Friday, May 20, 2022

From the 1930s novel, “Psalmist of the Dawn” – local activity: rat hunting

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Chris Murray, The Lord Howe Island Signal

From the mid-1920s until 1941, when the palm seed exports collapsed during World War II, ratting was no recreational pastime, but an obligation for all Islanders who received income from palm seed sales via the Island Board’s shareholding system (and that included all Island men, women and children).

Rat tails
Rat tails were placed in match boxes to facilitate counting and the payment of the rat-tail bounty.

As an incentive, a bounty was paid per rat tail which peaked at 6d per tail in the late 1920s. Once a month, the tails were tallied by the Island Advisory Committee and each catch was recorded in a book, with a ‘dividend’ per tail subsequently paid by the Board.

Records kept by the Lord Howe Island Board of Control show the dramatic fall in palm seed yield between 1918 (when the rats arrived) and 1925 when a determined hunting program was initiated using dogs, traps and light shotguns. A report by Board member G.P. Darnell-Smith to the Kew Botanic Gardens in 1929, chronicles the rapid decline in palm seed yields: 1919 – 4498 bushels; 1920 – 3636 bushels; 1921 – 2635 bushels; 1922 – 1664 bushels; 1923 -1084 bushels; 1924 – 1334 bushels; 1925 – 877 bushels; These figures demonstrate the enormous damage done by rats to palm seed production.

Once rat hunting commenced, encouraged by the bounty on rat tails, the number of rats caught was prodigious: over four months, from June to September 1927, the Board’s records show that 6719 rats were caught and destroyed. Thereafter, yields improved but even so a visiting journalist M.S.R Sharland wrote in 1927: “ Before the rat invasion the industry meant as, much as £10,000 a year to the island, but conditions now are still far from normal, and the annual revenue from the sale of the seeds would probably not reach two thirds of that amount.” These records directly chronicle the impact of rats on the Island’s economy, flora and bird life.

Mary Marlowe takes up the story of a typical rat hunt in some detail: Marty Phipps, Nip Gurney, Uncle Bob Stanton and Bartholomew Bridgeman (aka Mick Nichols, Phil Dignam, Phil Payten and Will Whiting) do battle with ‘Rattus rattus’, observed by the heroine of the novel, Bryony Browne (or was that really Mary Marlowe?):

“The road gang turned the bend of the botanical gardens [near Beachcomber Lodge] and came up top Bryony and Uncle Bob. Nip Gurney was in the cart. It was heaped high with soft loam. Bartholomew Bridgman walked beside the horse and clucked at him. Two dogs of the fox terrier persuasion rushed to join Marty’s dog at the old banyan [where a rat was hiding].

Marty called his dog Nought. It referred to his breeding.

Bridgeman flopped down on the garden seat placed opposite Uncle Bob’s House for all and sundry.

‘How about a drink of water, Bob?’ Hot work this road mending.”

Uncle Bob went inside to get drinks for them all. A tall jug of cool water drawn from a canvas waterbag hanging in the shade of a greybark tree and a couple of those upturned tumblers from the dining room. A simple shout.

… The dogs, all three of them, were quivering at the rumps and lifting their forepaws from the ground in anticipation of jumping for the rat the instant it should appear out of the banyan log … Uncle Bob cut a long palm leaf and stripped the leaves off with his plunder knife. He gave it to Marty crouching at one end of the log trying to look down the inside of it.

Rat hunting
Rat hunting: an Islander attempting to flush out rats with the aid of smoke and three fox terrier dogs – it could almost have been the scene from the novel. Note the light shotgun beside the Islander, used to shoot those rats that took to trees.

A rat in a rotten log and three dogs for the kill! What racecourse could beat it for a sport? thought Uncle Bob … Marty shoved the stripped palm-stem down the log and moved it about freely.

Nought was at the other end waiting for the rat to lose confidence and leave his stronghold. Tongue out, eyes crisping, the muscles of his spine rippling, the curl of his nose showed he had the true scent.

‘There he goes! Look-there-there!…You fool! Glory! Can you beat that for a fool!’

The rat made a dexterous exit down Nought’s end and scurried for cover into a high heap of garden rubbish. All three dogs scented him and changed their guard. Three black muzzles pointed to the sky. Three sets of nostrils quivered. Six bright brown eyes glowed with hate.

Bridgeman, with an agility not to be suspected in such a round man, jumped into the middle of the garbage heap and stamped it down. The dogs spread out for the catch …

Like a flash of forked lightning the thing was out of the rubbish again and – an evil streak eight inches [20 cm] long – it ran up the nearest tree. At ten feet or more [3 metres or more] the leafage hid it. The rat took the tree’s colour.

Dogs cannot climb trees but these Island dogs can guard a prisoner … Marty and Bridgeman shook the tree.

In the whirlwind they made nothing could stay in the tree that did not grow on it. The rat fell out and darted back to the rubbish-heap. The dogs brought their open jaws together with a vicious click- disappointed. Bridgeman was up on that heap again, jumping like a ten-year old. They must have that rat.

Again the hunted thing fled for the banyan and gained it. The dogs changed guard again… ‘Take a stick and shove it down your end’, said Marty to Nip Marty squatted near Majordomo [Bridgeman’s dog] at the opening to the log and cupped his hands in case the thing should come out that way …

Out of the banyan it came, taking quick cover in a small banyan log lying close beside. The dogs closed in. So did Marty. The rat realised his mistake. Retreat cut off, dogs perilously near, he was cornered now. He scuffled inside the broken limb and leapt for the open. Majordomo made a forward movement with his head without changing his guard or moving his feet.

‘Got him!’ cried Marty triumphantly. ‘Majordomo’s got him!’

Majordomo’s teeth snapped together on the rat’s backbone. The rat was dead from that instant.

Bridgeman came up to his dog. ‘Drop him Major’.

Majordomo dropped the rat at his master’s feet and looked up for approval. …

Bridgeman cut off the tail with his plunder knife and put it in his belt wallet. He dug a shallow hole near the rubbish-heap, scrapped the rat corpse in with the point of his knife, dug the knife into the soft earth two or three times and replaced it in its sheath.

A little later in the chapter, these words are put into Uncle Bob’s (Phil Payten’s) mouth:

“The mags have got the rats well-bluffed. I’ve seen them in the tall trees waiting to pounce on the beggars, and they’re cunning. Once they would go up high – into the tall Kentia palms. Now they only go into the low ones where the leaves will hide them. You get a fine chance to shoot them that way”.

Phil Dignam
A young Phil Dignam aka Nip Gurney (Handsome devil!)

Also Nip Gurney (Phil Dignam) gives this dissertation in the novel about the arrival of the rats on Lord Howe and their impact on the bird life:

“They [the rats) came off the Makambo the time she was stranded on the rocks off Ned’s Beach They couldn’t get her afloat again until the cargo was taken off and brought ashore. The rats came in the cargo. We didn’t notice them at first. It must have been a year before we really knew they were with us.

They ate the [palm] seed and killed the birds, and then we woke up – when it was too late … Everything was done to get rid of them … They were in the undergrowth and in the ground.

When they couldn’t get the birds, they took their eggs. Only the stronger birds have been able to survive and fight for their existence …

You know…when I was a kid the ground was thick with birds…The little doctor birds would come from the trees at sunset – flocks of them. Almost under your foot as you walked, and they’d just move aside to let you pass. Not a bit scared. Afraid of nothing – of nobody. And the little fantails. Flycatchers we called them. They’d actually come into the house and catch the flies. They were only the size of your finger, but very important little things when they spread their tails. The doves have thinned out, too, and the yellow breasted robins. Sixteen years ago, when I was a kid, this place was a bird’s paradise. If we could get rid of the rats it would be again.”

[LHI Signal] Editor’s note: Lord Howe currently aspires to become one of about 40 Australian Islands that are rodent free. Let’s hope that the current incursion of rats has been dealt with successfully, as we seem to be on the way to reviving that “birds paradise” described by Nip (Phil) judging by the explosion of numbers of Woodhens, Rails, Currawongs, Silvereyes and Kingfishers, not to mention seabirds like the Black-winged petrel. No doubt the palms, and many other Island plants whose seeds were eaten by rats, will also enjoy a renaissance. Residents who haven’t already done so, should take a walk to Boat Harbour to see the number of Pandanus seedlings germinating in the valleys along the way – remarkable!

The Lord Howe Island Signal 30 September 2021

This article appeared in The Lord Howe Island Signal, 30 September 2021.



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