It’s official, we have a rat problem. The other evening when I went to lock up the chickens I saw a large rat scuttling away from the feeder. The next night it happened again. And yesterday, as I was sitting in the kitchen, I looked up to see a ginormous rat with its paws up at the window, trying to get the fat ball hung up for the birds. So it’s taken about three weeks since the arrival of the chickens for the rats to appear. I’m sure the rats were there all along – we have compost heaps, and ditches running around the fields – lots of lovely places for rats to call home. But I hadn’t actually seen any evidence until now. I expect the delights of chicken mash in the feeders have drawn the rats out into the paddock, where they can be seen. (We do put the chickens’ feeders away at night, but had been leaving it until dusk when the chickens were in bed.) It doesn’t help that the wheat fields around us have recently been harvested, sending mice, rats and shrews scurrying away to look for new homes and fresh sources of dinner. (Which apparently means moving in with us…We’ve had shrews rattling round the kitchen for days – I even saw one climbing into my bag the other evening, the blighter.)
I really don’t like rats around. Mice, voles and shrews I can tolerate, just about. I know they also carry diseases, and I don’t want them scuttling around the kitchen – but there’s something alarming about a rat. Maybe it’s the fact they can gnaw through breeze blocks. And are big enough to kill a small chicken. Ug. So – what to do. We’ve started putting the feeders away earlier. And we’ve put rat traps out along the edges of walls where we’ve seen them running. We’ve put tempting treats in the traps but not set them yet, in the hope that the rats – who are cunning – will get used to feeding there; then in a few days we’ll set the traps.
But what about poison? I’ll admit, we were tempted to rush out to buy up sacks of rat poison. In proper bait boxes, we should be able to keep it safe from small children, chickens, and neighbours’ pets. But there’s another problem. What if a poisoned rat is caught by a neighbouring cat? Or by one of the birds of prey we see regularly hunting in the fields – the kestrel, the sparrowhawk, or the barn owl? We’re especially fond of the barn owl. She (probably a she) spent hours here one afternoon in early summer, flying from fence post to fence post until at last she managed to bag a young rabbit – she flapped heavily away with it dangling from her talons, presumably to a nest full of hungry chicks. Apparently, secondary poisoning of barn owls is a big problem, with many dead barn owls showing traces of rat poison. A bit of rummaging around on the internet turned up a very useful leaflet on rodent control from the Barn Owl Trust, urging people to avoid using conventional rat poison if at all possible. It did mention a way of killing rats that is non-toxic to other wildlife – something called Eradibait. As far as I can tell, it’s a feed you put out for the rats that won’t harm other critters, but somehow disrupts the rat’s digestive processes, stopping it drinking. I’m sure it’s not a nice way to go for the rat. We’d rather kill them quickly in a trap if we can. But if we’re getting nowhere, then we may give Eradibait a try.
This evening, as I went to put the chickens to bed, I saw the barn owl for the first time in months – she glided over my head, incredibly close by, huge creamy-white wings outstretched. Reminding me she was still here. Now – if only she’d catch some of those rats for us.