Richard North, 30/10/2020  

One largely predictable side effect of the Covid-19 epidemic has been a plague of rats and mice infesting private homes. This is recorded in a brief article last July, which reports that lockdown has left thousands of UK residents with unwanted visitors, 'as rat and mice infestations have rocketed'.

Data obtained by the insurer Aviva found rat infestations had increased by 42 percent during lockdown for one company - JG Pest Control - which provided a pest control service for "Home Emergency" customers.

In total, between March and June 2020, the company saw an increase of 120 percent for rodent-related call outs, compared to the same period in 2019. The number of residential rodent cases for the first half of 2020 was equivalent to 90 percent of comparable cases for the whole of 2019.

There is a range of possible reasons for this increase but the most obvious and plausible is the closure or reduced activity of restaurants and pubs. Rats and mice which have hitherto been reliant on food waste from these premises have found these sources drying up, triggering migration in search of new food supplies.

To this phenomenon I can readily attest. Just before going into hospital at the beginning of this month, I noticed a solitary rat in the garden – a first to my recollection as I do not recall ever having seen rodents there before.

By the time I had secured my release from the embrace of the NHS, I was greeted by the sight of several rats in our garden – two in one sighting - cavorting in the open, in broad daylight.

It quickly became apparent that their source of food was the seed we put out each day on the bird table. The rats would wait under the table for the birds to scatter the seed onto the floor, feeding off the fallen grain. During the night, I then found rats climbing onto the bird table platform to feed off the left-overs.

It is a rule of thumb in the pest control business that if you see rats in the open in daylight, then there are a lot more hiding in cover watching them. I knew we had a serious problem.

The first and most obvious thing to do was to cease feeding the birds, leaving small flocks of disconsolate birds and the neighbouring roofs, vainly waiting for their rations. By then, neighbours had noticed the rodent activity and our nearest also cooperated in cutting out the food supply.

The next step was to tackle the infestation directly. In the open, I was reluctant to use poison, as there is always a chance you end up killing innocent wildlife. And in any case, the bait doesn't last long in this weather.

So it was off to Mr Amazon's website to arrange the purchase and next-day delivery of a bargain package of three cage traps. At £23, that was precisely one third of the charge for a single visit from the council pest controller.

Placing traps is something of an art. You look for "rat runs" and set the traps along the line of travel, preferably against a linear feature such as a wall. For bait, the crucial thing is to use the stuff the rats are already feeding on. In this case, that was easy. I used bird seed.

Success wasn't long in coming. You expect trap-shyness. The rats normally won't go near anything new in their environment for a few days, but on day two an adult female had sprung one of the traps.

The next step was to identify the harbourage. In a small garden that was a relatively easy process – they had burrowed under the ground ivy around the edge of the garden. So it became a matter of cutting back the ivy and clearing out the leaves and autumnal debris to expose the burrows – something I really wanted to do, just out of hospital.

Rat holes were treated to a generous portion of Yorkshire Water's finest product, delivered via a hosepipe. They were then filled in with earth and compacted. Daily observation shows them to be undisturbed.

Depriving the rats of cover exposes them to predators – i.e., the local cat population, which now has sufficient incentive to climb my "cat proof" fencing. That's another job to do, in good time.

So far, we've seen cats make away with two rats, and my traps have claimed six – two in one trap this evening. There are still more. I've seen two adult males, but haven't caught any yet. With luck, they'll move on.

However, the last two captures were juveniles, indicating that we have a breeding colony. With a gestation of about three weeks, and weaning over a similar period – females producing up to ten progeny in each litter – rats can breed faster than we can deal with them, unless we stay on top of the problem.

For the moment, though, I'm not seeing any rats in daylight, and night sightings have become rare. I have a CCTV camera on part of the garden, with a monitor in my office, so I can keep an eye on what is happening.

At least there is some consolation in knowing that I'm not alone. The Daily Star has just run a lurid headline proclaiming: "Birmingham named rat capital of the UK - and the pandemic is to blame". Edinburgh is proving to be the rat capital of Scotland.

Everywhere, pest controllers are reporting record calls in October, again with the belief that the lockdown has created an ideal habitat for the rat with careless waste habits, vacant shops and quiet streets leading to a breeding frenzy across the country. Technicians out on the road are said to have seen nothing like this before.

When I think about it though, my visitors have not really chosen the right place to set down roots. Picking the home of an ex-environmental health officer – experienced in dealing with infestations - is not a life-enhancing move. Trouble they may be for the moment, but their days are numbered.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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