NATURE NOTES - The day of the rat

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I LITERALLY tripped over a rat in the wood yesterday and to be honest it’s not that often I see rats in the wood.

I think the mad rain day on Friday had probably flooded its usual ‘pad’ out so it was looking for somewhere drier. It’s funny how creatures’ popularity rises and falls. In the east during ancient times the rat was welcomed as a protector and bringer of material prosperity. It was an animal associated with aggression, wealth, charm, and order, yet also associated with death, war, the occult, pestilence, and atrocities. It is one of the 12 animals in the Chinese Zodiac. Ancient Romans did not generally differentiate between rats and mice, instead referring to the former as Mus Maximus (big mouse) and the latter as Mus Minimus (little mouse).

There are two kinds of people – those that think rats are lovely and regularly keep them as pets and the others who think of rats as scaly-tailed dirty little monsters who spread diseases and cause destruction wherever they are found. Rats can and do carry diseases, over 30 different diseases dangerous to humans, including Weil’s disease, typhus, salmonella and bubonic plague. Black rats or ship rats are suspected to have had a role in the Black Death, an epidemic which killed at least 75 million people in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia in the mid-late 14th century.

The Black Death was caused by a huge growth in the number of infected black rats living close to man.

Infection was spread to man through bites from rat fleas, causing deadly bubonic plague and a highly contagious strain of pneumonia - Yersinia pestis - which is still present in some parts of the world and potentially could find its way back into the UK as a result of international trade. Rats with the disease could get into the UK in sealed containers carried by boats or planes and spread the infection to black rats already in the country. A vaccine also exists against the plague, but is not effective immediately and not therefore suitable for use in an epidemic.

There are two species of rat found in the UK, the brown rat and the black rat – the black rat is now very rare and only found in a few places. Brown rats, although originally native to east Asia and Japan, are now found all over Britain except for exposed mountain regions and some small offshore islands. They arrived in Britain via the shipping traffic from foreign countries in the 18th century, largely replacing the black rat. Along with house mice, they are considered to be the most widespread terrestrial mammal.

There’s an urban legend that I often hear touted about – you are never more than a couple of metres from a rat in the UK. Nonsense!

I think it started when the Keep Britain Tidy Campaign said you are never more than five metres from a rat in Central London (which is probably true) as part of their ‘litter in the City’ promotion.