There can be little doubt: some people display a degree of innocence over the problem of rats. There are those people who think they have no other option than to put up with them and those people who think they will go away or have done so when the digging stops.
Those people who over a long career have never learnt or observed a thing about rats and take losses of stock and damage to property as a matter of course. Who listen to tales told and never put two and two together. There is little doubt, the rat is a survivor. No matter what we throw against the species, we shall never win, but we can control the number we live with.
Rats enjoying a free lunch in a chicken run.
Perhaps my first experience and dawning awareness of the problem with rats came 50 years ago when my parents were living in a pub which had been a coaching house many years previous with the old cob constructed stables still standing, many of them by then converted into garages, some with tallets above, some still used for the original purpose of stabling horses and the original cellar still in use albeit at ground level.
Down the road there was an Agricultural Feed and Seed Grain Supplier, where we did, in fact, buy the feed for our poultry, which were kept in the orchard, where the majority of trees were cider apple varieties of great antiquity. The Feed Supplier had a clean out of the stores; we had an infestation of rats. Poison was purchased and a very smelly time was had as the rats died in numbers in the cob walls of the various buildings and decomposed.
Our fox terrier had a nip from a rat and discovered she was a terrier with the very efficient ‘terrier bite and flick”. The rats were contained and the emergency was over, but not the vigilance of the terrier, that let my parents know when the next unwanted visitor had arrived, as arrive they will, given a food source.
Moving to the country
Moving from town to semi country with space for livestock, I picked up where I had left off as a child and acquired my first poultry. We lived in a hamlet and I do not remember us having a big problem with rats. Birds coming in to kill young stock, a friends’ Jack Russell and a badger when a farmer cleared a copse housing a badger sett.
When we moved to the middle of the country we gained more space and more predator problems. Still the problem of aerial predation, the addition of foxes, no badgers, but rats. I understand if you live on moorland or beside large tracts of forest you are unlikely to be troubled by rats, everything else but no rats, for rats and agriculture go together.
Talking to a farming neighbour one day he told me his mother had had a deep litter house and had brought in 100 day old chicks. Suddenly she realised one day the hundred was much reduced. Steps were taken and a vast amount of poison was put down and eaten. Rats were eating the poison but still they abounded. It was decided that the house should be cleaned out.
A group of men assembled, with terriers, and the cleaning began. Rats were going in all directions and the men and dogs had an exciting time of it. The total number of bodies was 104, not including those that got away. What was significant was the fact there were no young rats, only well-grown or fully grown. The young rats were the ones eating the poison the adults were either immune or seeking protein in the form of growing chicks to breed and replenish the supply.
The moral of the above story is not to create the means for the rats to develop a habitat in which they can live and thrive virtually undisturbed i.e. a dirty poultry house where they can be snug and warm under accumulated layers of waste and bedding with a food supply on tap.
Keep your sheds clean, raised off the ground and clear away all piles of rubbish making sure you chop down all those clumps of stinging nettles and weeds so that you can see what is going on. Keep feeding stuffs in rat proof containers and spillage to a minimum.
Rats move in for winter
To help you, rats usually arrive at the same places as previous visitors, so a daily check must be kept. September and October, when the weather starts to change, will bring them in looking for a snug haven for the winter months. The problem here is that, with a food supply on tap, they then dig in and colonise. One year, as fast as I cleared one visitation, another arrived and, eventually, I went to see my neighbours.
One couple, who have a few acres just up the road from me, run a very untidy ship with piles of this that and the other everywhere including old caravans, told me they had had rats but they were gone. Fat chance. They had dug in and were breeding. I heard later they had, upon returning one morning, discovered a circle of rats around a feed container, which explained why their birds were always out of food and hungry! They bought some poison and I was finding the corpses of fully-grown breeding rats littering one of my fields adjacent to their property. To this day the same thing happens from time to time and I know they have once more let the situation get out of hand. My other neighbours who had land and stables behind me, informed me, when I inquired, that they had acquired cats to solve their rat problem.
There was little or nothing I could do about the situation except keep the traps tilled and replenish the poison until such time as my neighbours came to their senses which I hasten to add they did – eventually.
Cats to solve a rat problem?
I am a cat lover and have kept many cats and my experience when it comes to rats is there are cats and there are cats. Some cats have more sense than to tackle a fully grown rat and others, (very often the small compact female) find the knack and are master ratters. But, no cat or cats can keep a rat population under control. The very method they use, of sitting and waiting, catching only the one is in itself self-defeating. One of my Vets used to say you only needed to feed a cat the amount equivalent to a small mouse. If this is the case then one large rat should be sufficient for more than one day, always providing they ate it!
Unless you underfeed your cats and dogs there is little fear of them eating a poisoned rat should they kill one. If this should happen the signs of poisoning are anaemic gums and eyelids and a course of vitamin K obtained from the Vet together with a vomit-inducing drug will solve the problem.
Some cats will catch rats but won’t usually eat them unless they are very hungry.
Not that long ago we had yet another problem when a ‘bit’ farmer (one who rents or buys a field or fields here there and everywhere) just over the hill had rats. As he wintered his suckler cows there on part of the field which was clear, the rest being covered with piles of rubbish, stacks of silage and ‘garaged’ his machinery both working and not, the conditions were ideal. I understand when he lost a whole sack of feed overnight he went out and bought a lorry body to keep it in. My only comment was ‘I just hope he got rid of the rats first.’
Looking out of the window some weeks ago, my husband suddenly exclaimed ‘There’s a rat, and there’s another one.’ He was watching the wild birds on our table and saw the rats on the bank behind which incidentally is kept cut back for we have had problems there before. We took immediate action, putting poison down where we knew they would gravitate to. Where had they come from? My neighbour had the old stables pulled down where previously she had had a lady stabling her horses who wasn’t very tidy and spilled feed. My neighbour is fastidious: I have no qualms over her.
There are several myths about rats one of them being ‘It was as big as a cat’. I am usually disappointed in the size of the few I have seen, which is not often. The only sign I get that I have won is that the poison stops being eaten, for the rats that end up here are the overspill of youngsters. The bodies I find in the field are much bigger. Perhaps abroad they have bigger rats than we do! Yet another myth is that when cornered a rat will jump for your face. This also is not strictly true, for they jump for the light either side of your head in a bid for freedom, also between your legs for one does tend to brace oneself, legs astride when challenging a cornered rat! They have only one thought and that is to escape not waste valuable time biting you.
Vigilance really is the name of the game to prevent rats getting a hold. Providing you keep a trim, clean and tidy ‘ship’ they are not difficult to spot. Droppings littering the ground around feeders, footprints in the mud and signs of chewing to the housing or feed sacks, but mostly the first signs are of digging as they seek to establish a foothold.
The damage can be quite extensive and I often wonder just how much damage was done to a pig breeding unit when a friend of the family was asked to come in and see what he could do about the rat problem. A total of one thousand four ten cartridges were fired in the first winter! He set out to purge the establishment of rats. Apparently, to begin with, there were so many rats running about after dark they simply didn’t know which way to fire first. How much were these rats costing the pig farmer in feed and repairs not to mention the damage from shotgun pellets?!
There are various ways to eradicate them, poison probably being the easiest. Professional pest controllers nowadays seem to use boxes containing poison, placed around the perimeter of the pens or against the sides of housing, for rats keep to the edges.
When putting poison down a rat hole (always remember that every rat has a bolthole) make sure the hole is being used and that they have finished. To check whether a hole is in use, throw the odd blade of grass or a few leaves into the hole. If the “foreign bodies” have been cleared away the next morning you have your answer, for rats are scrupulously clean housekeepers. Using a spoon to get the poison well down out-of-the-way is a good idea but don’t put it too far for you need to be able to check if it is being eaten. Do not cover the hole completely or the rat will simply dig another beside or under your cover and scatter the poison everywhere in doing so. Check daily whether the poison is being eaten and top it up if necessary. Once you see that poison is being left you will have won.
Fen traps are useful and also cage traps, where one is reluctant to lay poison. The Fen should, of course, be set in a tunnel for it is illegal not to do so. Cage traps also have their uses but here you are going to be faced with a live capture with a need to dispose of it. Drowning comes immediately to mind but I personally am not in favour of this for not even the rat deserves such a death. Better that you shoot it with an air rifle or if you have a good dog it will do the job very efficiently. No live caught rat on my property gets much further than a foot from the trap but it is not often that happens. We rarely see a body alive or dead – the poison just stops being eaten.
It is a never-ending battle to prevent the rats from colonising but a battle that must be fought again and again. I have lost young birds, but not many and when I have, immediate action is taken even if it means moving dozens of bales of hay. That lesson was learnt and no hay is put away now without poison being put down, within sight and checked regularly.
This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of the British Waterfowl Association. It originally appeared in the Yearbook 2008 edition of Waterfowl Magazine which is a 60+ page magazine, published three times a year for members.Membership of the BWA brings much more than just Waterfowl Magazine!