Though a rare sight today, this farm uses a 1951 Ransomes AM54 Thresher to make thatching straw
By Simon Whitehead
Wednesday, 15 August 2012
Summer vermin control on a Suffolk farm
While at The Royal Norfolk Show at the end of June, I met Harry Parsons, founder of the Working Sealyham Terrier Club. He and other aficionados of the breed were staying locally and planned to do some ratting after the show was over. Luckily, I was able to clear my diary at the drop of a hat to join them for the day.
The farm that we would be ratting on was in The Saints area of Suffolk, known locally as “bow and arrow country”. As we ambled up the track to the farmyard to join fellow ratting enthusiasts and Sealyham terrier owners, it became obvious that this was to be no ordinary day’s ratting. Traditional farm machinery is still used here and it lay all around us — binders, threshers and tractors for producing high-quality thatching straw.
A modern-day rat pit
I found the scene to be unnervingly quiet for a ratting expedition. There was no smoker, nor any baton-wielding ratters buzzing with adrenaline; there were just the terriers, held with pride by their owners. As master of the pack, Harry herded the dogs, their owners and the spectators into position, assembled in what I can only describe as a modern-day rat pit — quite unlike the Leicestershire pit of 1912 where the last legal ratting competition tookplace. A combination of disused pig arcing and chicken wire surrounded the wheat that was to be cleared, ensuring the odds were stacked against the rats — just as in the olden days, when the law required that the stack be meshed in order to kill the rats more easily.
As well as Harry, standing at strategic points around the perimeter holding on to their prized terriers were Andy Benn, Gail Wescott and Nigel Nix — all members of the Working Sealyham Terrier Club. Their pack was a mixture of pedigree Sealyhams, out-crosses and a Jack Russell thrown in for good measure. Originating from Wales and bred to work foxes, badgers and otters, the Sealyham’s sorrowful expression belies its true intentions and the spirit underneath its wiry coat.
A huge thresher
Casting a shadow over the field of battle was a 1951 Ransomes AM54 Thresher. A rare sight in the 21st century, it belongs to a retired local threshing contractor and must be one of the last working examples in the area. Among the crowd were a few locals who would have seen these historic machines at work long before I was born,including Tizzie Craggs, who organised the day’s activity. Of course, health and safety wasn’t such an issue back then, but today things are different, and due to the number of belts powering this magnificent machine, all of the terriers were on leashes — these dogs are rare enough without losing one to a threshing machine!
The Victorian variety of wheat grown at the farm — Squarehead master — is threshed to make thatching straw. Normally this would happen during the winter or spring, but this year they had been waiting for the right weather and had left a bit of the stack from the previous day for us to enjoy our ratty hangri-La.
Farmers and farmhands — one of whom was a member of the National Thatching Straw Growers Association — climbed atop the stack and put their two-pronged forks to good use. Load by load, the mound slowly disappeared as the air filled with chaff, sticking to the sweaty bare-chested figures holding their forks aloft. Intermittently, rats cand mice appeared, but it wasn’t until the fork bearers got closer to the bottom of the pile that the action started to heat up.
The wheat had been stored on tree branches to keep it dry, and once the
pile began to dwindle it offered little protection to the rats against their human and canine invaders. There was no hiding any more, and rats of all sizes started to bolt for freedom. Unfortunately for them, their path was blocked by fierce dogs and a wall of humans armed with the odd walking stick.
A good ratting terrier is invaluable in such terrain. As the rats scurried, swerved and jumped to evade the chasing pack, the watching humans went into overdrive — every slight movement within the straw prompted shouts and frantic pointing — but the dogs retained their composure, and those that caught their targets showed why a vice-like grip and an ability to shake vigorously are essential.
However, one terrier did mistime its strike and the intended target hung on to its assailant’s face for dear life. Help was on hand for the terrier, though, as seconds later another Sealyham relieved its hunting partner of its scaly-tailed accessory. As the body count increased, a wheelbarrow acted as a temporary store, rapidly filling with the motionless corpses of the failed escapees.
Even the younger, less experienced Sealyhams started to join in with the hunting, but encountering something that bit back was clearly a new experience, and those dogs may need another year before they are ready to work. As the stack diminished, straw cuttings and husk choked both the human and canine questers. With their tongues dragging through the straw, the dogs were given plenty of water.
Rats in the bag
We had only been ratting for a few hours, and though the mixed pack worked a single stack of wheat measuring just 30 yards by 10 yards, they had accounted for 112 rats. This figure could have been higher, but several of the skittish yet daring rats made good their escape by launching themselves towards those onlookers who clearly didn’t share our passion for splatting rats. Parting like the Red Sea, they left the rats to scuttle off to the safe shelter of a leafy hedgerow.
I found the whole episode made for compelling viewing, and while some of those aforementioned spectators stepped back, I moved closer to the action. Ratting is deeply engrained in our sporting history, and its rich vein of camaraderie has the ability to bridge our varying cultures and classes — whether you wear the finest tweed, tatty wax jacket or something in between.
Heading for home through the leafy lanes, I sat back and pondered what the other participants must have made of the day. For the Working Sealyham Terrier Club it was about the promotion and survival of a rare breed of terrier; for the farmer it was about getting some good thatching straw, and for those of my ilk, it was all about catching rats.
Getting the opportunity to see so much action in such a short period of time — especially during the summer months — was a bonus. For me the day encapsulated the attraction of ratting: fun, toxin-free and environmentally friendly vermin control alongside the chance to share treasured moments with like-minded souls.
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