Rats in the garden

by Kate Bradbury

One Christmas my mum handed me a spade and told me to "kill the rats in the compost bin".

RatWith all this talk of feeding the birds lately, it would be wrong not to mention the potential unhappy consequence of such a good deed: rats.

Rats are everywhere, and some say there is one rat for every human in the UK. They used to spread the plague (and still do in parts of Asia and Africa) and some now carry Leptospirosis, which can lead to Weil's disease. Rats thrive in a variety of habitats, including derelict buildings, farmland and city sewers, and scavenge on food waste from refuse bins, restaurants, and - ahem - bird tables.

I'm not sure how I'd feel if I attracted rats to my garden. I don't mind them (that is to say, I'm not offended by their existence) and I'd never kill one, but I wouldn't like them in my garden (it's only 4m², after all). But I feel it's only a matter of time before they find it. The only birds visiting my garden at the moment are a blackbird, robin and several pigeons. Blackbirds and robins are ground feeders, so I leave food on the ground for them. I put it out first thing in the morning and, thanks to the pigeons, it's gone by the time I get home. If it weren't for the 'flying rats' I'd probably have rats.

It's become something of a tradition that when I visit my mum I end up doing lots of jobs she doesn't want to do, like programming the central heating, putting up shelves, plugging in the DVD player. One Christmas I was handed a spade and told to "kill the rats in the compost bin". My mum has two plastic compost bins next to each other, and the lone rat (as it turned out) had dug a tunnel between the two. It must have been a nice little den, all warm and protected from the cold. Unaware of Weil's disease and only mildly worried that I'd be met with a fanged monster that would bite me on Boxing Day, I turned one compost bin over and then the other, and the rat shot out and ran in the direction of the local curry house. It never returned.

We don't know where the rat was eating - my mum and her neighbours don't feed the birds. But if you do, clear away any surplus food at the end of the day so there's nothing left for rats to hoover up at night. Some people think compost bins attract rats. My mum's did, but they'll use any warm, quiet shelter in winter. To make your compost bin as univiting to rats as possible, avoid adding cooked food scraps, meat and dairy to the heap and add a good mix of green and brown waste so it's nice and moist (rats prefer a dry heap). Turning the heap regularly will disturb any rats and scare them away, though do remember other wildlife, such as overwintering frogs, bees and other insects use compost heaps too. And take care if you have decking. The space beneath decking is the perfect environment for a family of rats - it's sheltered, warm, hard to get to, and food scraps can easily fall between the planks.

Rat taking food from a trapThat said, you might inadvertently 'encourage' rats into your home, just by heating it. One of my colleagues suspected she had a rat in her house last winter. Unable to trap it, she downloaded a special app for her phone that took a series of photos through the night, set it up in her kitchen, and waited. The next morning she ploughed though hundreds of photos, only to find this shot of a huge rat at the end. She didn't know how it got in, but it was gone in a few days.

My colleague wasn't too distressed about her winter guest, though a lot of people are terrified of rats. How would you feel if you found one in your home or garden?

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Talkback: Rats in the garden
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Gardeners' World Web User 10/12/2010 at 16:19

Keeping hens I naturally have to bear in mind the presence of our little mammalian friends. I've often discovered a little nest of baby mice under the nestbox where their mother has carefulyl constructed a nest of straw. I don't mind them, they're quite sweet, and they really can't eat that much grain. However, I have unfortunately had an influx of rats lately, much to mine and my neighbours distress. Country rats I can handle, urban rats...I tend to think of slightly more disease ridden. All I can hope is that my vicious hens will turn on this ratty army and keep them away once and for all!

Gardeners' World Web User 10/12/2010 at 16:23

Another reasons for the increase in the rat population is the proliferation of backyard poultry keepers (I am one). The advice, which if followed will minimise any rat problems, is similar viz - clear away uneaten food at the end of the day. Also ensure poultry food is stored in rat proof continers i.e. strong metal.

Gardeners' World Web User 10/12/2010 at 16:36

I`m lucky, the only rats I encounter are brought in dead by my cat!

Gardeners' World Web User 10/12/2010 at 17:12

I don't like rats full stop!

Gardeners' World Web User 10/12/2010 at 17:15

I had a rat in my compost bin a few years ago which got evacuated when I turned the heap as you suggest. I then put galvanized wire mesh under all my bins (I have 9 on my allotment and 2 at home) and it didn't return. I'm sure it just went to somewhere a little easier to get into. The shock when I first saw one in my bin means I always give any bin a hefty set of knocks before I take the lid off, just to make sure any rat present gets a headache and leaves!

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