A few weeks ago Joanne Chandler from West Wickham saw a rat. ‘I was in the queue for Sainsbury’s,’ she says. ‘And it was just sitting there in the sun, bold as brass, having a little sunbathe.’
Chandler had never seen a rat near her house before. In fact, it was such a surprise that she didn’t quite believe it. ‘We had this discussion about whether it was a rat or a mouse,’ she explains. ‘And I put a picture of it up on Facebook and everyone was saying that is a rat.’
It was the first of three the charity worker would see around her neighbourhood that fortnight. Her cat dropped one off on her patio – ‘she got it in her mouth and ran off with it, she must have done something dastardly to it’ – and then two days later she saw another one running up her rose bush. ‘That one was quite big.’
Chandler’s rat story isn’t an isolated incident. The British Pest Control Association (BPCA) says it’s seen a 51 percent increase in rat activity since lockdown started. In the US there are reports of ‘armies’ of emboldened rats ruling city streets, fighting over turf and even turning cannibal, in cities New York, New Orleans and Chicago. Meanwhile, tens of Londoners have told Time Out that they’ve seen more (and bolder) rats in parks and near their homes. We heard about a brazen bunch of rats scaring a dog in Clissold Park, a big rodent discovered living it up in Hackney City Farm (now the animals have been moved elsewhere) and rats having to be led out of a flat window via a staircase made of books. They were being spotted in places they hadn’t been seen before, they were out in the daytime, and it didn’t seem like they were scared of humans. Good stuff.
But what’s actually going on? Do we need to call in some sinister Pied Piper character to lead all the rats out of town? Is the New Normal one where rodents are in charge? We got in the experts in to find out.
The first thing you need to know about rats, says pest controller Vicki Sims from Lady Bug Pest Control, is that they’re born survivors: ‘They’ll adapt to their environment extremely quickly – and they’re very brave.’
London’s rats live largely in the sewers beneath our city, coming up to the surface when they need to get food, water or material for nests. Up until recently they did that at night (they’re traditionally nocturnal) and in the centre of town where restaurants and bars provided huge amounts of waste for them to rummage around in. Now that those venues are closed? They’re travelling.
Sims says that she has seen a 30 percent year-on-year increase in calls from domestic clients about rats over the past two months. ‘The rats are having to go a little bit further now to find food, venturing closer to our homes,’ she says. The allure of residential areas is even greater thanks to the reduced bin collection service since lockdown was announced. ‘The rats will know about the bins,’ she says. ‘I know this sounds really silly to say but they will.’
London’s migrating rats might have stayed scurrying in the darkness if it weren’t for the dramatic way lockdown has changed the city’s streets. Once busy and full of threats – cars! Humans! Buses! – the new, quieter London is a playground for wildlife, like the lovely deer spotted in east London, and also... rats.
Natalie Bungay, technical officer of the BPCA, says: ‘Less footfall on city streets means rodents are more confident to go out and seek food sources in places where maybe they haven’t.’ Sims says this means we’re probably seeing behaviours normally performed under cover of darkness, in the daylight as the rats might be ‘feeling braver to come out and explore their environment a little bit more’. This includes seemingly sunbathing outside a supermarket.
‘When you go into a basement with rats in, you really feel them watching you,’ she says. ‘I’ve seen one creep past me before when it thinks I’m not looking. Sometimes they sit still and freeze. They’re very brazen.’
But what about the cannibalism? Bungay says that it’s something rats do as a very last resort. ‘Put rats in a situation where they have had no food,’ she says, ‘and a rat from the top of their hierarchy will start attacking younger or weaker rats.’ Both she and Sims say it’s nothing to worry about, though – it happened before lockdown. Sims adds that fighting is pretty common between groups of rats: ‘It’s totally normal. It happens throughout the animal kingdom: males fighting over females, animals fighting over food.’
Overall, Bungay says there’s no need to be too concerned about the rise of the rats. She believes that when life goes back to normal so will rat activity. ‘They’ll follow the lure of food back to central areas full of restaurants and bars.’ Although, she also adds that the rats we’re seeing now in our parks and houses might have been there all along. ‘More could be getting reported because people are being more vigilant,’ she says. ‘Perhaps there’s an increase in reports in domestic properties because people are normally at work, or normally sleeping better at night.’
If the idea of that makes you feel like you’ve been living under a quiet rat siege for decades without realising it, know that there are things that you can do to keep your house or flat a rodent-free zone. Try and keep waste that’s lying around to a minimum. Don’t have bird feeders. Check your flat for potential entry points like holes. Make sure your food is kept in plastic sealed containers so rats can’t smell it. And, most of all, don’t rely on your cat. ‘It makes me laugh when people say they’re getting a cat to scare off a rat,’ says Sims. ‘I’ve seen rats fight them off very easily.’ It seems like Joanne Chandler’s mog must have been a proper hard nut, then.
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