Don’t Rat on the Neighbours… – An Urban Tale

A digital image focusing on a black rat and a brown rat inside in a small lit up tunnel. Artwork: NaturPhilosophieWhat is it about Rats?!!

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.


An infographic highlighting the morphological differences between the smaller black rat (Rattus rattus) and the larger brown rat (Rattus norvegicus).The City Rat and…

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

An infographic about the Potential Population Increase From 1 Female Pack Rat. At time = 0 weeks, 1 female rat. After 8 weeks, 3. After 16 weeks, 5. After 24 weeks, 9. After 32 weeks, 13. After 40 weeks, 15. After 48 weeks, 21. Assumption is made that half the young born are females, and that each reaches maturity in eight weeks and produces two young every eight weeks. One female rat can have two babies every 6-8 weeks. In 6-8 weeks those babies are mature enough to have their own young. In a natural balanced setting there may be 4-6 pack rat nests to an acre. Homes create an unnatural amount of available potential nesting sites with fewer predators to limit population growth. Even if only a few of the young survive, the overall population can quickly rise, limited only by the amount of available nesting sites. In less than a year, one female rat can be responsible for as many as 20 offspring! Around some houses, the rat population can rise to over 30 nests per acre. Half those nests may be producing 2 young every 6-8 weeks. Suddenly, rats are everywhere!Whenever​ ​rubbish​ ​collections​ ​go​ ​on​ ​strike,​ ​however,​ ​our​ ​city​ ​neighbours​ ​have​ ​a​ ​field​ ​day.

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…


Urban Rats

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.


Rat Control

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.