Dear Margaret,
Please help! My problem is with rats. They climb my fruit trees & eat the fruit, they climb the cornstalks & eat the cobs.
Although we set traps regularly we never get all of them & they breed up again so quickly.
My son once had some pet rats which escaped. Could this be why we now have such a dreadful problem?

I read years ago, in my Girl Guide Handbook, about a woman who, wanting to discover who was stealing eggs from her supposedly secure hen-run, set up an observation post. She eventually saw two rats emerge from a shallow scrape under the back wall. One rat lay on its back holding the egg, while the other towed it by the tail back to their nest, carrying a still unbroken egg!

Cartoon by Cerridwen Rowan

So you have not bred a super-race from your escaped pets, nor are they in any way responsible for the numbers of rats in your garden. Self-reliant households are very attractive to rats, who like to nest undisturbed in dark cosy corners, & to have a handy & varied food supply. This is especially so in urban areas,where there are no chookhouses, wood-heaps, compost bins, fruit trees, or vegie patches for miles, except yours!
Both species of domestic rat - the Norwegian, or common rat, & the roof, or fruit rat - have shared our habitat & food for hundreds of thousands of years. Wherever there is human settlement, there are rats! Our attempts to eliminate them have been singularly unsuccessful, because they are intelligent, communicative & co-operative (with other rats) omnivorous, agile & not frightened of humans.

Strict quarantine, high standards of public health & domestic hygiene, state-of-the-art food storage facilities, & constantly updated control methods, mean that rats no longer pose a serious threat to the health or food supply of most Australians. However, the harm they do to wildlife, domestic animals, & gardens is still significant, not to mention the occasional fire caused by a rat sharpening its teeth on electrical wiring.
In other countries the situation may be very different - the Americas, Europe & Asia are not, like the UK & Australia, rabies free. In many countries diseases carried by rat-fleas are still endemic, & rats spoil much-needed food because of poorer storage facilties.

Western value systems (with which many Earthwise Women, including myself, may not agree) require aggressive measures to prevent rats from getting out of control. Common sense suggests that some form of management should perhaps be adopted. Let's look at both.
Good house-keeping, the most important & acceptable strategy, also helps control mice, cockroaches, & other pests.
So keep all food in vermin proof containers, clear up spilt food straight away, & regularly 'bottom' food cupboards & vegie racks. Make sure your garbage bin is tightly closed. Feed pets inside the house, & remove uneaten food promptly. Remove uneaten poultry food after 30 minutes or so, & free-range your hens between meals rather than using a perpetual feeder. Pick up fallen fruit. Turn your compost heap regularly, cleaning out the corners, & destroy any rat or mouse nests you find. Regular sorting & re-stacking of the woodheap will reveal termite activity as well as rat & mouse nests. Check your roof space every so often, also sheds,the poultry house & the dog kennel. If you find nests of any kind, remove them & their occupants. Baby birds or mice are gourmet items to rats.

If you plan to set traps or poison baits, look for rat-runs to place them close to. These narrow tracks often run along fence rails, & at ground level are partially concealed by vegetation; hairs or droppings will help you to pinpoint them. Traps use no poison & kill quickly, but need to be placed so that children, birds, & lizards are unlikely to be injured by accidentally springing them. They are most effective used for periods of a few weeks at times when food is scarce &/or the rats are breeding. If you use them all year round, the rats will simply learn to avoid them. You need strong steady hands to set & place them. The bait should be small, & capable of being firmly fixed to the platform e.g. an unhulled pumpkin or sunflower seed or a small piece of gristly meat. Check & clear traps as often as you can, rats learn very fast. As the season progresses they will become more & more suspicious & start avoiding traps. You may be able to extend the kill by using chocolate as bait for a while!

Some animals are good at controlling the odd few rats - some breeds of dog were especially bred for this purpose, & cats who have not been pampered & overfed occasionally catch one. Snakes are excellent ratters, but feed infrequently, though they are an important natural form of control in the wild, as are owls, hawks & other raptors. But these are seldom a practical method of dealing with an urban rat population explosion.

Poison baits can be used for clearing up the remnant population after a season of trapping; if you physically can't set traps; or in places where a trap can't be put. Look in the pest control section of your hardware or garden shop, & carefully read the labels on the different baits. If you mix each 'dose' of bait with melted candlewax, it is less likely to be eaten by other creatures, & inactivated or leached by moisture. Always wear rubber gloves when handling poison baits, follow directions on the pack, & dispose of the packaging responsibly. Most baits make rats & mice thirsty, so if you put water out for them & watch for a few days after placing the baits, you may be able to collect some of the dying animals & dispatch them quickly. Only pick up animals that are too sick to run away, wear gloves & take care not to get bitten. Search for bodies each day - the smell is often the first indication you get of their location! Bury them deeply,or put in the centre of the compost heap. Other creatures are only likely to be poisoned if they eat a fresh carcase. When thoroughly decomposed & well-mixed with soil, the residue of baits currently available in retail outlets should do no harm.

With regard to electrical wiring - an electrician friend tells me that rats have a kind of sixth sense, and seldom if ever chew through a wire actually carrying current. But this is no guarantee against the occasional electrical fire. All homes should have an electrical safety cut-out installed at the mains board, by a qualified electrician. And not just if you have rats! It's a common sense way to protect yourself and your family from a lethal power which we all too often treat with contempt.

Please do not be tempted to use or handle any kind of commercial or agricultural animal bait, unless the literature & labelling specifically states that it is safe for domestic use.

More about the subject on NEBGUIDE - RATS . Scroll down to ":Bait Stations for Controlling Rats and Mice, G1646" This excellent publication was written and published by the University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension.

An amusing and informative article about rats from Australian Geographic

RATS IN THE COMPOST PILE - on City Farmer's website

Note: In researching & answering questions about earthwise living, Margaret offers information, opinion, & personal experience, but no quick fixes! Readers should evaluate these offerings in the context of their own situations; they are suggestions, *not* recommendations. Any responsibility for their implementation rests *solely* with the reader.

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