GARDINER, Maine — After spending this summer trying to rid his farm of an increasing number of rats, Andrew Doiron had hardly made a dent in their numbers. It was time to loose the hounds.
Or, in this case, three professionally trained rat terrier dogs — commonly called “ratters” — which can search out and destroy vermin with laser-like precision.
The rats never stood a chance. By the time the dust had settled at Doiron’s WhyNot Farms last week, the final tally was dogs 11, rats 0.
Rats and other vermin are often part of life on a farm, but since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, rodents have become a major issue. That’s according to Wendy Berry of Barrington, New Hampshire, who travels with her ratter dogs to farms around New England leaving a trail of dead rats in their wake.
It’s what brought her to Maine the first week in November for the rat hunt at WhyNot Farms in Gardiner.
“I saw a post about Wendy on social media awhile back and started investigating what she did,” Doiron said. “But rats were not an issue for me until they were an issue for me.”
Doiron said the rats started showing up in great numbers a few months after the pandemic started in 2020.
“I started seeing evidence of them,” Doiron said. “Then I started seeing them at night when I put the chickens away.”
So Doiron and several other Maine farmers with rat issues of their own reached out to Berry. The group met online throughout the summer and scheduled the hunts for last week.
From left (clockwise): Wendy Berry discusses the upcoming rat hunt with homesteader Andrew Doiron on Why Not Farms; Ratter Freddie is peers intently into a rat burrow on the trail of a rodent; Ratters Blitz, left, and Freddie admire their kill on Why Not Farms; Ratter Lola takes a break from digging into a rat burrow on Why Not Farms. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN
By the time Berry pulled up to WhyNot Farms with three of her dogs, a small crowd of curious onlookers had already gathered to watch their first ever rat hunt.
Berry opened the passenger side door of her truck and out popped standard rat terriers Blitz, her daughter Lola and standard-Decker cross Frederica — Freddie for short.
Within seconds they were criss-crossing Doiron’s chicken yard picking up the scent of rats and ignoring the clamor raised by the flock of clearly agitated chickens.
“Before I train them to hunt rats, I train the dogs to not go after farm animals,” Berry said. “And we work on basic commands before I ever take them out into the field.”
Berry got her first ratter in 2009 when she discovered a rat problem on her farm. She said she did not want to use poison to kill the rodents and in researching more natural methods of control, discovered rat dogs.
No rats escaped the trio on WhyNot Farms.
The first rat was discovered in a pile of old firewood within minutes of starting the hunt. The three dogs frantically climbed up and over the rotted wood, digging at the side of an adjacent shed for all they were worth.
At the same time, Doiron and Berry pulled away the wood away so the dogs could get to the rats. As soon as a rat made a break for it, the dogs were on it and with incredible speed, Blitz had grabbed it, given it a good shake and broken its neck. She then proudly carried it out into the open yard for all to admire before the dogs moved on to a shed near the chicken coop.
“They work as a team and had to figure out on their own what their roles are,” Berry said.
When Doiron used his tractor to jack the old shed up a foot or so off the ground, a half-dozen rats ran for cover out one side — and almost over the feet of his father-in-law. The dogs were right behind them.
The rats all ran under a pile of old lumber and as the dogs tracked back and forth over the boards, Berry instructed Doiron and some of his friends how to move the boards to flush the rats toward the dogs.
From left (clockwise): Ratter Lola dashes off with a freshly killed rat on Why Not Farm; Wendy Berry discusses rat anatomy with homesteader Andrew Doiron on Why Not Farms; Wendy Berry praises her rat terrier Blitz for a successful rat kill on Why Not Farm; Ratters Blitz and Freddie fight over a rat caught on Why Not Farms. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN
“That’s why I don’t go to a farm without the homeowner being there,” Berry said. “I need them to move stuff.”
As soon as the last boards were pulled up, the dogs were diving in, coming up with rats in their jaws. Sometimes two or more of the dogs each had ahold of a single rat, but it did not take long for them to lose interest in a dead rodent when there were live ones yet to be caught.
“If it’s a really busy location the dogs will grab a rat, shake it, break the neck, drop it and go on to the next one,” Berry said.
It’s that efficiency that originally gave Berry the idea to start offering rat hunts. She said the dogs got bored after clearing the rodents on her farm.
“I decided to see if any other farms would be interested and when I threw it out there on Facebook, I had 181 hits in an hour so we took it on the road,” she said.
Her rat season starts in May with three or four a week. By June her dogs are hunting six to eight times a week. Things come to a halt during the hot weather, then pick up toward the fall. The season ends when the ground freezes.
Berry said the biggest single day catch her dogs had was 75 rats. At another farm, they caught 58 rats in an hour.
Doiron’s hunt was a slower hunt, Berry said, but the 11 rats caught and killed at WhyNot Farms could prevent a potential population explosion.
“A single rat can produce 1,000 babies in a year so it’s a situation, if ignored, it can get out of hand really quickly,” Berry said.
COVID has made the situation worse because when all the restaurants and schools shut down there was no food being tossed into dumpsters. Berry said the rats looked elsewhere for food.
No matter how well kept and clean a farm is, it’s still a smorgasbord for rodents. Dropped or spilled feed and compost piles are all-you-can-eat buffets for rats.
Keeping food secured in metal containers and controlling when you feed is crucial, Berry said.
Doiron has reduced the amount of food he gives his chickens in the afternoon, which means they eat most or all of what they spill instead of leaving it behind for the rats.
“Rats follow humans,” Doiron said. “Because we are creatures of habit the rats learn when we go out and feed and when we are gone so they can have the whole day to themselves to look for food.”
Doiron estimates he trapped 50 or so rats over the summer and was thrilled to have Berry’s dogs take care of the rest.
“The hunt exceeded my expectations,” Doiron said. “Plus, it was a blast of an experience — and that may sound like a bit of a Maine hick-ish thing to say, but it was something not many people have seen.”
The next morning, Doiron was removing any piles of old wood or other farming detritus under which future rats could find shelter. Berry said that helps keep rats from gaining another foothold.
Berry does not have a set fee for the service she and the dogs provide, instead organizing rat hunts for donations.
The dogs are in it purely for the fun.
“They sleep really well on the way home,” Berry said. “I love them and reward them with kisses — once their mouths are clean and I give them a breath mint.”