In London, they say, you are never more than twenty feet from a rat. But though I’ve lived here for almost three decades, I’d never see one, not even on the street. Then one Friday evening I was sitting with my wife Jo having supper in our little one-bedroomed flat in Camden when I saw something dark moving across the corner of the room.
‘What’s that?’ I asked, my mind only half on it.
‘Oh my god!’ said Jo, jumping to her feet. ‘It’s a rat.’
It was. Black, half the size of a cat, definitely not a mouse. Our plates were abandoned and we were rushing into action – at least Jo was. While I cowered in the background, she had marched over to the cleaning cupboard to grab the metal-tubed brush of our vacuum cleaner. The rat had shot off into the bathroom. Neither of us were keen to follow it. Isn’t it true that rats are at their most dangerous when cornered? Have been known to jump at mens’ throats?
A short altercation later we tiptoed into the bathroom together. But the rat was nowhere to be seen. Escaped, or gone to ground, we thought, in the murky space behind the bath panel. I closed the long decorative oval that curves above the floor with gaffer tape and cardboard. That night we barricaded ourselves into the bedroom with boxes and slept dreadfully, waking to every creak of the boards.
First thing in the morning we loaded up with poison at the local hardware shop. It comes in a plastic bottle, wheat grains stained a deadly dark blue. As instructed, we laid it down in shallow containers, then headed off for our weekend, praying the whole thing had just been a one-off. In a country hardware shop I spent twenty pounds on a set of four Ultra-sonic Rat Repellers, which plug into mains sockets and produce, the upbeat packaging promised, a high-pitched screech that would drive away any rat within a hundred yards.
We returned on Sunday evening hoping for the best. We found the worst. Not only had Ratty been back, he had bought his friends. There were little dark droppings everywhere. On our varnished wooden floor, on the lovely orange carpet I brought back from Marrakesh, even up on our stainless steel work surfaces. A bottle of olive oil had been knocked to the floor, the plastic round the neck chewed horribly. The triangular rubber flanges of the waste disposal had been munched to nothing, exposing the metal within. They had pissed everywhere. One poison tray had been knocked over, the others untouched.
We took a deep breath and started to clean up. Meanwhile, I plugged in our impressive new Ultra-sonic devices. With four on the go in one tiny flat the rats would surely keep away. Then we got to work with gaffer tape and hardboard on the holes in the floorboards and skirting. Jo thought there was one under the stash of paper under my chaise longue. As I lifted it up and she tugged out the paper - a nine-inch rat jumped out. Its long, rubbery tail within an inch of Jo’s bare arm. It shot through to the bathroom and vanished.
Shaking like leaves, we covered up every last hole in the place. We also laid down plenty more poison. In the holes, down the stairs, in the dark and dingy well behind the basement storeroom, owned by a next door shop, which I felt sure was the source of our problem.
Barricaded into the bedroom, there was silence till midnight. Then Ratty returned, scratch-scratch under the floorboards. Hadn’t he been deterred by our trusty Ultra-sonic device? Apparently not. He surely couldn’t get out, but maybe I’d missed a hole? I didn’t sleep well.
The next morning I called our local council (Camden). On the Environmental Health section of their website they promised a 24 hr response for Rats Inside the Home (3 days for Rats Outside). But despite a ‘response chart’ showing a 100% rate for meeting their targets, they couldn’t get anyone out till Wednesday. Meanwhile neither the Ultra-sonic device nor the poison seemed to be working. Each night the rats were back, scratch-scratch under the floorboards.
I’d been pinning my hopes on the man from the council. It was £67 for three visits, but surely worth it. A rodent expert, he would find the nest (if nest there was), sort out our problem. But not a bit of it. A stocky fellow in late middle age, he seemed reluctant even to look in the basement. Hadn’t brought his own ladder. Couldn’t go down ours because of Health and Safety.
‘All I can do is put poison down,’ he told me. ‘You’d be better off doing it yourself – save yourself £67.’
Eventually I coaxed him down the ladder. There were little black rat-droppings everywhere, but there was no way our man could get through to check the sewer hatch, or the interceptor cap that normally, he explained, prevents rats making it up into the drains. There was too much junk in the basement. If we got that cleared, he might have a look. He left a few bags of poison, filled in a form, said he’d be back for an inspection in a fortnight, then scarpered before his meter ran out. So much for Pest Control.
For a few blissful hours that evening I thought the poison might have worked. But no, come midnight the scratch-scratch was back. Only this time it was more of a crazed gnawing, as Rat One or Rat Two, or who knows, Rat Three, savaged the copper pipes by my boiler. Jo thought it might be high on the poison. I lay there fretting for a while, then got up and banged on the floor with a shoe. Very hard. About fifty times. Amazingly this did the trick. Tripping or not, Ratty had departed.
The next day, finally responding to my anguished calls, my freeholder pitched up with her builder Gary. He was a bit more fearless than the man from the council. Down in the basement he found two bad things. A broken drain cover and a smashed toilet. If the rats had got up from the sewer into the drains this was their way out. A vertical climb up the exterior drainpipe to that nice big hole under my bathroom would be no problem. He got to work.
Meanwhile, I upped the ante, buying two fearsome LUCIFER traps in the local hardware shop. I baited them with Mars Bars covered in peanut butter, something a rat-expert friend had suggested; they have a sweet tooth, apparently. Then I ventured nervously downstairs to the basement well.
And who should be waiting round the corner in the afternoon sunlight but Ratty. He didn’t look well. In fact, watching him stagger blearily across the concrete I almost felt sorry for him. But not that sorry. I just hoped his chums had got to the poison too.
As it happened, the traps stayed untouched. The combination of Gary’s mending and the poison worked. Whatever rats were loose were poisoned, the others were now trapped in the drain.
A week later I managed to get Pest Control back again. It turns out Camden get around five hundred call outs regarding rats a year, as against over a thousand for mice. This time the guy was a bit more switched on. At the front of the basement, under the road, we finally found the sewer hatch and opened it. Lo and behold, no interceptor cap. The rats would have made it up the drain, through the smashed toilet, and on up into the flat.
We had learnt our lesson. To actually get inside the flat that day, Ratty had broken through four lines of defence: interceptor cap, broken drain, hole in bathroom exterior, then holes in floor and skirting. From now on in any place I live I’ll make damn sure that they’re all firmly blocked.
- There are over 60 million rats in the UK, roughly one for every human.
- Every hour in London over 4000 rats are born.
- According to the 1995 National Rodent Census, one in 20 UK properties is infested with rats.
- Rat’s urine carries a water-borne bacteria (Leptospira) which can cause Weil’s Disease in humans. Early flu-like symptoms can lead to liver or kidney failure or even death.
- In 1665, the black rat spread the bubonic plague throughout London. The rat of today is the ‘brown rat’ (ratus Norvegicus). They are on the increase in our cities, flourishing by feeding on fast-food leftovers.
Rats teeth are coated with an enamel that is stronger than industrial diamonds, enabling them to chew through metal or masonry.