Scientific name Rattus norvegicus
Plants affected Vegetables, especially root crops, sweet corn and stored fruits
Main cause Rats eating growing and stored crops
Timing All year round
What are rats?
Rats are rodents that are widely distributed and common in Britain, occuring in the countryside and urban areas. They are highly social and adaptable mammal and feed on a wide variety of foods. They can make their homes underground or in compost heaps, in buildings, greenhouses, sheds or drains.
Rats are adaptable creatures that can eat a very wide range of foodstuffs. In gardens they will feed on sweet corn cobs, pumpkins and squash and various root vegetables, such as carrot, parsnip, beetroot and potato tubers. This feeding can occur while the crops are growing and when they are being stored. Harvested fruits, such as apples, can be similarly damaged. Seeds can also be consumed.
Parallel grooves, where a rat's incisor teeth have bitten into the food material, are usually visible. Rat tunnels in the soil have an entrance diameter of 30-40mm. Rat droppings may be visible where feeding has occurred. The pellets are cylindrical in shape with rounded ends and are about 15mm long and 5mm wide when fresh. Adult rats are about 21cm long with relatively hairless tails that add another 18cm to the animal's length.
Rats can cause damage to foods that we intend to eat, either while it is growing or after it has been harvested and is being stored. Rats will take food provided for wild birds, poultry and pets. Rats often carry a bacteria that can infect people, causing a form of jaundice known as leptospirosis or Weil's (pronounced 'Viles') disease (NHS information). The bacterium is spread in rats' urine and can persist in wet places. It infects people through cuts and abrasions or by ingestion. The risks can be minimised by taking some simple precautions listed here.
Rats have a liking for compost heaps, the light friable nature of the compost is ideal for burrowing. Compost that has come from a bin or heap that rats have lived in can be used in the garden but avoid using it on fruits or vegetables that are going to be eaten raw and the edible parts may be in contact with the soil or compost e.g. radish, celery, cucumber, strawberry.
Discourage rats by removing any accessible food sources, for example by making sure bins are sealed. When feeding wildlife such as birds, do not let access food build up (this will also help reduce the risk of spreading wildlife diseases). Removing clutter will reduce hiding and nesting places for these animals. More information on living with rats can be found in the RSPCA living with series.
If control of rats is necessary pest control contractors can be employed. Many local councils offer a rat control service. In urban areas rat control over an area larger than one garden is often required to reduce rat numbers.
Break-back rat traps, similar to the traditional mouse trap, can be set in places where rats are active, these can be baited with a wide range of foodstuffs for example bread, cereal or chocolate. They must be placed so that other animals do not have access to them.
Accidental poisoning of non-target animals is illegal. Poison rodenticide baits can be used in an attempt to control some rodents. It is recommended that if this option is considered The Campaign for Responsible Rodenticide Use (CRRU) code for best practice is followed.
Dead animals should be disposed of by burying them or placing the corpses in a polythene bag in the dustbin. Always wear rubber gloves when handling traps or dead rats. Poisoned rats will however, often crawl to an inaccessible place to die, this can result in an unpleasant odour and after a few weeks a large number of blowflies.
Rats have complex social structures and are adaptable and intelligent animals. They breed all year with females having up to five litters a year. The average litter has seven young but as many as 14 have been recorded. More information on these animals from the mammal society.
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