Dear Readers, early last Sunday morning I was shuffling about in my kitchen and sipping a cup of tea when I had the feeling that I was being watched. I peered out of the window. There were no birds, no cats. All was still, the sun just touching the top of the whitebeam tree. And then I chanced to look down, and, sure enough, a small face was peering at me over the edge of the patio.
How alive it seemed, this little creature, all twitching whiskers and bright eyes. It surveyed the scene, its small pink paws poised on the wooden beams beside the pond. It disappeared, and then popped back up again. And furthermore, it was not alone.
It seems, dear Readers, that while I have been away a mother Brown Rat has given birth to some babies in my garden. For a while I tried to convince myself that these little creatures were mice, but no, the small ears and blunt muzzles tell me that they are, in fact, Rattus norvegicus. And what a good time they were having, hoovering up the fallen mealworms from the bird table. It seemed to me that their mother had picked a perfect spot to raise her family – relatively safe from predators, warm, dry and right next to a food source.
The Brown Rat is the most successful mammal on earth (after humans), present on every continent except Antarctica. It shadows us wherever we live, though it is rarely seen. It could be argued that it has also sacrificed more for our well being than any other mammal, as the Brown Rat is the same species as the laboratory rat, and has hence been the victim of more varied torments than any other creature I can think of. If you have ever had a pet rat (and they can make delightful playmates, with a tremendous sense of fun) you have also been in contact with a Brown Rat. But there is no denying that these animals can be a vector for several diseases, including Weil’s Disease and Toxoplasmosis, and that they are associated in our minds with everything that is unclean and sordid.
At this point, I sense rising horror in some of my readers. After all, are rats not public enemy number one, a source of disease, thoroughly disgusting creatures who deserve to be eradicated on sight? Or have ‘seagulls’ taken their place this year?
Dear Friends, it seems to me that if we make a wildlife garden, we cannot be altogether sure what wildlife will turn up. And if we are a little too generous with the bird food, it is not surprising that all manner of opportunistic, intelligent creatures pop in to take advantage. I fear that the amount of food I’ve provided recently hasn’t taken into account the fact that many birds are now in moult and hence not visiting gardens very much. There is also a lot of natural food about, which most birds will take in preference to anything I can provide. And so, these little chaps are taking up the slack.
Now, I make it a rule not to kill anything that turns up in my garden, be it aphid or slug, snail or harlequin ladybird. Or, indeed, rat. But even if I did have a more ferocious turn of mind, can you imagine what would happen? Any animal control company would put down poison to kill these youngsters and their mother. And then, what happens if a fox, or a cat, or a dog eats the corpses? We don’t have many owls around here, but in the country, rat poison is the number one reason for the death of Barn Owls. We do have all manner of corvids and birds of prey, who are not averse to a spot of scavenging, who could also be killed. And anyhow, we are too quick to turn to death as a tool of species management. I am not an absolutist about these things, but in almost every case I’ve ever come across, there is a better solution to the problem of an animal in the wrong place than killing it.
Nearly all of our ‘pest’ animals increase their populations in response to our messiness. Pigeons, seagulls, rats, mice, will all become more noticeable in response to unemptied bins, food which is not kept securely and general litter-dropping. Plus, for some of these creatures we are taking their normal food – we have stripped the fish from the sea, for example, and seagulls are now stealing our ice cream and chips. So, I will cut back on the amount of food that I leave in the garden, not in order to starve my new rodent family, but to persuade them to disperse. There are always a few rats around, but they are normally invisible, unnoticed. It’s only when they binge-breed that they become a problem.
So, the baby rats ran around the patio for a while, and then suddenly noticed that they were being watched. One sat up on his back legs for a moment, eyes bulging as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. After all, for a fortnight there has been very little activity at my house, and maybe they were starting to think of the garden as their own. And then, both the rats bolted back under the path, and I haven’t seen them since. Have they already moved on? Has one of the many cats around here put an end to their short lives? Or are they keeping a low profile, emerging during the night to tidy up the garden? Whichever it is, I send them a salute, from one opportunistic, adaptable, inventive species to another. All of our lives are so short, so fraught with troubles and worries that it’s hard to deny another creature a few moments in the sun.