By Maggie George
I’m a traditionalist. In my book you can’t beat a proper homecooked Sunday lunch, complete with roast potatoes and fresh vegetables which have been home-grown by yours truly on the allotment. To follow, I’ll serve a lovely rib-sticking portion of my warm Herman-the-German Friendship cake drizzled all over with thick creamy custard. Just the job to keep the winter chills away. With this in mind, I popped up to my plot Saturday only to discover some little perisher had demolished my corn-on-the-cob crop. Every single plant had been maliciously stripped bare. The fat swollen cobs intended for my Sunday lunch had been enjoyed instead by some unseen thief in the night. Filled with outrage whilst at the same time perplexed as to what creature would have caused such wilful damage, I sought opinions from the old hands on the allotments as to the possible culprit. Their thoughts ranged from pigeon through to fox but the most popular idea was that it was the work of rats which, considering I had seen a rat the size of a small cat by the compost heap only a couple of weeks ago, seemed a fair assumption.
Now I have no problem with rats per se. Indeed, given the choice of discovering a large rat or a dirty great spider lurking in the depths of my shed I know which I would choose any day. Mr Incy-Wincy has me running for the hills while the highly intelligent rat, with his boot-button bright shiny eyes and bristly little whiskers I find to be rather an endearing creature. Actually, so it would appear did Beatrix Potter, for she kept one as a pet and used him for her inspiration in her various children’s books. It would appear however that I had acquired my very own version of her mean little rat, Samuel Whiskers amongst my vegetables! The rat has been a pet of sorts amongst the Great British public for a couple of hundred years. The poor, hapless creatures were used as gambling sport for the Victorian gent-about-town. Although the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835 had put an end (thankfully!), to cockfighting, bull-baiting and the like, the rat remained outside the scope of the Act and it must be remembered that our cities were overrun with rats, not least because of the lack of sanitation and filth in the streets. The rats were gathered up, as many as a hundred at a time and put into pits into which dogs would then be placed. The”sport” was to bet on whose dog would kill the most rats. With over seventy rat-pits in London alone, rat-baiting was an immensely popular sport, even having its own record-holding dogs. Billy the champion ratter set a world record in 1823 by despatching 100 rats to their Maker in just six & a half minutes. Considering the bet placed on him was twenty sovereigns, it’s not difficult to see why the sport drew such huge crowds.
So overrun with rats were our cities in the 1800s that rat catchers were highly sought after. London had its own rat catcher extraordinaire, Jack Black, who styled himself as “Rat and Mole Catcher to the Queen” for indeed, like most Londoners, Queen Victoria had a rat problem and so regularly welcomed him to Buckingham Palace. The entrepreneurial Black would travel around giving lectures and demonstrating how swiftly he was able to dispatch the rats with his poisons. Ever the showman, he would even place several live rats inside his clothing which was guaranteed to make the well-bred Victorian ladies faint at the sight. Ever mindful of a profit to be made, rather than killing all the rats he caught he would sell them on either to the rat-pit trade or, should he come across an unusual specimen, to elegant young Victorian ladies to keep as pets in cages.
I could have done with Jack Black at the allotment! It appears that rats are overtaking the human population in numbers at an alarming rate, possibly by two to one within the near future according to some sources. We’ve been using the same rat poisons since the 1950s and it seems they are now becoming immune to them and indeed mutating as a means of surviving. In true James Herbert style, we are seeing “Super Rats”on our streets and compost heaps for not only are they immune to the standard poisons, they are becoming larger too. In Cornwall a two foot rat was captured and Kent has reported rats of monster proportions too. New genetic testing shows that out of seventeen counties tested for poison-resistant rats, all counties tested had Super Rats immune to the usual poisons and yes, Kent and East Sussex are amongst them!
It seems fairly obvious that the changes in the way we deal with refuse collections are exacerbating the rats’ rise in numbers. They have a much more widely available larder, with more people composting their food waste than before, although apart from food waste, the rat will tuck into seeds, eggs or even tiny mammals should the fancy take him. Little wonder then that their numbers are rising at an alarming rate. A single pair of brown rats, (which Page Twenty far outnumber the smaller, plague-bringing black rats, rather amusingly called Rattus Rattus), can multiply to around two hundred in a single year and are incredibly adaptable to almost any environment. Indeed, Antarctica is the only continent not to have been colonised by the rat. Arriving to our shores somewhere around the 18th Century from Asia, Brown Rat is the original athlete, climbing, jumping and swimming with ease. He does have his problems though as he is both colour-blind and shortsighted, although his excellent sense of smell and keen hearing more than make up for that.
Not to be confused with the rat is the harmless, protected water vole. Made famous by Kenneth Grahame as “Rattie” in The Wind in theWillows, the water vole is recognisable by his short hairy tail and stubby face. In contrast, the brown rat’s long tail is completely devoid of hair and his face is typically picture-book rat, being long and pointed. Although a very capable swimmer, the water vole’s rotund little body bobs about in the water,(rather like me after a generous slice of Herman-the-German Friendship cake), whereas the rat swims with the ease of a torpedo. The Brown Rat is the only species of rat which occurs in sewers in the UK, so the reader should be heartened to learn that, should a rat sneak up into their toilet bowl to nip them smartly on the derriere, it’s unlikely to be the potentially plague-carrying Black Rat! The rat also carries diseases such as Weil’s disease and Rat Bite Fever. Although much more common abroad, there are around three deaths a year in the UK from Weil’s Disease, which is contracted through water contaminated with the urine of infected animals, although the figures of reported cases each year is rising. Andy Holmes, the Olympic gold-medallist rowing champion, died of Weil’s disease in 2010.
Armed with enough knowledge of the rat to understand how he behaves, it was time to set about sniffing out the local rat population in the vicinity of my precious crops. The rat likes to burrow and usually house-shares with several other rats, often around fourteen to a nest. Emerging to feed almost exclusively at night time, it is purely by chance that we see the odd one around during the day. They have a voracious sexual appetite, reaching maturity at three months. Perhaps this may explain why they spend even more time grooming themselves than a cat. After all, they may want to show a clean whisker to their lady-friend. Mind you, a rat’s frequent grooming is also a sign of contentment, so perhaps it’s the rat equivalent of a post-coital cigarette!
I needed to look for rat droppings. These are similar to a grain of brown rice and, considering the rat deposits around forty droppings a night, (no doubt in no small part to my vegetables providing roughage!), these should be reasonably apparent. Armed with a strong pair of spectacles and looking not too dissimilar to Indiana Jones seeking his Lost Arc, I set out across my patch, eyes cast downwards. However, after a fruitless hour-long search for droppings I decided it might be easier to look for other signs, such as rub marks along the sides of my shed and greenhouse. The rats like to use the same well-known routes, perhaps due to their poor eyesight, (we share that in common too, I’m as blind as a bat in the dark), and the grease from their bodies can leave stains against woodwork and pipes after a while. Sadly, there was no incriminating evidence to be found.
Undaunted, I looked for the obvious signs of rat-runs. As the rat is so short-sighted he likes to keep to the same route and because he’s constantly urinating to give himself a scent to follow, nothing will grow along his pathway. But sadly, there was nothing to indicate his presence. There was nothing else for it then but to go after dark and listen out for them. Perhaps I would be able to detect the sounds of bruxing. For the uninitiated amongst you, this is the name given to the rats grinding their teeth. Rats’ teeth never stop growing and they grind them to lick them (no pun intended) into the desired shape and sharpness. Perhaps I might hear instead the sound of the rats chomping their teeth, although I wouldn’t like that as it denotes aggression, (I know someone who grinds his teeth at night, but let’s not dwell on that thought too much). After more than two hours’ fruitless searching, I had still not located a rat nor a single tell-tale sign of one either. Frustrated, cold and wet and certainly not looking forward to the prospect of seeking them out at night, I decided to repair back to the house and the warmth of the central heating. After all, what would I have done if I had confronted one? Certainly I wouldn’t have been able to dispatch one to Rat Heaven. I’m afraid it would have to be done humanely but not by me.
“Rye’s Own” November 2014
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