Face to face with a rat on the run

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If I report that the main event of the day was the murder of a rat, it may sound as though life at the ranch is becoming rather basic. Nevertheless, I am not sorry that I managed to exterminate one of the brutes that have invaded our chicken barn.

When rats establish themselves in the interstices of stonework or an old roof, they are extremely hard to evict. Normally our three cats do a good job in keeping numbers down, but at the minute they are distracted by the abundance of young rabbits and vermin duty is neglected. Inside the barn I keep a tunnel trap permanently set and baited with wheat, and occasionally it makes a catch - but to kill a rat in open combat, so to speak, is a rare triumph.

Yesterday, by a fluke, I came round the corner to discover two old bruisers scrapping on the concrete outside the barn entrance. One nipped inside to safety, but the other made the mistake of scuttling behind the wooden door, which had been swung back against the wall.

Quickly I looked round for some means of delivering a killer strike. If I pulled the door away and tried to hit the rat with a stick, it would almost certainly be too quick for me. Then I realised that if I rammed the door hard against the wall, I might pinch the fugitive between wood and stone.

Leading with the boot, I forced the door sharply back. A squeal indicated that my target was under serious pressure. Then, by easing the top of the door away, I created just enough room to give it a downward coup de grace with a metal rod.

Yet if the population of rodents is exploding, so is that of everything else. At this season of the year, in woods, fields and hedges, productivity is the name of the game.

The rabbits are multiplying at an amazing rate and, though they are preyed on by cats, foxes, badgers, stoats and occasionally your correspondent, the hedgerows are alive with them. When I walk out in the evening, the whole edge of the field seems to run for cover.

Birds, ranging from buzzards to our Bramah hen, are nesting everywhere. Down on the lake in the valley, a pair of greylag geese hatched six goslings.

For a couple of weeks the babies were at risk, potential victims of a visiting heron which lurks about the banks. Now, however, the family is big enough to look after itself, and it is a later hatch, of only three, which the heron is fancying. The farmer who owns the lake would dearly love to blast this voracious predator off the face of the earth, but he may not do so because herons are protected.

In the midst of all this fecundity, it was a shock for my wife to go out one morning and find a ewe lying dead in the paddock. The evening before, the animal had seemed fine; now she had been carried off by mastitis, an infection which can spread with terrible speed.

Her death left us with two pressing problems. First, how to dispose of her corpse, and second, what to do with her twin lambs, which were not quite five weeks old and which, although they had begun to eat grass, were barely old enough to survive without their mother's milk.

The ewe, a big animal in life, seemed even bigger in death. It took me and my wife a big heave to hoist her body into the back of the Jeep. A neighbouring farmer offered to bury the corpse in his muck-heap, where the heat of decomposing manure would eventually have eaten it away. This seemed an unattractive solution, and it was a relief to find that the local hunt would take the body and feed the meat to the hounds.

The lambs presented a trickier problem. When we tried to shepherd them down into the yard, they kept making pathetic attempts to return to the spot on which their mother had last lain; and they would not take to a bottle of made-up milk.

We then put them into a small paddock with a ewe which had a single lamb, in the hope that she would allow them to sneak the occasional feed off her. In the event she proved uncooperative, but at least the orphans had company. They nibbled small quantities of special pellets, with milk powder sprinkled over them, but in the main they grazed with incredible concentration, sensing instinctively that their lives depended on it.

They will almost certainly survive. But they will always be stunted - victims of a stroke of bad luck in an otherwise abundant spring.