Monthly Archives: November 2020

Rodent control. Working with the professional

After years of trying many different methods, using an air rifle to control rats takes a lot of beating. As a technique it has the advantage that you don’t have problems with immunity. Not only that but you’re not leaving poisoned bait lying about where other animals might be exposed to it. On the other hand it does have the disadvantage that you have to be a reasonable shot.

Now I don’t advocate it as a sole method. But it works in well with other techniques. Ten or more years ago we had a lot of rats and a friend turned up with an air rifle with a starlight scope. He just quietly shot rats at night in the dark. He did admit that it felt like cheating at times. I was present when there were three rats looking over the edge of a trough in my direction. He shot the one of the left, then the one of the right. The one in the middle quietly faded from the scene. I suspect it was getting a bad feeling about the neighbourhood.

What we discovered was that with somebody out and about shooting them, the other rats were far more cautious about venturing far afield and tended to take more poisoned bait, so you got a synergistic effect.

My own experience is that if you are just shooting with iron sights, you can punish the brazen ones who venture forth in daylight. But you’ll not solve your problem.

Using a red beam of light does work well for a while. It doesn’t have to be an expensive piece of kit, I’ve seen people use the red wrapping from the appropriate Quality Street sweet. They just used sellotape to fasten it over the end of a torch. It worked perfectly adequately. There again after a while, it does seem that rats grow wary of red light and stay down.

Then there’s proper night vision equipment. It is expensive. I know people who have a starlight scope that cost more than the air rifle they’ve attached it to. I’ve never run to that expense, but if you are tackling a serious problem it’s probably necessary. But there are downsides. A friend of mine went into a factory in town where they were having a problem and he promised to try and help. He sat in the dark and eventually could hear some rustling. So he picked up his rifle and looked down the night vision. He said it was like a scene from ‘Aliens’. “They’re coming outta the goddamn walls!” He admitted that it came close to freaking him out. To be fair, he did most of his shooting from his bedroom window. He had a silencer on the rifle and would just shoot the rats in the back street.

But one advantage anybody has who comes to help control rats here is that we can offer them the assistance of a dedicated professional. Local knowledge comes in useful. The arrival of a cat on the scene meant we had to make changes. Once we’d welcomed Billy onto our staff, we stopped putting down poison bait. After all it seemed a bit ungrateful really. On the other hand, for all I know, Billy might be trying to tell us to put down horse radish or mint sauce.

Now we have a friend who comes and shoots rats for us when he can get the time off. When Billy first saw him ‘at work’, he used to sit and watch him from a distance. After a couple of nights Billy would then move closer and just sit six or ten feet away from him and keep an eye on the job.

Eventually he came across to get his ears scratched.

Recently we have had a couple of weeks of miserable wet weather. We’ve found that there’s no point in trying to shoot rats in the rain, they’ve got more sense than to come out in it. Billy is pretty much of the same opinion. But then we had a fine evening and our hunter arrived with his rifle. We left him to it.
Just as it was nicely dark, Billy appeared and sat next to him. They both sat there companionably and Billy watched as the first few rats bit the dust. Then he went across, nipped one that had been shot and had gone down, and carried it off somewhere. Two minutes later he was back.

Now it’s obvious that he feels that hunting involves changing your location reasonably regularly. When he felt our rifleman had been in place too long, he’d climb onto his shoulder to get him to move. In the new position he’d drop back down out of the way. At one point our rifleman said he wondered when Billy was going to start pointing out targets.
Eventually it was getting late and cold and the rats had decided tonight was a good night to stay in. Our rifleman went home, but by this time Billy had already taken another two of the nicer rats off for later. I suppose he regarded it as a fee for consultancy.   


It has to be admitted, we do tend to work with a lot of highly qualified professionals.

As a reviewer commented, “This is a selection of anecdotes about life as a farmer in Cumbria. The writer grew up on his farm, and generations of his family before him farmed the land. You develop a real feeling for the land you are hefted to and this comes across in these stories. We hear of the cattle, the sheep, his succession of working dogs, the weather and the neighbours, in an amusing and chatty style as the snippets of Jim Webster’s countryman’s wisdom fall gently. I love this collection.”

Billy and Sun Tzu

Round here, as you look out of the door at the pouring rain, you might say, ‘It’s not fit to put a cat out.’

In the case of our Billy, feral cat nonpareil, this isn’t really an issue as he doesn’t come into the house in the first place. Yes he has passed through, in summer as doors stood open. He walked in, looked around, sniffed various things of interest, and walked out again. So given we’ve had a couple of wet days, we’ve not seen a lot of young Billy. He has places where he snoozes, watches and waits.

One is the bit of a building we keep firewood in. From his point of view there are several advantages. It’s sheltered, but has a permanently open entrance which faces south so even in winter he can find somewhere to sit in the sun. Also it’s the first building on the route into the yard for vermin coming in from the fields in late autumn. So for Billy, it’s even got a buffet. Then there’s another spot with the straw kept ready for bedding calves. It’s snug, dry, and he can sit there and get quite a good view. Again, should lunch chance to walk by, he can move in and take it.

During the day, when he’s working, you’ll see him walking purposefully from place to place. Sometimes you’ll see him just sitting, watching something. If you’re out late checking to see if a cow has started calving, you might catch sight of him staking out a likely place for hunting.

Our contribution to his diet is to give him a little something on an evening, if he turns up looking for it. On a wet night he’ll probably not bother. Other times you’ll see him picking his way fastidiously across the collecting yard to see if his bowl has anything in it.

Milk cows are something of an issue for him. I suspect from his point of view, they’re just so insanely big. He largely ignores them unless they move towards him. At which point he’ll quietly slip under a gate to be out of their way. He was once meowing to me from the top of a wall, wanting his ears rubbed (feral but quite likes a handful of individual people) and obviously never noticed a cow wander up behind him to see what the noise was about. Dairy cows are notoriously curious. She sniffed him. Given the size of the nostrils, nose, and lungs involved, Billy’s coat was blown about. He turned round sharply to see what was going on, just as the cow put out a tongue longer than Billy is, and licked him. That was the last straw, he jumped down off the wall and stalked off looking affronted.

A week or so back I was busy with one job and noticed Billy was sitting in front of a bucket that was on its side. He kept reaching in but then brought his paw back. Anyway next time I passed he was still there, he’d cornered a rat. The rat was backed up in a corner and the only way Billy could get it was go in after it. That way he’d be nose to teeth with a cornered rat. Next time I passed, Billy wasn’t by the bucket, the rat could escape. Then I heard a squeal and he trotted past me with a dead rat clamped firmly in his jaws. Obviously Billy had read his Sun Tzu. As the Chinese strategist (lived circa 544BC to 496BC) said, “When you surround an army, leave an outlet free.”

This does not mean that the enemy is to be allowed to escape. As Tu Mu (803-852AD), poet and commentator wrote, “The object, to make him believe that there is a road to safety, and thus prevent his fighting with the courage of despair. After that, you may crush him.” As an aside, as a poet Tu Mu was apparently known for ‘sensual, lyrical quatrains featuring historical sites or romantic situations.’ As a military commentator he was obviously of the ‘Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of the women’ school.

It may just be that the great Chinese strategist Sun Tzu had a cat.

Comparing Billy with Sal, their attitudes to what is going on around them are entirely different. Sal as a Border Collie has to join in and be part of it. She will rush into the thick of things to offer management oversight. Billy on the other hand will sit somewhere comfortable and watch it all from a safe distance. There again, if Sal is out and about and wants me for something, Sal will come and find me. Once she’s found me she’ll jump up or prod me with her nose to attract attention. Billy walks into the building and meow’s loudly to attract attention.

But dog and cat still seem to get on. Billy seems to regard Sal as ‘people’ in that she’ll meow at Sal. I’ve not yet seen her meow at a dairy cow. Sal seems to regard Billy as one of the fixtures. She makes no attempt to hassle him and treats him with a wary familiarly. They have the advantage that they’re not trapped together in a small space and can live their own lives.

I must admit I’ve not asked Billy’s opinion of one of the great strategist’s other sayings, “Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

I’m not sure whether he’d reckon it would work with rats or not.


Take it to the experts

The fourth of these collections of anecdotes, rants, pious maunderings and general observations on life. Yes we have dogs, quads, sheep and cattle, but in this one we follow the ‘lambing year.’ It starts with ewes being put to the tup in late autumn and finishes in summer with the last of the laggards lambing.
But as well as this we have endless rain, as well as sleeping in a manger. Be brave and you’ll meet young ladies in high heeled cowboy boots, Sir John Moore of Corunna, brassieres for cows, and, incidentally, David Essex.

As a reviewer commented, “This book charts a year in the life of a Cumbrian sheep farmer. It’s sprinkled with anecdotes and memories of other years. Some parts (especially when featuring Sal, the Border Collie) were so funny as to cause me to have to read them out loud to my husband. It’s very interesting to read these things from the pen of the man who is actually out there doing it – usually in the rain! A very good read.”

Young women making hay when the wind blows

Many years ago a friend of mine used to regale me with stories of an old farmer he’d worked with. The old chap farmed at the top of one of the valleys that run into the Pennines. Back in the day, the farm at the foot of the valley would be a really good dairy farm with a fair bit of ploughing. The next farm up would be a mixed farm, perhaps a few dairy, even a bit of ploughing, and some sheep. At the top of the valley you’d get a tough hill farm. In this particular area all three farms were owned by the same estate, and this estate used to pay my friend to go and draw up plans for work the tenants and/or the estate wanted doing.

Nowadays the dairy farm at the bottom of the valley is massively capitalised, heavily borrowed and in good years makes a reasonable living. In other years it will just break even or make a loss. The middle farm muddles along and the rough spot at the top does OK because it runs a nominal number of sheep and farms environmentalists. (Dramatic exaggeration applied for artistic effect. I’m a writer, it’s expected of me.)
The old lad farming the top farm had been there since before the War. My friend hadn’t a clue how the old chap made a living, but he did. Just about.

My friend turned up in the yard one day to see the old lad looking miserable. So my friend asked what the matter was.

“I lost my hay crop.”

“How do you mean, lost?”
What had happened was that there was about three acres on this farm they mowed for hay. So he got a neighbour to come with a mower, and then he and his daughters went out with forks to scale it out. He was a little bit of a chap. His daughters were well built young women, tough as nails and with the sort of muscle that you get with constant exercise and outdoor work. They’d spent two or three days shaking the grass out, stirring it up and it was almost hay.

Then it rained.

So they fell back on plan B. Up there they still remembered the old techniques but rather than build special frames, they just put it on the wall tops. After all the three acres was at least two fields, both with tall dry-stone walls. So the old lad and his daughters manually put all this damp hay on the walls. That night it blew a gale out of nowhere and the whole lot just disappeared.

But the daughters were interesting ladies. (As an aside, in my culture, it is a mark of respect to refer to a woman as a lady.)
From what I was told, all had gentleman admirers and all would in due course marry, the last one to marry took over the tenancy with her husband. But what do farmers’ daughters to for a living?
I remember reading an article which looked back to the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. As a rule of thumb the article reckoned that you could work out how much the Father was worth financially by what his daughters did.

At the bottom of the heap, like the old lad with the missing hay crop, daughters tended to work at home until marriage, then they’d go and work with their husband, fitting in children as and when.

Next up, if Dad was a bit better off, the daughter would go into nursing. Don’t knock it. It means you’ve got somebody in the family who’s professionally qualified when it comes to helping with lambing.

If Dad was better off still, daughter became a teacher. Again a useful profession. Not only can she be relied upon to write suitably letters for you, she’ll be able to do the farm accounts as well. (To be fair, that came as a surprise to a number of daughters who still managed to cope with VAT etc.)
Finally at the top end where the farm is almost big enough to be an estate, daughter works at home. But this is after doing secretarial and accountancy courses and then she runs the office for her father. After marriage she then runs the estate office for her husband.

To be fair, I’ve come across ladies who have been married for thirty years and who are still doing their father’s accounts. This now includes dealing with cattle passports, sheep movements and EID and suchlike. One commented that every Saturday when she drives the twenty miles from her nice suburban home to the farm, she has a feeling that somehow the whole thing is getting out of hand. But at least it’s kept her children in touch with agriculture and she suspects that they’ll join the industry in some way.

But by the 90s the system was breaking down. It probably only lasted for a couple of generations. Some of the break down was inevitable. For a start there were so many more careers open for young women. Also I saw figures which claimed that 80% of farmers’ daughters do not marry farmers. You can understand that. They know the life from the inside.

But even when the daughter remains within agriculture, I know a number who’ve built up their own business with a bit of land of their own, some contracting, and some relief milking. Much like a lot of lads in that respect. Also on some farms you will often see two brothers in partnership. Given the importance of getting the paperwork right, dealing with Defra, the Environment Agency and other agencies, a sister who decides to be the partner who does the office work can be every bit an equal partner. Mind you, nobody in farming ever managed to stay in the office. The farm has a way of hauling you outside, normally into mud, rain, and with somebody saying, “Are you small enough to reach in and give it a pull and a twist.”


There again don’t mistake me for somebody who knows what he’s talking about.

For this collection of stories, Sal, our loyal Border Collie, is joined by Terry Wogan, Janis Joplin and numerous dairy cows. Meet pheasants, Herdwicks, Border Collies, and the occasional pink teddy bear. Welcome to the world of administrative overload and political incomprehension. All human life, (or at least all that hasn’t already fled screaming for sanctuary) is here.

We are not the men our fathers were?

Falling asleep at the wheel when mowing isn’t something you do often. I’ve never managed it. My father did. He was mowing whilst I was greasing round the forage harvester. The field he was cutting was on a slope, so I could hear the tractor get nearer and then get further way as he was mowing. Then I realised the note hadn’t changed.
So I went to investigate. Now some people reading this won’t know the details, but as you come to the end of a run when you’re mowing, you lift the mower, turn the tractor to line up for the next run and then lower the mower again. All this is with the tractor running at ‘pto rev’. So the mower, (A two drum mower with two drums spinning) was making a lot of noise, and the tractor engine was making a lot of noise.

Because my father had come downhill on one run and was going uphill on the next, he had to change gear. So he’d come downhill, got to the end of the run, picked up the mower, turned the tractor, dropped it out of one gear, and in the brief spell when the tractor was out of gear before going into the next gear, he’d fallen asleep. Given that by that point we’d had well over a week of starting at 5am and finishing at between 10pm and 11pm with some meals eaten on the move, this isn’t entirely surprising.

So I walked up to the tractor, knocked the revs off and then knocked the power take off out of gear so the mower slowed down and stopped. The ensuing quiet woke my father up. At that point I asked if he wanted me to finish off the field but he merely commented that he’d had a nice nap so felt good to go.

My Grandfather’s generation was as bad. He was once clearing a gutter out. He picked up a fence post that had fallen in and several inches of a nail stuck into his arm. Carrying the fence post with him he walked across two fields to a neighbour who got him to the doctor who got the nail out of him.
But neither generation thought this sort of thing was unusual. My father had volunteered for the RAF in 1939, but they’d discovered he was a farm worker and sent him back. I remember in the early 1980s the pair of us went to a farm sale. There my Dad met somebody he’d last seen in 1938. They’d worked together for a couple of years and the other chap had had enough of farm work and had joined the army. He’d spent the war fighting in Burma, and as the sale continued, he and Dad had forty years of catching up. Burma had been rough on him, he didn’t look well then, and he died a couple of years later.

But that brings me to the banana slide. In Barrow Park they had a banana slide. You see the picture, more than twice the height of a man, with no safety rails and just good old fashioned concrete to land on. When I was in the first year of secondary school we were still allowed in the children’s play area so could go on the slide. The basic rule was if you were still wearing shorts, you were young enough to be allowed into that area.
We had a whale of a time on it. One lad would fetch the wrapper from a block of butter or marge and he would slide down the slide first, sitting on the wrapper with the greasy side down.
Then we’d all pile down behind him, and by the time the first ten or a dozen had been through, it was polished. I’ve been down that slide and shot straight off the end, the technique was to get your feet under you so you came off the slide running rather than just hit the ground.

Of course the slide has gone now. I must admit I don’t remember any serious accidents, certainly nothing that demanded hospital. They had one of those heavy wooden playground roundabouts as well. The photo is just one I’ve found, it wasn’t ours. I remember that being just green. I also remember they were more dangerous than the slide because if you got your foot under it, it could hurt.

From memory the girls tended to monopolise the roundabout and the boys just played on the slide. It might have had something to do with the fact that the roundabout was more forgiving for somebody wearing a school skirt.

I remember talking about our time on this equipment to somebody a generation younger than me and they just looked horrified. The question was asked, “How could they install such dangerous equipment for children?”
Given that the men who had installed the equipment were men who’d jumped out of a landing craft and run up a beach under fire, how dangerous would they have regarded it?
Similarly, due to blind chance, quite a number of Barrow lads ended up in the 1st Airlanding Brigade and took part in the fighting around Arnhem, (A bridge to far.) But they went in not by parachute but in gliders. This was apparently terrifying, you hadn’t a clue what was happening, and every so often you’d be shot at and shrapnel would go through the thin plywood fuselage. Then to put not too fine a point on it, your glider crash landed and you were in the middle of a war. Of the 2,526 men of 1st Airlanding Brigade who left England for Operation Market Garden, there were 230 killed, 476 evacuated and 1,822 were missing or prisoners of war. Banana slides? Not a problem.

I am lucky enough to have worked with men of that generation. I remember working at hay time, one of them men helping was a police sergeant who’d already put in a full shift but was up for three or four hours of hauling bales by hand to keep his hand in. Others were fitters in the shipyard, or worked for the council on the roads or the bins. But looking round there’s a lot of good people of a younger generation working in agriculture now. Running their own businesses and doing a good job. I suppose you’d expect it, they’ve been properly brought up. But I’ve come across others, out of town, who aren’t afraid to put in a long day in the rain. Talking to them, next summer they might go to university, hopefully they’ll do well there, they’ve got the work ethic.  


To be fair, most of my co-workers over the years have been Border Collies, and they do have a work ethic.


More tales from a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England, with sheep, Border Collies, cattle, and many other interesting individuals. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is just one of those things.

As a reviewer commented, “This is the third collection of farmer Jim Webster’s anecdotes about his sheep, cattle and dogs. This one had added information on the Lake District’s World Heritage status. This largely depends upon the work of around 200 small family farms. Small may not always be beautiful but it can be jolly important. If you want to know the different skills needed by a sheep dog and a cow dog, or to hear tales of some of the old time travelling sales persons – read on! This is real life, Jim, but not as I know it.”