Why 2020 has been a bumper year of the rat

As the old saying goes, you're never more than six feet away from a rat in the city.

Well it seems our furry friends could be getting much closer this year as the lockdown has led to a 25 per cent increase in the rodent population, according to new figures.

Pest.co.uk estimates there are now 150 million rats around the country, a rise of 30 million compared to last year, meaning there are now 2.2 rats for every human being in the UK.

The findings are echoed by Mitch Edwards of Cannock-based MLE Pest Control, who deals with rat infestations across the West Midlands. He reckons he has received double the normal number of call-outs this year.

"During the first lockdown, I was getting as many as six calls a day, compared to maybe one or two that I would normally expect," he says.

Mitch, who has been in the pest control business for 18 years, believes the closure of the hospitality trade has had a major impact.

"When all the takeaways and restaurants were shut, it took away their usual place for finding food," he says.

"If they can't find food there, they are going to go somewhere else to find it."

According to the Pest.co.uk study, Birmingham has the UK's second largest rodent population, with some 2.4 million critters making their home in the city. In Wolverhampton there are an estimated 552,176 rats, ahead of Dudley on 430,690. Telford has 358,616 – an increase of 71,723 on 2019, while there are 1.1 million rats across the rest of Shropshire – including 158,460 in Shrewsbury.

Walsall has 386,664 rats, compared to 172,341 in West Bromwich, 151,295 in Stafford, and 121,527 in Kidderminster. In Lichfield there are 74,719 rodents, slightly ahead of 64,118 in Cannock.

Are the rats getting closer to us?

Jenny Rathbone, or Pest.co.uk, says the fact that there have been fewer people around town and city centres is one of the reasons why the pest population has grown.

"Rats have enjoyed a bumper year, breeding like crazy during lockdown and making their nests in vacant buildings in quiet streets with poor waste practices," she says.

“We are seeing a huge increase in rat problems throughout the country as lockdown has really helped them breed in relative peace with closed shops and poor waste management practices providing them with plentiful food and shelter."

One would expect this to mean a busy time for the rat-catchers, but that is not necessarily the case. Steve Willis, of West Bromwich based Willis Pest Control, says if there has been an increase, it has not translated into extra business.

"In our experience, because of the coronavirus, there have been fewer call-outs because people don't want to spend the money to deal with the problem," he says. Which, of course, could lead to an even greater increase, further down the line.

Another problem could potentially be the rise of the 'super rat'.

Is the West Midlands becoming plagued by rats?

A number of experts have reported increased sightings of super-sized rats, sometimes up to 18in long, which have developed an immunity to over-the-counter poisons.

Professor Steven Belmain, of Natural Resources Institute in Greenwich, said a lack of food in city centres had driven rats into quieter residential areas.

He also said that hunger has made the ravenous rats more brazen meaning they are seen more and more during the day.

Professor Belmain believes that while some of the vermin will migrate back to the cities once life returns to normal, many colonies will continue to expand in the suburbs.

“What is happening is they are moving into residential areas and finding food sources there, so deciding to make it home," he says.

“Some people are telling me they are having real problems.”

Rats can typically have six litters of between six and 12 pups each year, and a group of rats is appropriately known as a “mischief”, reflecting the amount of damage they can cause.

Jenny says this was clearly demonstrated in Birmingham last week, where workers disturbed a mischief of rats living inside Dhruva Mistry's River statue, better known as 'the Floozie in the Jacuzzi'.

"This was in near Birmingham Town Hall, in an area which would usually be busy with shoppers at the many themed markets held close by," she says.

Jenny says over the coming weeks the growing rat population will be looking for somewhere warm to spend the next few months.

“The problem we have right now is that rats are trying to bed down for winter, and this will happen when we get a few cold snaps," she says.

She advises anyone living in urban areas to take proactive measures before winter really hits and rats try to find a warm home over the winter months.

"People should block up holes," says Jenny. "They should fill any gaps in brickwork, shed doors and any holes on external walls of your home including cellars and attics.

"Clear your cupboards, empty unused cupboards of bags, clothes, rags and keep them clean."

People should make sure food is not left out, tidy away any open food sources and keep worktops and floors clean of crumbs.

Jenny suggests people can pre-empt future problems by leaving out traps now, although it is better to bait them with rat poison rather than food scraps.

“The main thing to remember is rats need food and shelter to breed, so any food source should be quickly cleaned away," she says.

"Keeping yard areas clean and tidy is key to keeping rats under control."

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