS. WILL ANY TERRIER DO?
What is certain, where ratting with terriers is concerned, is that any terrier may be employed so long as it is fast, agile, strong, has stamina and is quick in its work.
This might include ratting with terriers such as the Lucas or Lakeland breeds to Sealyham and Skye terriers as well as whippets. Bedlington terriers, named after the Northumbrian village of their origin, were once champions of vermin control but are now more likely to be found on a metropolitan sofa.
In the 19th century, smooth-coated, black-and-tan Manchester terriers, now rare, were famous in the London rat pits frequented by Lord Byron and the Duke of Wellington. Celebrated was the 26lb bulldog Billy that, on 22 April 1823, slew 100 rats in five-and-a-half minutes in the Westminster pit. Queen Victoria had her own ratcatcher, Jack Black, who sported a coat with VR on the lapels and kept rats in his stove hat.
“Any self-respecting canine will catch rats, though terriers and small lurchers are probably the best,” says David Harcombe, editor of Earth Dog – Running Dog and several volumes of memoirs, entitled A Terrierman’s Life. “I have seen a miniature long-haired dachshund do a decent job on rats in yards and fields, and that was just a Kennel Club, toy-bred thing. They would not be good for killing rats in large numbers, however.”
THE BROWN RAT
The problem and profusion of brown rats (Rattus norvegicus), which took hold in mainland Britain in the early 18th century, should not be underestimated. In 1919, The Field reported on National Rat Week, promoted by the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries, where it was estimated that the UK rat population was around 43 million.
Today, the position of ratcatcher has all but disappeared from the countryside. Maintaining the service and tradition on Dartmoor is Ian Brackenbury, whose business card proudly announces his intentions: Mole Control. “I can remember a day when we caught more than a thousand rats with six terriers clearing out a chicken shed,” recalls Brackenbury. “In my experience, it is the younger terriers who work best and I cannot say there is a breed type I prefer. I have even killed plenty of rats with a bearded collie dog.”
Corn barns, chicken sheds and hayricks are the traditional feeding grounds and dwelling places of the brown rat. Sometimes it is necessary to smoke them out by attaching a hose to an old motorbike exhaust or chain saw (minus the chain) and putting it down a hole.
Isn’t this, and the very real possibility that the rat will offer a sharp bite to the terrier and could be carrying poison – from ingested rat poison to Weil’s disease (leptospirosis) – a danger and threat to the dogs? “It is important to have antibiotics and Dettol on hand and to give the terrier a jab at the end of the day or if it is bitten,” says Brackenbury.
Rat poison has changed little since the Fifties (essentially red and blue dressed corn). “These poisons are increasingly ineffective as the rats build up immunity to them. You still can’t beat the traditional method of trapping them with terriers.”
In June, ITV’s Tonight investigated the UK rat problem. The programme estimated that there are now 80 million rats in the UK and 17 counties where rats have built up significant immunity to rat poison. It suggested that in some cities, Birmingham, for example, king rats stalk the sewers.
Tony Holdsworth, huntsman of the Duke of Beaufort’s foxhounds, recalls being left a ratting terrier called Becky when he was at the East Devon Hunt. “She was a seven-year-old Jack Russell and was amazingly quick with rats,” he remembers. “I crossed her with a Lakeland and one of her offspring, Nailer, was even better, especially on the ricks at harvest time. Anyone who thinks this is cruel should remember the saying that no human sleeps in a city more than 6ft from a rat. The numbers have to be controlled.”
WHICH TERRIER MAKES THE BEST RATTER?
Welsh writer Brian Plummer, who made a lifelong study of rat hunting and had a terrier of his own breeding named after him, chronicled his lifelong fascination with vermin in Tales of a Rat-Hunting Man (1978). Plummer was an itinerant ratcatcher and storyteller brought up in a mining village near Bridgend in the late Forties, where his Uncle Billy kept a drift mine and fighting cocks and was a major influence on the young boy. He was soon ratting with terriers. His fox terrier/Sealyham/bull terrier cross dog was put to work in the coal slacks, rubbish tips and pigsties of the Valleys, earning money and a reputation as a rat killer.
“The Sealyham blood in them gave them strength of jaw, the Bedlington blood endowed them with incredible agility and the bull terrier blood, the real old fighting blood, gave them that little ‘extra something’ that made them impervious to pain,” he believed.
Of all the many terriers that Plummer bought or bred, one, Sam, he called the love of his life. “He was a hideous hotchpotch of every game terrier that the mining folk in my valley could lay their hands on. His ears were cropped to the head as a result of clashes with fox and badger, and his body was shredded with numerous old wounds.” Sam was the result of assorted breeding that included a great-great-grandfather that had been a fighting bull terrier, which was mated to a Bedlington terrier from the Cheviot Hills (that had once killed a half-grown pig) and this, in turn, was mated to a Sealyham. “He was the result of assorted breeding,” wrote Plummer. “Most Russell terriers of today have similar dubious ancestries.”
Plummer offers specific observations about what makes a good ratter. Borders, he says, are slow to “enter” to rat and Jack Russells work best on their own as they are jealous hunters and prone to attack strange dogs. Lakelands, he feels, make the ideal first ratting terrier, dynamic, game and quick to mature, and he once trained a dandie dinmont, the massive jaws of which reduced rats to pulp.
Once there was a profusion of clubs for ratting with terriers, members gathering with their terriers for a day’s ratting, but these are now in decline. One, the Icknield Ratters, recorded a day in 2005 in Earth Dog – Running Dog entitled Red Letter Ratting.The team of five assembled in a chicken shed at 9am with a combination of Jack Russells, Lakelands, Plummers and a Patterdale. By 2.30pm 407 rats had been accounted for. “The terriers were taking a lot of punishment by mid morning but their desire to be first to the kill drove them on,” wrote Scott Bedding, who had been a guest on the day with his two Plummer terriers. “This was extreme ratting at its best, a great day’s sport with great crack.”
Another group of four ratters in Cornwall, in 2004, recorded killing more than 2,000 rats in a single day on a free-range chicken farm with 10 terriers, mainly Jack Russells, two Plummers and a Sealyham. Again, this day, with photographic evidence, was recorded in Earth Dog – Running Dog under the heading Ratting Galore. “Ratting may never take the place of a good day’s hunting,” says Harcombe, “but it is a very necessary activity and can produce good sport.”
The intelligence and tenacity of terriers should not be underestimated and success does not always have to be measured in numbers. “The character of the dog is all important,” says Hancock. “People can argue about length of leg and the like but, in my view, what matters is prey-drive and determination.”
Once, before the ban, our own Jack Russell had been pursuing a squirrel for some months without success. One morning, the terrier was barking in the garden. He’d managed to shut the squirrel in our daughter’s Wendy house; all I had to do was open the door for him, whereupon my daughter proclaimed, “Result.” Now for the rats in the barn.