Monday, 24 April 2017


You know what they say:

'You're never more than six feet away from a rat.'

'Rats desert a sinking ship.'

Or what they sing: 'There's a rat in mi kitchen, what am I gonna do?'

Whether scientific truth, song lyric or urban myth, rats gravitate to human habitation.

No wonder. Humans, who throw away perfectly nutritious scraps as waste, feed birds, scatter seeds, must seem generous, even extravagant hosts to your average hungry rat.

Round here in South Yorkshire, the Brown Rat (Rattus Norvegicus) is our most frequent guest.

As regular readers know, I grew up in a nineteenth century railway cottage sandwiched between two farms, surrounded by farmland in a little mining valley. No surprise that rats featured in our daily lives.

We once found an overflowing nest of rats wriggling under my dad's garage where his motorbike and sidecar lived.

I'd read a storybook where the Rat King was a villain. The name "rat-king", I later learned, referred to a mysterious ring of rats stuck together by their knotted tails. Mythologised in folklore, preserved in museums and cabinets of curiosities, a 'rat-king' was once thought to be a cryptozoological phenomenon, taken by the superstitious as a bad omen.

These baby rats in the nest didn't seem very villainous to me.
Just tiny and vulnerable.

But for adults, they seemed much less welcome than other wildlife. The rats were disposed of without recourse to ratcatchers or environmental health. They had lives and needs and stories just like every other creature in the garden and fields beyond. It's just that humans recognise rats as a source of disease and danger. We discourage their residency, unless they're "fancy" and so kept as pets. We reject wild rats as enthusiastically as we welcome other animals to share our living space.

Our cat, also a refugee from a neighbouring farm, would often arrive at the back door, making that eerie gargling yowl of sadistic menace every cat owner recognises. She had a trophy in her mouth, preventing her from making a more musical miaow. If it was still fluttering, it was a bird. If it was small, a mouse, shrew or vole had met its fate in her jaws. Anything more cumbersome was invariably a rat. The birds and smaller rodents were rescued and freed. A captured rat was more likely to meet the wrong end of the coal shovel before being disposed of in the dustbin.
Much to the cat's disgust.

In my garden today, I see all sorts of welcome wildlife. Bank Vole, Field Mouse, Hedgehog, Grey Squirrel.

Then there's the Rat.

His arrival is less an occasion for reaching for the camera and notebook, and more for clapping and shooing. He's quite large, but predictable. He always follows the same course, his "rat run" between my garden and the neighbours'. He stops to feast under the bird feeders until he sees me move. Instantly he's off, often before any serious clapping and shooing can ensue.

One day I hurried to the spot under the hedge where he'd disappeared. I stamped my foot and did my best impression of a strangled cat, followed by what I hoped was a bloodcurdling growl. Then I became aware that my neighbour was out washing the patio and decided that strategy might well get me certified. Still, the rat didn't return. For half a day.

I'm quite envious of my mother's rats. They seem to live fast and die young. She lives in a middle terrace in a row of two-up-two-downs in a mining village ten miles away, not far from where I was born. No farms now, but more people. Rats are thriving. Her loft, where the electrics and water tanks are, joins on to the houses on either side. The rats have a clear run along the length of the terraces, at roof-level.

Most of the time they leave no evidence. No obvious droppings. No sounds of scratching or scampering. Their shenanigans are only exposed when the lights go out. When the electric cuts out altogether, that is.

Three times over the past couple of years, when the electric has unexpectedly gone off, a local workman has climbed up to see what's caused the power cut.

Short circuit?

Surge in the electric current?

No. There on the rafters lays the culprit.



A rat with its teeth still clamped onto the wire it had been chewing.

Recently the firewalls between the old loft spaces have been plugged, the electric wires reinforced. The rats will have nowhere to run.

But like us, rats are evolving.

They'll be gathering round in their mysterious rat-king huddles, having a quick snifter from the birdbath and plotting their next move to outwit those pesky humans.

Still have no idea how this little rodent ended up dead in a hanging feeder.
I suspect it might have been dropped by an owl or other flying predator.

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