Recently, I went on safari. It was less spotting majestic giraffes from a Jeep in Kenya at dawn, and more rummaging in the undergrowth for rats with a torch along London’s canals on a rainy Monday night.
It was a rat safari, but it was exciting all the same. Going in search of the much-maligned creatures rather than running away from them (as would be my instinct) gave me a surprising thrill.
I went on the rat hunt with Florence Wilkinson, who has written a book called Wild City: Encounters with Urban Wildlife, as a result of her fascination with creatures in all kinds of urban spaces, from the sky to the sewers. She loves and knows a lot about the unloved pigeons by a park bench, the mosquitoes on the London underground and the powerful, more glamorous, peregrine falcons.
Recently when in New York, Florence, who was heavily pregnant at the time, found herself in rat heaven. It turns out that New Yorkers tend to put their rubbish bags out on the street rather than in wheelie bins. So many rats descend upon the food scraps that the bin bags shake and rock. Her friend waited while she watched the ratty drama, then asked whether perhaps they could move on from the rats in bags and go to a bar or something.
“No matter how many rats I see, I’m always stopping to look at them anyway,” she says. She later sends me a video of a rat visiting the bird feeder in her north London garden. She names him Ratticus Finch.
What is it that Florence finds so alluring about rats? “Rats have such a personality and are so intelligent,” she tells me, torch out, eyes peeled, lamenting that actually it might be a bit wet for rats.
“People do not think rats are worthy of study but there’s so much to explore, and we owe them so much in terms of what we’ve experimented on them. Then there’s the way they’ve adapted to humans in urban spaces, it’s so impressive. ”
Florence is not alone in her interest in rats, and is part of several community groups and networks in the UK who like rat-spotting, including one called The Rat Detectives group. I discover from Florence, just as we spot a huge rat burrow, that rats have an irresistible urge to chew with their incisors, which continue to grow at 11-14 cm per year and are comparable to steel in terms of strength.
Humans’ rat revulsion comes from a fear of disease, and our history – both ancient and very recent – of viruses devastating populations of people. Our fear of them is hard-wired, and understandable. Then again, rats are easy to blame.
Black rats, one of the two types of urban rats, have long been deemed the culprit for bringing the bubonic plague to Europe. But some scientists have recently posited that the lack of rat remains from that period and the speed of the spread suggests that the infected fleas and lice spread mainly from person to person. Florence isn’t suggesting we snuggle up in bed with a wild rat from a London canal.
Rats have a bad reputation; being called “a rat” suggests someone is immoral and disloyal. Yet Florence’s friend Bobby, while doing his PhD on the creatures, moved into a nearby barn with a colony of rats. In the book she writes that “during that time, the thing that surprised him the most was the variety and complexity of behavior that he witnessed. Bobby admits that, in many ways, the behavior he witnessed in the barn resembled our own: ‘I saw aggression, I saw companionship, I saw joy’. When Bobby had to leave his colony of rats, it was with ‘a heavy heart’. “
Rats have always been part of Florence’s life. Her childhood in north Essex with her sculptor mother was like something out of Doctor Dolittle. They had giant rabbits, beagles who would wander off and re-emerge, rescue cats, and ducks which would waddle into her mum’s sculpting room to be fed.
They often kept animal feed in the bath as it seemed a good storage space. Her parents would wake her up at night to see a family of hedgehogs who had wandered nearby. Most importantly, there was Bruce, her pet rat.
A pet rat is one thing, but Florence would not want a wild rat in her home, and is well aware of the devastation rat infestations can cause in poorly made housing, and that they can also start fires by chewing through cables. “They can ruin lives,” she says. Rats enter our urban buildings because so many buildings are so shoddily built, and because the increased flooding caused by the climate crisis means they’re flooded out of the sewers they otherwise happily live in.
Florence and many of the pest controllers she has spoken to think we often reach for the poison too quickly without getting to the root of the problem, and would be more likely to keep rats out of our buildings if we learn to understand their behavior better. On our safari we’ve seen a lot of rat burrows, but I’m going to return on a drier day to see more of them scuttling around. “You do not have to like rats,” says Florence, “but you might find something interesting in them. I think they deserve our attention and our respect. ”
Wild City: Encounters With Urban Wildlife (£ 16.99, Oriona Spring) is out now
Infestation Nation: The Rattiest cities in the UK
There are only two species of urban rat – the black rat, Rattus rattus, also known as the roof or ship rat, and the brown rat, Rattus norvegicus, the Norwegian rat. There are, it is estimated, around 150 million rats in Britain. The rattiest part of any urban area will be around rubbish tips, sewers, waterways and warehouses. Here are the UK cities deemed the rattiest by the Pest Control Association.
If you love rats, head to Birmingham. The city reported the most calls to pest controllers in October 2020, research showed, making it the No 1 ratty city. Particular hot spots included Washwood Heath, Ward End, Saltley and Alum Rock.
The number of rat sightings jumped by more than 600 after lockdown in 2020.
It is estimated there are now 2.2 rats for every person in the city. Warren Peaker, owner of pest controllers Warren and Sons, said there are more rats now than during the past 25 years he has been in business.
The Liverpool Echo’s Freedom of Information request showed that Norris Green, Everton, Old Swan, Yew Tree and Knotty Ash had the most rats in the city.
Rattiest boroughs include; Tower Hamlets, Brent, Camden, Lambeth, Ealing, Redbridge, Newham, Hackney, Islington and Wandsworth.
Manchester, Sheffield, Cardiff, Bristol, Edinburgh.
NEW YORK’S RATTY REPUTATION
Two million rats call the US city home, and recently a rat dragging a slice of pizza down the Subway stairs went viral online. They thrive in The Big Apple, so much so that the New York city authority has a website where you can check on the estimated rat population in your immediate vicinity as the click of a mouse. You can search by address, borough, block, lot number or neighborhood and look up specific rat inspection history. The Lower East Side and the East Village are particularly ratty.