An Irishwoman's Diary
Weeks before the tapping of reindeer hooves on the roofs of sleeping homes comes the patter of tiny paws. Or, to be more accurate, the scratching of insistent claws and the crunching of sharp, yellow teeth; the rats are back. In fact this year they never went away.
Last winter may have seemed dreary here in Recession Land, yet climatically, at least, it was surprisingly mild. Sufficiently balmy to ensure that hosts of breeding rats and their many, many offspring survived in domestic bliss and have gone forth to increase and multiply, repeatedly.
Apparently the rat population is 60 per cent higher now than it was this time last year. Pest control firms are dubbing 2012 The Year of the Rat.
This super-rodent is currently at large in every Irish city and town, the urban problem is even worse than in rural areas. Unfortunately there is no way of taxing them. They are apolitical, highly intelligent, resourceful opportunists, gleefully content to capitalise on human carelessness, particularly in the disposal of food, although they are not fussy and will consume the wiring of vehicles as eagerly as rotting garbage.
Increased bin charges have created a bonanza situation for Mr Rat and his invariably large family. People have taken to storing their refuse in car boots. This provides a comfortable place in which a rat may relax and peruse the festering contents while protected from the wind and rain, as well as passing cats and dogs.
The obliging motorists may even later find the satisfied rat or rats dozing contentedly under the passenger seat in the same car, waking perhaps when the engine starts and it is time to enjoy the drive. Mother rat may choose to give birth under the bonnet and set up house there as well.
Rats are natural innovators. I saw a trio pushing potatoes down stone steps in a cellar. A woman who once kept hens wondered why she had no eggs. She stood at her kitchen window with her then small son and watched as a rat, lying on its back, an egg clutched to its chest, gazed stoically heavenwards while two of its colleagues hauled it by its tail across the yard and into a shed.
Open doors and windows, drains, that gap in the stonework, all of these are points of entry for the nesting rat, particularly as the temperature approaches zero. Unless you are living in an impenetrable fortress, it is dismayingly easy for rats to move in, attracted by heat and the smell of cooking.
They are difficult to evict. Mice tend to run away from humans when cornered, rats will attack. They are also far more skilled at playing dead when caught in a trap than their nervy mouse counterpart.
Traps don’t always work. Some rats have been seen to rush away while still attached to one. A more grisly reality is the discovery of only a head being left in a sprung trap: rats eat their fallen brothers.
New EU directives banning the use of some poisons judged too severe for rats will cause outrage. Why protect rats when the indefensible obscenity of fur farming continues? Perhaps head lice will also find a champion?
The black or brown rat has been associated with disease since ancient times. Why do we fear them? Is it the long, naked tail? Ironically the most positive aspect of rat awareness is that it could encourage more effective sanitation methods. But that is preventative: the rats are already here.
Traditional rat catchers continue to banish rodent interlopers. A Manchester-based rat exterminator wrote a book based on 25 years experience. The rat catcher I spoke to described his own craft as an art perfected by time and patience. “I have spent years observing rats,” he sighed, “I lived in New York. They live in the subways. New York rats are huge, as big as ponies. Well, not maybe that big, but . . .” He spoke with conviction, a true zealot. Rats he said are fearless – if up to a point. “Only one thing works.” Images of the Pied Piper of Hamelin flashed before my eyes. “Music? Do you play the flute?” Pause. Was he offended? Then his reply cut through the silence, “No. Ferrets. They used to be bred for hunting rabbits, but ferrets,” his tone became dreamlike, affectionate. “There’s nothing like a ferret for chasing rats away.” Ferrets are about three times bigger, does that seem an equal contest? “There’s nothing fair about rats. Rats are about 10 times smarter than most humans. They’d eat the coat off your back.”