Britain’s vermin are on the rise

First published in The Sunday Times

If I hadn’t had my kitchen done up, I wouldn’t be so worried about Black Death. Reading in my sitting room one night after the builders had left a hole in the kitchen floor, I heard a rustling. Had a pipe burst? Had someone broken in?

It was worse – considerably worse. Poking my head round the kitchen door I was greeted by two rats dancing a macabre reel and leaping at our food cupboards. They were not quite the size of cats but they were big.

One was a good 8in long and that was before taking account of its long greasy tail. And while mice would have vanished at the slightest human stirring, these boys looked as if they might stand their ground.

In the days that followed, I saw more. I put down traps and poured poison into the cellar but we lay awake worrying that a rat was going to get into the bedroom of our three-year-old daughter, Nancy. It nagged at us every minute – but most particularly when creatures chewed noisily at the floorboards beneath us.

One night, two of my traps went off. I went to investigate. One hadn’t moved. Another had skittered across the kitchen, but remained empty. The third couldn’t be found anywhere. I guessed that the rat, its neck broken by the trap, had fallen back under the kitchen floor.

I heard a scraping and crept out of sight. A rat stuck its head up, sniffed chocolate on the air and delicately thrust its nose into the waiting trap. I wasn’t sure I wanted to watch it die, but kept my eyes on it and gasped as it pulled the chocolate from the trap without suffering any harm, then slithered back down the hole.

The following day, a dirty fug built up in the kitchen. It was coming from the hole. I was going to have to open the floor up and remove whatever I could find. I went across the road to get help from Brian, the bravest and most helpful person in our street. He brought a long hooked implement and dragged out the trap, with the stinking rat inside it. From its position, we calculated that the previous night’s chocolate thief must have been standing on the body of the other, dead rat to carry out his daring raid. Classy animals, rats.

Chez Flintoff, we uphold the highest standards of hygiene. But in my area – unlike many around the country – the council continues to collect rubbish every week. So to find nosh rats hereabouts can’t just lounge around the overflowing bins. Instead, they must break into houses.

I went around the perimeter of the kitchen filling in every crevice with wire wool, which rats don’t like to chew on. Then I called in fitters to put down our beautiful new kitchen floor.

But the night after the boards were laid, as I sprawled on the sitting-room carpet watching TV with my wife, a shrill squeak announced that a rat was with us in the living room.

I emptied the room, piece by piece, and found nothing. I guessed that they were coming up through the holes around the radiator pipes, and repeated my wire wool trick. But psychologically they had us beaten: every few minutes or so we heard them scuttling among the rubble below, or chewing the boards.

(Rats, I have since learned, possess incisors that grow constantly. To keep the teeth short, they are obliged to gnaw through wood, lead, bricks, concrete and even steel.)

The kitchen floor was going to have to come up again. In fact the whole cellar needed opening up and sealing against any subsequent invasion – but who would possibly take on such an unpleasant, back-breaking job? Not my builder: he’d disappeared. The last time I saw him, he delivered a sermon about the importance of eliminating rats and even promised to call about helping carry out this sacred duty – but I’ve heard nothing since.

And what about Nancy? We don’t want to make her scared of rats – she already has nightmares about butterflies and ladybirds. But on the other hand we don’t want her to think that rats are lovely, and attempt to stroke them or share her food if one should suddenly appear before her. What should we tell her?

Not about Black Death, that’s for sure. As every schoolchild learns, the disease – carried by the fleas on rats – appeared in Sicily in 1347, sweeping through Europe and killing nearly half the inhabitants in three years.

We think of it as a thing of the past – the last known outbreak in the UK was 300 years ago – but Yersinia pestis, as the bubonic plague is correctly termed, is still with us. More than 38,000 cases have been reported recently to the World Health Organisation by 25 different countries in Asia, Africa, South America – and the US. In fact, there are believed to be more rodents infected with plague in North America than there were in Europe in the Middle Ages. Four countries have reported outbreaks after untroubled periods of 30 to 50 years duration.

Biological attacks using the bubonic plague would suit terrorists: they can access the bacteria easily and an attack would have high death rates. But Vic Simpson of the government’s Veterinary Laboratories Agencies says the disease could easily find its way to the UK without help from terrorists.

And the scariest thing is this: the plague has started to show signs of resistance to antibiotics. In March, the French Pasteur Institute reported that plague can pick up this resistance from all-too common bacteria such as salmonella and e-coli – posing “a global threat to public health”.

Of course, rats don’t only carry plague. Two out of three carry cryptosporidium (a cause of gastroenteritis); only slightly less common are salmonella, listeria (which causes septicaemia), toxoplasmosis (blindness), Q fever, Hantaan fever, and the lethal Weil’s disease.

A female is capable of producing ten-strong litters, ten times a year. Recent estimates put the UK rat-count at between 60 and 100 million. After three successive mild winters and warm summers, rats have become fitter and stronger. They’ve thrived as rubbish collection has become less frequent, as anybody could tell you who finds their bins overflowing now that collections have gone fortnightly.

Doretta Cocks, who started the Campaign for Weekly Waste, says she has been overwhelmed by public support. “There is huge anger out there,” she said. “And it will only get worse as more councils switch over to fortnightly collections.”

As May’s local elections approach, fortnightly collections have become an increasingly hot issue. Not for nothing did the government’s recycling quango, Wrap, advise councils to avoid introducing the schemes ahead of elections.

But rubbish collection is only part of the problem. Another big issue is sewers, where water companies do little to eliminate rats. In most areas, barely a fifth of sewers are inspected as a matter of course. The rest are checked only if something goes wrong. It’s not unknown for retired engineers to be called out in emergencies and asked where pipes run.

Similarly catastrophic is the decision by 67 per cent of local authorities to cut back on rodent officers. In Barnet, where I live, pest control was closed in 2004, and only re-opened after complaints from residents. But the service came back at a cost to users, and that seems to put people off: take-up fell by 75 per cent, despite reported sightings of rats going up nearly 50 per cent.

A spokesman for Barnet says the scheme is “budget neutral” because nobody wants to see council tax go up. But there are discounts for people on benefits, he adds.

According to the National Pest Technicians Association, the result of councils charging for pest-control – and people declining to pay – is an increase of 69 per cent in the rat population over seven years. “Councils should not charge you to deal with rats,” says the NTPA’s John Davison.

As it happens, nobody was answering the phone when I called Barnet’s pest control. So like many others I went to buy poison from Homebase.

A recent study involving the British Pest Control Association indicates a new generation of “super rats’‘, able to consume previously lethal doses of two of the four most common types of second-generation anti-coagulants. But my own rats showed an admirably old-fashioned tendency to kick the bucket after scoffing the bait.

Less happily, they chose to die under my floorboards, releasing released a dire smell that lingered in the throat and made me want to heave. But other rats found the smell less off-putting. Indeed, they daintily cannibalised the corpses – taking great bites from them – and in doing so poisoned themselves.

(An additional, no less cheerful spin-off of infestation by rat, I have discovered, is the incidence of bluebottles, which lay their eggs in the rotting rodent before circling my head as I work at m computer upstairs.)

Clearly, killing the rats wasn’t enough. I had to stop them coming into the house in the first place. I returned to Homebase and bought a device that uses ultrasound – beyond the hearing of humans, cats and dogs – to irritate the rodents. But alas, my rats didn’t seem bothered.

I succumbed to the inevitable: I called Rentokil, which promised to keep poisoning the rats and removing the bodies till they stopped coming – then seal up any entry holes. (Do it the other way round, they warned, and the trapped rats will chew their way out.)

The fee was vast, but I signed up all the same, and Rentokil duly sent along one of its best technicians, Paul Boggia.

He leapt into the murky, malodorous cavity beneath the floorboards with something like the joy of a child entering a paddling pool, noted “signs of activity” and removed two stiff rats (“out you come, Roland!”).

To say that I enjoy Paul’s visits would be an overstatement – I don’t relish removing 159 screws from the kitchen’s plywood floor, and replacing them all again afterwards – but I’ve learned a lot from his brisk approach.

I can’t wait till he brings along a colleague with a camera that inspects drains for cracks from the inside. And I’ll be delighted when Paul finally declares that the last of the rats has died and that we can seal up the walls and install Rodent Radar – a Rentokil-branded device that captures and gasses rats with CO2, then sends you an email or text message advising you to be rid of it.

In that event, assuming that I’ve not succumbed to Black Death, it will give me great pleasure to wrap the deceased rodent inside a couple of plastic bags, and lob it in the bin – but only for so long as we have a weekly collection.