Rat control – what’s your (organic / permaculture) rationale?

Feb 1, 2023

*Trigger warning: contains photo of a bird killed by rat poison

Rats really impress me. They’re highly intelligent, resourceful and resilient with bodies that can do amazing things when it comes to climbing and squashing themselves flat to access tiny spaces. I had three pet rats as a teenager and I taught them all sorts of impressive tricks, including finding their own way back home from the edge of the common where we lived.

But there is, of course, a big difference between fancy rats (as they’re called) and wild rats, and I feel much less impressed and more distressed when I discover they’ve eaten their way through the mortar of my cellar and begun nibbling and nesting in the potatoes I’ve so carefully sown, grown, sorted and stored. There’s also evidence of them being among the apples, which are carefully layered in stacked mushroom crates close by. 

Rat eating home grown produce
Creative Commons image

I’ve found it really difficult to know what to do. As a starting point we’ve replaced the mortar (twice; the first time they just ate through the soft newly-inserted mixture). Quick-kill snap traps have been mentioned but, as someone else pointed out, they have a banquet of food laid out all over the cellar – why would intelligent animals go for something in a trap instead? Besides I could never clear one of those traps myself, I’m squeamish about dead animals. 

So what are my other options? Well there’s humane traps and I did once accidentally catch a rat in a container but I had no idea where to release it. As I drove it aimlessly around, the stressed creature started slamming itself against the lid. I don’t think anyone witnessed the screaming woman handbrake turn into a layby, race round her car to the passenger door, gingerly loosen a large container lid then lob the whole lot into the nearest hedge… So that method involves a trauma element for the animal, but also the human! Besides, many wildlife sites will echo the words of this one: “Unfortunately, the available evidence suggests that the survival rate of relocated animals is often very low – releasing animals into a new location is therefore unlikely to be a more humane alternative to killing them quickly and painlessly.”

A couple of people have said rats don’t like being disturbed. Well we can visit the cellar more often, but that doesn’t seem like the biggest of deterrents somehow. I would never consider those vile glue boards (I’m horrified they’re even allowed – they’ve been shown to capture so much more than the target species and cause terrible suffering). Farm cat? Well, our silly ginger fluffball was witnessed by a WWOOFer “lazily lying on the path whilst a fat rat waddled past, not a metre away.” So no help there then, and an ‘effective’ dog is not an option due to my rather large collection of sometimes-free-range pet rabbits.

Author with rat-fearing cat, by Andrew Fox

I’ve never in my life used poison. It’s partly the slow, horrible death from internal bleeding you inflict but also, it’s about the possibility of toxins entering the wider environment and causing secondary poisonings – including to pets such as cats. Instances of owls and other birds of prey found dead after ingesting these highly toxic SGARS – Second Generation Anticoagulant Rodenticides – are well documented. 

So I must admit to being mighty surprised when no fewer than three of my very green-minded friends, quite independently, said that for them, rats entering the house is crossing a boundary and they would seriously consider using poison. One also added that there’s the possibility of them getting into the walls, chewing through electrical cables and forcing a rewiring job. 

Highly undesirable, I can see that, and it was these three eco-allies suggesting ‘maybe it’s time to consider poison’ that prompted me to wonder – was I being impractical and idealistic in my refusal to touch toxins? It also gave me the idea to write this article and ask a wider group, tapping into the wisdom of the WWOOF world. Was I needlessly jeopardising our status as self-sufficient in fruit and veg, and putting Longview residents and visitors at a possible health risk?

I did a little research and tried to find the Soil Association’s position on rodenticides. That was easier said than done, but they seem to be saying it’s permitted as long as the poison is  “in tamper-proof bait stations and in places where there is no risk of contaminating products.” So I started digging a bit deeper and discovered what’s not so well documented about SGARs is the shocking amount of small mammal predators carrying ‘sub-lethal’ levels of poison in their livers, including mustelids (weasels, badgers, otters, ferrets, martens), foxes and  hedgehogs. And there is no way of telling what effect this not-enough-to-kill-you level of poison has on a species; it could certainly affect behaviour, reproduction, life expectancy and general wellbeing. 

From The Barn Owl Trust:

“The time taken for a rodent to die after eating the bait varies from 2 to 12 days. A rodent eating a sub-lethal dose (not enough to kill it) may carry the poison in its liver for several months. Before a poisoned rodent dies it may be caught by a Barn Owl which then ingests the poison. This is called secondary poisoning. Creatures which have been killed by secondary poisoning include Barn Owls, Tawny Owls, Red Kites and Foxes. Animals which have been killed by directly eating rodenticide baits include dogs, cats, pigeons and blackbirds.”

“Research has shown that poisoned Barn Owls either die slowly, or survive and carry a residue of poison in their bodies. Unfortunately no research has been carried out on the effects of sub-lethal doses on wild Barn Owls. There is a concern that it may affect survival during hard times and breeding success.”

Credit: The Barn Owl Trust

“The proportion of Barn Owls contaminated reached its highest level in 2015, an alarming 94%. The latest (2019) figure is 87%. Earlier results from the Predatory Bird Monitoring Scheme show that 100% of the Kestrels they examined in 2011 were contaminated, along with 94% of Red Kites! The problem is not restricted to a particular area. The analysed corpses were sent in by the public from across Britain. In other words, virtually the entire populations of these 3 sentinel species have been feeding on rodents that contain rat poison. Sparrowhawks (93%), Buzzards (48%), Peregrine Falcons (35%) and even Hedgehogs (57%) contain SGAR poisons.”

And then, to top it all off I read that some rats have developed resistance to SGARS.

When I started writing this article it was from a position of curiosity, wondering if I have been a bit too uncompromising in my approach. But from just this small amount of research I feel resistance creeping back, my instincts saying that unless they are made a great deal safer, toxins should continue to be ‘off the menu’.

So then, here’s the question: what would you counsel, WWOOF hive mind? What is your experience, your wisdom, your favourite method of discouraging or dispatching rats? Where is your ‘line’ in terms of the presence of these rodents around you, your house your wider environment, versus the important consideration of animal welfare, even of a ‘pest’ species? How do you store your own potatoes, apples etc. to make sure they’re protected from rodents? Or perhaps you embrace the ‘live and let live’ ethos, finding that nature – left to her own devices – will create a natural balance ( “and if so, how long does it take?” she asked, fairly desperately… )

I’d genuinely value hearing your thoughts – please do get in touch here by emailing the Editor

All answers and opinions read with non-judgement and honest interest.

Scarlett Penn, as part of the #Penntopaper series

WWOOF UK Coordiator / Chief Executive

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