When rats invade your garden, it's good to know why, but better to get rid of them.
You can't fight the 'special elite force' with just a pot lid
In life, as in show business, the adage says you're never more than three feet away from a rat. But on the evidence of recent events in my household, that figure may be wildly optimistic.
Sharing your living space with undesirable neighbours (both human and animal) is part of life in the city, but until recently rats infested other places, not my leafy suburb in north-west London. Only last summer I read, with a certain amount of schadenfreude, of the problems Dubai's Public Health Pest Control Section faced with the rodents. But recent occurrences have wiped away my smug little smile.
It all kicked off the other week while my wife and I were hosting an elegant supper party for her closest friends. During dessert one guest happened to glance out of a window into our back garden. "Ooh look, a squirrel" she cooed. "How lovely."
Alas, while our friend's eyesight is exemplary, her knowledge of natural history is sadly deficient. It was the actress Sarah Jessica Parker who said "squirrels are just rats in cuter clothes" and our companion was looking at a magnificent specimen of rattus norvegicus - a large brown rat, to give the species its more popular moniker. It was snuffling in our flower beds on a search for scraps of food discarded by birds that had visited our feeder.
As I was both nominal host and token male, my wife made it abundantly clear she expected me to "do something about it". Naturally I did what any red-blooded man would do when confronted by a monster rodent and surrounded by females in distress: I stood nervously in the doorway with my socks tucked into my trouser bottoms banging a saucepan lid with a wooden ladle, until the creature shuffled away.
While clearing away the next morning, we looked out nervously into our garden. This time there were two of them, not only sleek and well-fed, but not the slightest bit abashed at being discovered.
Indeed, when I ventured nervously out to confront them, they regarded me with detached irritation, as if I were a restaurant waiter approaching their table with the bill before they'd finished their coffee.
Eventually these two slunk away into the undergrowth, after inspecting the ground around them to check they hadn't left their car keys or credit card. I half expected to find they'd left me a small tip.
The next day, armed with various fiendish devices purchased from my local superstore, I set to work, placing assorted traps, baited with the tastiest foodstuff I could think of (crunchy peanut butter) strategically round the edges of our garden. My efforts bore spectacular, even alarming results: I caught so many rats over the next few days that I half-expected to see a contingent approaching our back door with a white flag and the offer of talks at the UN. Yet still they came.
Our saviour turned out to be a chap called Jason. Jason is the "rodent management specialist" for our local council, and his explanation proved as illuminating as his official Day-Glo jacket. He explained that recent events, both natural and political, had conspired to create the perfect conditions for rats.
Many cash-strapped local councils had replaced weekly rubbish collections with fortnightly ones. And there is new emphasis on recycling rather than throwing away discarded food items. And so our streets and gardens have become a virtual buffet for pests of all sorts - rats, mice, foxes and more.
Add an abnormally mild winter, and you have what Jason poetically called a "ticking time bomb". He's earning so much overtime that he's about to purchase a second home.
Jason's bleak diagnosis was confirmed this week by a report by LV Insurance, saying the UK rat population, currently estimated at about 80 million, is expected to increase.
"They're the special elite force of animals," said one expert despairingly. "They can do anything - even climb upside down backwards."
And do not imagine that they confine themselves to poorer areas: they've been spotted scuttling past the doorway of 10 Downing Street during live TV transmissions.
Prime Minister David Cameron's answer has been to buy a cat, but for us salvation has come from Jason. Under his expert direction (blocking holes, laying poison and clearing away undergrowth) our unwelcome visitors have got the message and moved on.
Our tiny back garden has once again become the charming idyllic spot we know and love.
Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London