Having decided to have a go at writing a blog, I spent some time pondering what to write about in February when most self-respecting wildlife is keeping a low profile. I was still considering the matter as I lay in bed listening to the rats scrabbling about in the roof space above my head and it occurred to me that I might not need to look much further than our four hundred year old cottage in the Cotswolds.
Having just put together a species list off the top of my head I count at least 38 species found inside the house over the past 6 years (see below):
Ground beetle, lesser stag beetle, devil’s coach horse, earwig, woodlouse (unidentified), house spider, daddy long legs spider, money spider, spider (unidentified), fly (unidentified), bluebottle, cluster fly, fruit fly, tiny fly (unidentified), bee (unidentified), garden bumblebee, wasp, small tortoiseshell butterfly, peacock butterfly, brimstone moth, white-faced moth, clothes moth, carpet moth, hebrew character moth, hearts and darts moth, swallowtail moth, moth (other not recorded), great grey leopard slug, slug (unidentified), snail (unidentified), earthworm, ant (unidentified), ladybird (unidentified), harlequin ladybird, brown rat, grey squirrel, little owl, canary.
Picture of unidentified slug in bathroom last week.
The actual list would be much higher than this because we have several species of spiders, midges, flies and probably woodlice which I am not sufficiently expert to be able to identify. In addition, over the years I have removed many different, beautiful and no doubt wonderfully named species of moth from our walls and ceilings during the summer months without recording what they were.
The carpet moths are one of the least welcome species on the list and sadly one which has forced me from the ‘live and let live’ policy that I generally strive to operate under. Perhaps as a result of many years of restraint, the discovery of the destruction of large parts of our spare room carpet triggered a downfall that was total and unremitting. Carpets were sprayed with noxious chemicals that sadly killed many of the woodlice, or chucky pigs, of which I am rather fond. Unsuspecting carpet moth larvae, falsely confident in the camouflage of their homespun woollen sleeping bags, were vacuumed with the same gratification with which a hunter knocks a flushed wood pigeon out of the sky. Summer evenings in 2014 found me stalking the house, newspaper in hand, a slightly worrying satisfaction taken in every successful thwack. The carpet moth battle is one that no doubt will resume later in the spring. However, whilst last year I was naïve and curious about the tiny little moths perched on my walls, this year I am battle-hardened, prepared and ready for round two.
I realise eyebrows may have been raised at the presence of two bird species on my list, “I thought she said inside the house” I can hear the mutterings. To be fair including the canary on my list is perhaps a stretch but I figured that it counted as it was wild and free flying when it landed on my head one winter morning as I opened the front door to let the dog out. My partner Tim was slightly surprised when I walked back in with a canary on my head. ‘Bobby’ stayed with us for a couple of months during which time Tim and I argued fiercely about the moral rights and wrongs of keeping Bobby in a cage, a necessary precaution in a house with a lurcher, and one that didn’t sit well with me at all. Eventually Bobby took advantage of an open window whilst on his morning constitutional and departed once more, like a controversial version of the littlest hobo, perhaps to go and cause arguments in someone else’s house.
Tag at the door hoping for another canary
The other bird species on the list was also probably the biggest wildlife highlight we have had inside our house and that was the little owl that appeared in the back of our woodburner a few summers ago. Having been listening to something scratching about in there for a couple of days, further investigation revealed a very sooty little owl peering out from the back of the chimney pipe. I guess the fact that we waited a couple of days before investigating tells you something about how used we are to sharing our home with a variety of creatures. Having identified our guest, basic hospitality dictated that we offer him/her some food so a plate of chopped up sausages was duly placed in the woodburner before we left for work. The sausages were gratefully received and that evening, having retrieved the now empty plate, I opened up all the doors and windows and watched with an excited lump in my throat as the little owl glided softly through the lounge, paused nonchalantly on a garden fencepost to inform the valley that it was back on the block and slipped silently away into the dusk.
And so to the rats whose night-time scrabblings both inspired the start of my blog and also kept me awake long enough to think of the first few paragraphs. First let it be known that I am a life-long lover of rats. One of my earliest memories of watching wildlife is that of crouching down next to my older brother, watching huge brown rats pottering about on an old farm waste heap. Even at 7 years old I remember being fascinated by the way in which two rats would take it in turns to dig a tunnel. After a few of the inevitable pet goldfish, hamsters, rabbits and guinea pigs, I asked for a pet rat for my 14th birthday and thus began a 10 year rollercoaster of the joy and sorrow of keeping pet rats. Each rat was incredibly smart, entertaining and completely individual, much like a very tiny dog. Sadly the average lifespan of the domestic rat is about 2 years and I eventually realised that I couldn’t keep going through such a traumatic loss every two years, it was too heartbreaking. However, the love for rats has remained and so more or less the only rule I imposed on moving in with Tim 6 years ago was the prohibition of any rat poison around the house. It was agreed that I would live-trap any problem rats and remove them to a suitable distance i.e. several miles away.
During the intial summer months, live-trapping rats was relatively easy as they mainly live around our chicken run in the back garden and I met with fairly high levels of success during the first year or two, after which word must have got round because subsequent populations of rats have shown complete disinterest in the trap. In winter it is a lot more problematic as the rats move into our roof where their runs are in and around the walls, floorboards and rafters and therefore completely inaccessible for trapping purposes. The presence of rats in the roof is made particularly unpleasant in our house by the fact that the roof in our bedroom is pitched so that the top of our bed is only a foot or two beneath it. Unfortunately, the rats’ favourite place in the roof is right above our bed so during the winter we go to sleep most nights listening to the sounds of unknown numbers of rats going about their business a foot or so above our faces.
In spite of the fact that we have an unknown number of rowdy, unwelcome squatters in our roof, I cannot help being both amused and fascinated by them. The rats in our roof are as individual as the pet rats I had as a teenager. During one of the early years we spent a winter listening to plastic bags being dragged inside the walls from the kitchen beneath us, up the back of our heads and shredded, presumably as nesting material, immediately above us. Whilst all the other rats that have lived in this house over recent years have extended us the courtesy of only stealing food from our chickens, the rats in that particular year had no qualms whatsoever about helping themselves from the kitchen. Firstly, all the wooden spoons in the cutlery drawer were eaten. Then a potato disappeared from the vegetable drawer, only to reappear a week later part-eaten in the spare room. Finally an entire box of six Cadbury’s Crème Eggs was removed from my daysack through the creation of a neat egg-sized hole in the canvas that matched a second egg-sized hole in the box. Not a scrap of foil was to be found anywhere so I can only imagine that each egg was carefully rolled away and stashed ready for Easter. Perhaps it is a consequence of also being a life-long lover of lurchers – another notorious bunch of thieves – but how can one help but find this kind of thieving anything but funny?
Another year a female rat had a litter of kits right above my bedside table. Who needs a nestbox camera when you can hear every intimate detail of nestbuilding and raising young nightly from the comfort of your bed?
This winter’s rat community is a particularly athletic one. They appear to relish galloping from one end of the roof to the other and back again, for reasons about which one can only speculate. Largely as a consequence of this activity I have found it necessary for the first time to sleep with earplugs every night in order to mute the galloping sounds. This winter is also the first that the stay of execution enjoyed by the rats for the past 6 years has been under serious threat. A number of factors have contributed to their current precarious situation. First was the habit they developed last autumn of sitting on the bird feeder immediately outside our dining room window, comfortably snacking on tasty sunflower seeds and other delicacies not meant for them. This was not so serious in itself but when you are showing prospective buyers around it takes on a whole new dimension as you glance nervously out of the window hoping that the furry seed thieves are not in situ. Then there is the galloping. Whilst I imagine there are probably no more rats in the roof this year than in previous years, the galloping makes it very easy to imagine vast hordes of enormous rodents that could fall through the plasterboard at any moment. Finally, and most seriously of all, the rats have descended en masse on the garage. Now the house is one thing and rats may be tolerated if not welcomed. But the garage is a sacred place reserved only for tools, cars, motorbikes and their accoutrements. These things are precious and expensive, they are polished and maintained lovingly. An attack on the garage represents a serious threat and must be dealt with in a serious way. It has become personal. Over the years we have had many lengthy discussions with friends and family about the best way to deal with the rats. Of the many suggestions the most appealing yet sadly impractical has been to introduce and apex predator in the form of a ferret. Unfortunately as most of the roof is inaccessible to a human, the chances of retrieving a ferret would be almost nil so this idea has been dismissed. Among the strategies we have tried there was the day that we set off mole smokes in the roof to dislodge any current tenants and then plastered over all the places we thought they might be coming in. Needless to say this was a complete failure. Then there was the day when I consented to the use of snap traps around the outside of the chicken run. This led to terrible tragedy a few hours later when I discovered a still warm dead robin in one of the traps. Devastated I tripped all the remaining traps and they have remained unset ever since. The rats have not made it easy, nonetheless I have leapt to their defence and had some very heated arguments in the process. Still, it is difficult to argue their cause when the sound of two rats fighting inside a spare tyre greets Tim in the morning when he enters the garage. The live trap is back in action. Consent has been given for more appropriately placed snap traps. Poison is threatened but so far deferred.