Oh, rats!

Since getting hens and feeding the birds in the garden we have had a big problem: Rats!
Rats tend to leave fields after harvest in search of cosier place to live with a good supply of food and safe places to breed.  We knew it would happen and as wildlife lovers the odd rat doesn’t bother us. However, when they started gnawing at the wooden parts of the underside of the house (it’s on stilts) and digging the ground to create extensive networks of runs, the sound kept us awake at night and the damage was unforgivable. Within a couple of weeks there were holes everywhere and I would catch the blighters in the chicken enclosure stuffing their bellies with layer pellets. The pile of food waste in the compost bin had disappeared and had definitely not turned into compost.
Sadly, we needed to take action as the situation was just worsening. Rats are prolific breeders and can have babies from just 12 weeks old. As long as there is a good food supply, they can breed continuously, all year round.  If a single rat has 5 litters a year of up to 11 young, that’s 55 rats enjoying all the food we are indirectly feeding them. Then if each of those rats can produce another 11 rats each after just three months, then, well…..that’s a hell of a lot of rats!

As well as being fantastic breeders, they are also highly intelligent, fast to react and fast to learn. This makes exterminating them very difficult. We have, and only ever will, opt for either trapping them in live traps, in traps that kill them instantly or shooting them with the rifle. Being as humane as possible is important to us.
The first action was to remove the bird feeders and stop putting vegetable waste in the compost bin. Instead, I now put the waste in the council brown bin, for now.  The dog is fed in the house, rather than outside, as we frequently found a rat sitting in the dog bowl, happy as pie. Although it didn’t make much of a difference, I started to put the layers pellets for the hens into a dish, rather than onto the ground. The idea being the chickens would devour the food before rats could get to it, and to reduce the amount of food getting trampled into the ground which could be missed by the hens, but found by the rats. It hasn’t worked. The hens still leave some food and I have seen the rats munching away at the food in the dish.
To begin with, we were catching at least one rat per night and successfully did so for a couple of months. However, the little so-and-sos learnt our tactics and avoided the traps. One evening we spotted 5 young rats on the deck feeding on the seed that falls from the bird feeders. Any movement caused them to scarper; they were very cautious. We ran out and set a baited trap up right in the middle if the bird sees spillage and returned to the living room, hoping to get at least one of them. We watched while the rats returned to the deck and nibbled away at the seed. But they didn’t go near the trap. They didn’t look at it; sniff it; nothing. 
The other trap-related problem is mice and voles. They are too light to set off the traps but this allows them to clear the traps of all the bait, thus making them less appealing to rats. This meant that the positioning of traps would be the only attack we would have. Rats tend to run along the side of boundaries such as fences and walls. Positioning the traps in such a way that the rats would accidentally run across one would prove to be the most effective tactic.Between September and December of last year we’ve caught 33 rats! 
The situation does seem to be better now. There’s less ratty evidence and the house-gnawing has all but stopped. I’m feeding the birds again, but only when it’s frosty and very cold. I still see the odd flash of brown when I close the hens for the night, but like I said; the odd one is OK. We just need to keep them under control.
Have you had trouble with rats? If so, how did you get on top of the situation?

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By Jenni Tulip

I'm a bright-haired, hill walking, magpie whispering, skull collecting, tree hugging, money saving, bird watching, happy campervanning, ferret fanatic, woodland dweller sharing my stories and passion for the outdoors to inspire you to immerse yourself in nature.