If the urban myth was true, you’d never be farther than two metres from the nearest rat in London. But as far as neighbours go, wild rats keep to themselves. And why shouldn’t they? We, humans, are their commensal enemy.
Rarely seen by day, rats dwell in our cities. Under pavements, in sewers, up on roof terraces. Hear that scratching behind the wall? This shrill squeaking - it ain’t birds on the roof…
Rats are among the most successful invasive non-native species in the World.
And London is rat heaven.
From Roman times, many arrived here as stowaways aboard ships docking along the Thames.
Around the 18th century, brown rats moved to Britain, gradually out-competing their smaller cousins.
Rats do carry common pathogens: C.diff, E.coli… About 30% harbour potentially fatal cross-species viruses.
But if rats were the agent of the Black Death, it was likely human ignorance of basic hygiene principles that propagated the pandemics that decimated one-third of medieval Europeans.
After centuries of misconceptions, fear of rats as disease carriers still populates our collective consciousness.
What is the number of rats in the UK?
The estimates of UK rat population vary wildly between 10.5 million based on academic research, or 80 million… according to the Daily Mail!
Experts agree on one thing. Rats’ lives mirror those of humans. Wherever we settle, they follow us like the legendary Piper. Everywhere they find sustenance, rats associate with our activities.
The streetwise rats may total 3-4 million individuals in a city like London.
Hard to tell. Most evidence is anecdotal.
But we have much in common…
Of Rats and Men
Like us, rats are omnivores. Their feeding behaviour is predictable, and they make provisions for the future.
Our relationship is symbiotic. Rats thrive on the perks afforded by our proximity: plenty of food, water and free shelter.
They love what we love. And we are ever so wasteful.
Our refuse is their salvation, their survival.
For this reason, rats live among us. Their often-brazen sorties to ransack London’s trendy kitchens make the stuff of bad hotel reviews.
Their incidental presence is an irritation.
But the rat is naturally wary. And rarely noticeable.
Rat Empire Underground
For the urban rodent, it’s all about supply and growing demand. Our carelessness means they are winning.
If city-dwellers took better care of their environment, rats wouldn’t thrive.
With enough junk at their disposal, rats are free to forage. And with year-round breeding season, a well-fed pair can sprout generations at an alarming rate.
The rat is a gastronome, an opportunist, a “bon vivant”.
And a well-fed individual is also a happy individual.
Any sustained strike of Waste and Recycling services, and there you are… with a growing colony on your streets. For that very reason, Birmingham became the centre of rat kingdom recently…
In cities, rats affect the poor more than the rich.
Through their constant gnawing, they cause enormous structural damages, undermining buildings. And insurances estimate rats are responsible for 25% of electrical fires.
Less than 0.5% of dwellings have rats. The critters prefer to roam shops, factories and warehouses, where they find more opportunities.
But they will explore wherever possible, often through drainage systems.
Lack of management and cooperation between environmental agencies often mean colony densities can increase in already stressed areas, and enhance the risk to public health.
Since 2012, Olympic building construction and rising number of empty properties have compounded the problem.
Many cities devote manpower and money to keeping rats under control.
Worldwide, rats deplete one-fifth of food supplies every year. So, curbing rat overpopulation could save enough crop products to feed millions.
Urban situations remain largely unresearched. What we know is that rat populations can be controlled, even reduced.
But rats can’t be entirely eliminated.
Across the Channel, the rat population in Paris outnumbers that of human dwellers. There’s almost 2 rats for every Parisian!
The municipality is pouring 1.5 million euros into the problem, with strategic cleaning, public campaigns and toxic baits.
Rat-specting the Ecosystem
Humans have a talent for exterminating other species… and themselves.
But in so doing, they often damage the environment.
Where rodenticides have failed to control numbers because rats develop an immunity, a humane solution exists that is neither lethal nor toxic – a rat contraceptive, already used in New York.
Despite the bad rep, the rat remains a fascinating animal: intelligent, and (yes!) well groomed. They learn and adapt to circumstances.
Rats are the marmite of the animalkind - either reminding you of loveable cartoon characters, or making your skin crawl at the very idea.
You either have sympathy for the little devils… or you don’t.
But there’s no place for rats in our multicultural tolerant society: “It’s a dead-end job. First, you’re competing with pigeons… then hordes of Pokémons, turning youths into smartphone zombies in our capitals.”
Loathed though they may be, their urban population remains small and stable…
Somewhere near you… rats are usefully burrowing into the silt of sewers, which weakens and unclogs it.
From fast-food hotspots to fly-tipping, and reduced bin collections, rats feast on our leftovers, grazing on tonnes of agri-food waste… and helping us manage it in their own way.
And therein lies the secret of their neighbourliness. They care for what we don’t.
One thing’s for sure, the rat is here to stay.