Monday, February 11, 2008

Plague of rats as UK turns wetter

Even cars are at risk as floods and building sites drive out rodents from their underground lairs

This article appeared in the Observer on Sunday February 10 2008 on p24 of the News section. It was last updated at 00:27 on February 10 2008.

Driven out of sewers by summer floods and an urban building boom, then nurtured by warmer winters and the leftovers of fast food, rats have been moving into homes, gardens and even cars around the country.

Rat-catchers and companies selling poison and traps are reporting a boom in business, with urban housing estates among the worst affected areas. Long-term growth in rodent populations is also blamed on a decline in 'sewer-baiting', the practice of laying down poison twice a year to prevent rat numbers building up underground.

Because rats breed on average five times a year, with seven or eight in each litter, growth can be rapid. The recent surge in numbers has been linked to a boom in urban development - not least the preparations for the 2012 London Olympics - and last summer's floods, which drove rats out from underground, through holes and cracks in pipes and drains.

Rentokil, the UK's largest pest control company, said demand rose by more than a quarter last year as hits on its website trebled. Killgerm, the country's biggest seller of rat poison, said sales rose by a quarter in 2007.

Rentokil estimates there are 65 million to 80 million rats in Britain, eating their way through 210 tonnes of food a year. This compares with an estimated 45 million to 50 million a decade ago, a rise of nearly 40 per cent, though the company admits such calculations are 'not an exact science'. The biggest increases appear to have been in the south of England, western Scotland and Northern Ireland; only East Anglia and the south Midlands reported a fall. 'It's a bit like crime statistics: it's difficult to tell whether the number of incidents has gone up, or if the reporting is more prevalent,' said Rentokil's UK managing director, Jed Kenrick. 'But there's no doubt that the number of calls we're getting about rodents is significantly up on 12 months ago.' Rats can spread diseases to humans through their urine, including Weil's disease and salmonella, though the Health Protection Agency said cases which could be linked to rats were 'rare' and there was no evidence of any increase in recent years.

Reuben and Louisa Hunter of Palmer's Green, north London, returned from a family holiday in Northern Ireland last month with their 14-month-old baby Sophie, to find that a rat had gnawed its way through the plastic around their car's gear stick, seat belts and the baby seat. 'The car looked like it had been broken into,' Sophie's father said.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) says that rather than call in the pest control experts it is more humane to avoid attracting rats in the first place by keeping food and buildings sealed. 'Rats are highly intelligent, social animals who excel at learning,' said Poorva Joshipura, director of Peta Europe. 'They do not want to die trying to gnaw their leg off in traps or slowly suffering from poison.'

Pest watch: How to keep rodents at bay...

· Place food and rubbish in sealed containers and clean under cookers, fridges and cupboards.

· Store pet food carefully and clean feeding bowls regularly.

· Seal holes into buildings - mice can get through the width of a ballpoint pen - and keep pipes and drains in good repair.

· Check under outside decking, a favourite nesting place for rats and mice.

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