If there is one thing that Town Mice are afraid of and loathe more than anything else on the planet, it is rats.
While it is complete nonsense that in London you are never more than six feet away from a rat – as the urban myth has it – rats are nevertheless widespread.
And unlike mice, which really are wee, tim’rous beasties, they have courage, entitlement and boldness in spades. They just don’t care. Hence, I suppose, our fear.
Rats have infested a small park that I cycle through on my way to the office. Meanwhile Gardens is a worthy community project which was created in the early Eighties out of a piece of derelict land. It abuts the Grand Union Canal, and at one end is a little road bridge which goes over the water.
It is the area under this bridge that became rat paradise. At any time of day, you were likely to see small gangs of the unappealing creatures feasting on piles of rice and bread. Their numbers seemed to swell daily.
Rats are hard to shift. We once had an invasion when I lived on a farm. The rats would hide and watch while I fed the hens and then join them when I left the yard. One day, I found one trapped in the feed bin. I got my air rifle out, let him out but held him down with my foot on his tail and shot him in the head. Just before I did so he started biting and attacking the barrel of the air rifle. Fearless creatures!
So I was really pleased to see a gang of rat-catchers appear in Meanwhile Gardens. They were busy setting traps and putting up warning notices. They explained to me the system that the rats had developed. Essentially, the pigeons and rats worked together.
‘People come and feed the pigeons. The pigeons swoop down and start pecking. The rats, who have been hiding in the burrows underneath the bridge, see the pigeons and come out to feed with them. Pigeon and rat eat side by side.
‘If we appear, or they are frightened by a dog, the pigeons fly into that tree and the rats go back to their burrows. When the coast is clear, the pigeons swoop back down and the rats see them and come out again.’
Now who on earth would be so irresponsible as to feed the pigeons in this way? First, restaurants were dumping their leftovers in the park. Secondly, mentally ill people in the area like feeding the birds. They may not realise that, in fact, they are feeding the rats. Really there should be signs saying, ‘Please do not feed the rats.’
Some have a misguided view of the equality of all God’s creatures. My friend Ray remonstrated with a pigeon-feeder the other day. This person said, ‘Rats have families, too.’
Sometimes people will creep into the park with a plastic bag of old bread, dump it surreptitiously while no one is looking, and then scarper.
‘Thanks to this food dumping, there now are 200 rats living there,’ said the rat man. As we were chatting, a girl and her boyfriend stopped to see what was going on.
‘There is a rat colony over there,’ I explained. They looked and became gradually more horrified as their eyes focused on the creatures – there must have been six or eight nibbling away – and she started screaming.
The rat man and his noble colleagues put up signs bearing a picture of a rat and the legend ‘Serious rat hazard. Please – no food dumping or pigeon feeding here.’ They cordoned off the rats’ main foraging ground with forbidding-looking tape decorated with yellow and black stripes. They also put down five baited traps and a few sprung rat traps.
A few days later, I bumped into the rat man and asked how it was going. ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘Look – no pigeons.’
He said that they had explained to the rogue pigeon-feeders that they were waging a war against the rats and to please stop feeding the birds – and had enjoyed some success.
Alas, just this morning, I noticed that there were five or six pigeons feeding on a pile of discarded baguette crusts. If this carries on, I may take a bin bag with me and put the bread in it.
‘We’ll never get rid of them completely,’ said the rat man. ‘But at least we can keep the numbers down.’
It got me thinking about what a great job rodent-killers do and how satisfying a profession it must be. I’d just been reading a new book called Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by Professor David Graeber, an anthropologist at the LSE. It’s a survey of 200 accounts he received of people in the UK complaining about the meaninglessness of their job in middle management or in a call centre.
No such problem afflicts the rat men. They are doing something genuinely useful.
Rodent-killers are a bit like the AA – you are always so pleased to see them.
I remember many moons ago, when I was a country mouse, calling in the mole man. ‘Best job in the world!’ was his cheery refrain.
‘There were six or eight rats nibbling away – the girl started screaming’