Some Rats I’ve Met

by Will Rickerby

(Published New Zealand Hunting & Wildlife, 159, January/March 2008)


It was a cold night, a lot warmer inside the hut than out, and there was always the chance of food, as far as the rat was concerned. The snoring of the two hunters did not disturb it either. They had placed their food in plastic bags and hung them from one of the rafters in the hut. This was in the old Te Iringa Hut well before it was burnt down. The rat climbed onto a lower bunk, up onto the hunter’s sleeping bag and then onto the hunter’s warm hand, which was lying outside his sleeping bag. The movement of the rat woke the hunter and with a scream and a violent flick of his hand, flung the rat across the hut. It landed on the face of his mate, asleep in a bunk nearby. The combined effect of the scream and something landing on his face, made the mate jerk bolt upright. In doing so, he unfortunately struck his head on the beam above his bunk and knocked himself out. He revived but spent the rest of the night with a severe headache, while his mate wore gloves to bed from that trip on. The rat escaped unharmed.

Any rat that runs across my sleeping bag makes the hairs on the back of my neck  stand up and sure gives me the ‘creeps’. When they start scampering across one’s face, it is enough to make any ‘he-man’ macho hunter tremble like jelly. We could do without the species I’m sure, but they are here and in abundance.

Rattus norvegicus or Norway or Brown rat, together with a close relation, the Ship rat or Rattus rattus are widespread throughout our forestlands. These rats do considerable damage to our native bird and plant life besides causing the occasional disruption during the hours of darkness to many a campsite or hut. The Norway rat is thought to have originated in Siberia. Great hordes moved west during 1727, reaching England before 1730 and probably arrived in this country during the late 1700’s.

By the mid 1850’s they were common throughout New Zealand. It is believed that the Ship rat arrived about the same time, but took until the late 1800’s to become widespread throughout the country.

Pureora’s Waihaha Hut has a notable history of rat tales. For many years, a huge rat would make its appearance from the back of the stone fireplace soon after dark. It was huge: from the port bottle with the candle stuck in the top, to the hole on the right of the fireplace was 28 inches long and the rat took all that space with its tail not completely clear of the hole. It has been estimated that most rats survive no longer than twelve months with the female of the species living longest. We figured that this rat was the queen rat and called her ‘the dragon’. It was adept at dodging the flames and collecting scraps of food that had not been burnt. Only the chance of ricocheting projectiles hindered any hunter from taking a shot, so as the night progressed, the rat would venture further afield from the fireplace, cleaning up any food left out and delving into packs and gear. On one trip, the rat got itself isolated from the fireplace by avenging victims, but escaped down a hole under one of the bunks. My hut mate grabbed his 30-06 and torch, and rushed outside. I withdrew my head from the safety of my sleeping bag and from the top bunk looked down at the torchlight filtering through the gaps in the hut floor. A moment later, a very large boom more than echoed throughout the building. For an instant the gaps in the hut floor seemed to glow, followed by puffs of accumulated dust rising a couple of inches above the floor.Topics of conversation around young hunters’ campfires revolve around prospects for the next day, sex, future hunts (both two and four-legged game), sex, booze, and sex. While old timers talk about past hunts and missed opportunities (both two and four legged game), past hunts, aches and pains and past hunts. They also talk a fair bit about the old days and past hunts. Sometimes they tell stories about rats

“I had three chances,” my friend said, upon re-entering the hut. “If the bullet and concussion didn’t get him, I reckon the muzzle flame would have!”

Perhaps a singed rear end increased the rat’s appetite because after about two hours it was heard checking out the fireplace ashes.

Many years later, a young hunter was keen to knobble some of the plentiful rats running around the hut. Mark combed the hut and surrounds, searching for any material that could be made into a trap. All sorts of schemes and ideas were presented and trialled, from axes balancing over blocks of wood, figure four traps, to even constructing a bow and arrow from a lancewood sapling. Partial success came from the idea of presenting an empty spaghetti tin, with the top open and held in place against the wall with logs. Two jagged pieces were cut in the bottom so that if a rat placed its head into the tin, the two jagged pieces would have the same effect as a barb on a fishhook. Finally, a piece of food placed inside the tin.

Later that night, a rat running around the hut floor with Mark’s tin firmly attached around the rat’s head awakened us all. A ‘rip-roaring’ chase by the hut’s human occupants began after the rat, but even though the tin handicapped its vision, it managed to escape, tin-trap included, out the hut window.

Over the next year, we began to hear stories about the “iron faced” rat of Waihaha Hut. It seemed that this rat, far from being handicapped by the spaghetti tin around its head, used the tin as an efficient aid for food gathering. It would back into a hole on the fireplace surround, with the tin seemingly to be just another empty tin sitting on the fireplace surround. Eventually, some hunter or tramper visiting the hut would drop the odd leftover of food or perhaps an apple core or cigarette butt into the tin. The rat would quietly chew the apple and even have a puff from the cigarette to finish off. What more could a rat want?

If by chance someone picked up the tin to throw it out, they would see or feel the rat’s body and feet dangling from the bottom of the tin. There was always either a curse or screech, not always male or female respectively, and the tin would be dropped enabling the rat to make its escape.

On another occasion, several club members went on a hunt to Skips Hut, in the Urewera’s. A couple of resident bow hunters produced some good-natured rivalry between bows verses rifles for hunting. During the discussion, the bow hunters told of their competition with each species rating a certain number of points. A rat for example, was worth one point. The next day, Peter spotted a rat upon the outdoor table top and called to one of the bow hunters,
“Hey mate, there’s a one pointer on the bench out there”.

The bow hunter grabbed his bow, strung an arrow, went to the door of the hut, and took aim. Meanwhile, one of the younger club riflemen sprang in behind the archer.
“Where, where!” he asked, fumbling with bullets and rifle.
Turning in puzzlement to the excited youngster,
“On the bench”, Peter replied.
The promising young hunter then began looking across the river to the bench (or flat) for a one point antlered deer. Needless to say, the rat escaped unharmed but the young hunter suffered plenty of ribbing.

One really troublesome rat occupied one of my favourite Kaipo River campsites. The campsite was under the spread of a large beech tree and its branches provided good cover, from both the sun and rain. This particular rat stole Peter’s deer jawbone, chewed our supply of camp meat, and then started on Peter’s bootlaces while tea was being prepared. That was the ‘last boot lace’ as far as Peter was concerned. He took his 308 rifle and fired a shot down the hole at the base of the beech tree, through which the rat had disappeared. The rat would survive, no doubt, but it gave Pete some noisy psychological satisfaction.

   White Spirit Rat

Not for long, because, before we could finish eating our tea, the rat (surely now a little deaf) was scampering around in some ferns near the same hole. Anticipating a probable sleep free night, I took a bottle of white spirits fuel, poured a good amount down the hole, and dropped a match nearby.

Rat tree

There was a deep thud, ground shook and a flame leaped out from the hole at least a meter high. Both Peter and I were standing well clear, a little apprehensive at the use of the white spirits, when suddenly, from a branch on the beech tree, the rat appeared, enveloped in flame, and raced along a branch that overhung the river.  The branch was covered in moss, and as the rat ran along, patches of moss burst into flame. Reaching the end of the branch, the rat then dropped into the river, producing a little cloud of hissing steam.

We had no further trouble with rats on that trip, and strangely, although we camped there many times in later years, we never saw another rat at that camp spot. I could even sleep there without wearing my gloves.

(Illustrations by Will Rickerby)