A quirky look at wildlife. To be taken with a pinch of salt, but with more than a grain of truth!
One of the joys of feeding the birds in your garden, especially at this time of year (early summer in the UK), is seeing the other visitors that food attracts. Some are welcome, like badgers, shrews and foxes, who will all bring their young for an energy boost. Badgers and foxes help to keep pest numbers down. Cats also avail themselves of stray bits of food and a drink in passing, though their increased interest in young birds is a little hard to handle.
However, one visitor who is universally unwelcome is the brown rat, and as I live close to a river and a railway embankment, they are ever-present, though often not seen. Recent stripping of railway embankments has set them running around in gardens more than usual here. Although often thought to be nocturnal animals, they are increasingly seen in daylight.
At present, I have one rat visiting about three times a day. After getting over my original horror, I have been fascinated at its antics. It appears to be almost tame, taking little notice of noises made to frighten it and only disappearing briefly into the undergrowth if considerable human activity is heard. Two or three more visited during the nights a while ago, but none have been seen for some time, there being nothing much to eat. Thorough checks of sheds, etc have uncovered no signs of infestation, and I can only assume it has a 'residence' near the railway bank.
Today it has been getting quite territorial, chasing off first a blackbird, then a magpie and lastly a wood pigeon. As my husband is not fond of either of the latter, this has caused much amusement. It seems quite happy to be foraging in daylight, and I have wondered many times if it is an 'escapee' thriving in our kind summer weather, or whether it was turned out when a neighbour moved home!! It certainly seems strangely solitary. I have done all I can to discourage it, short of removing all bird food, which I am loathe to do, though I have stopped feeding our badgers/foxes as they sometimes leave bits. It is annoying as their presence should deter rats, but of course rats are quick off the mark and disappear as fast as they appear.
It is a great pity that an animal that should be a normal part of wildlife, doing a good job scavenging waste, should have been allowed to thrive to the degree that it has become a hated pest. The huge increase in numbers has to be in part due to human negligence and, of course, warmer winters, etc.
Fewer collections of household waste, dropped food around takeaway outlets and more litter generally has helped increase numbers — and believe me, they need no help to reproduce! Brown rats breed all year round and produce as many as five litters a year. Each litter is about three weeks from conception to birth and 3/4 weeks to be weaned. Eight or so might be born at any one time and they are quicly able to reproduce themselves! Their home range is apparently about 50 metres, but it is possible that would vary according to the availability of food.
Like grey squirrels, also something of a pest, they will eat almost anything, and also do considerable damage.
It is best to put trays on the bottom of bird feeders to reduce the spillage on the ground. Daily cleaning up of husks, etc is essential too and will usually stop the visitors after a while. If you are aware of rats around it is essential to wear gloves when gardening and doing any work in the garden as a precaution against the many diseases they carry, including the unpleasant leptospirosis.
If you have children playing in your garden, it is a particularly good idea to wash down any play equipment regularly as rats will run over any obstacle and have an unfortunate habit of dribbling urine almost everywhere they go. Birdbaths should be disinfected and clean water put out daily.
For gardeners and conservation workers, the form of leptospirosis to consider is Weil's disease, which is found in water infected by rats' urine, so if you work around rivers, canals or pools, take care. Not a nice thought, and not a major threat generally, but one to be aware of if you have any cuts or abrasions on your skin. Cover with waterproof plasters and wear protective clothing. Farmers are more likely to contract the Hardjo form of the disease, but they should be aware of the risks.
Never touch a dead rat — I am sure that warning is not necessary for most of us! Both diseases start with a flu- like illness and a persistent and severe headache. Prompt treatment is essential, and it is a notifiable disease. Anyone working in conservation or with possible contact should have a card detailing the risks with instructions as to what to do in such cases.
Having said all that, cases are rare in the UK: only 41 cases in England and Wales in 2005, four in Scotland and one in Northern Ireland. Most people recover, but there are still some two or three deaths in England and Wales each year and I am sure those people didn't expect to catch it! Anyone with serious concerns can find more information here.
I have been fascinated watching our solitary rat, but tonight had a sighting of a very much smaller one, foraging on its own, so I shall have to keep watch in case any more appear. It was tripping about within two feet of my next-door neighbour lighting his barbeque. Perhaps he was waiting for rich pickings? It is sad that what is otherwise quite a cute animal is such a threat. I am sure owners of pet rats would agree, as they tell me that they are clean and make good pets. I have yet to be convinced.
It is hard enough having to stop feeding the badgers and foxes, but I shall be very upset if I have to stop feeding the birds, especially right in the midst of the breeding season. I am presently hoping that no-one else has noticed them and that they are visiting my garden only!