Of rats, hungry mouths and quarantine

Outdoor Living

RUNNING ON EMPTY? We are living in psychologically stressful times, which can be a serious drain on our energy reserves.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

Fresh back from my holiday in the UK, I have become a social outcast. I feel inclined to cover my metaphorical moustache and cry aloud, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ For now I remain under quarantine, lest I became infected with Corona while away. “Two weeks, or 14 days,” said the lady at the airport.
“Whichever is the shorter,” I ventured. It was not the time for humour. Had I two weeks supply of food in the house? We shall see.
All this social distancing… James was taking no chances. He stopped 50 paces off and hollered. “You’re never more than 12 feet from a rat.” He was adamant; the country is full of them. “And there’s more, nobody ever saw a small one. They’re all the size of cats!”
It’s true. Rats, more than any other creature, are ubiquitous. They thrive in all kind of environments, from farmyards to sewers to domestic dwellings, in the most remote of rural locations and on the city streets.
If you want rats about the place, keep chickens. If you don’t want chickens, you’ll still be no more than 12 feet from a rat, and for every rat you actually see there are 12 more standing around watching you, according to James, at least.
These beasts are the Brown rat, Rattus norvegicus, or Francach donn in the native tongue, and although I don’t suppose for a moment they are as numerous as James would have us believe, they are more than capable of maintaining a large population.
A female rat will produce her first litter at just three months of age and go on to replicate the act every two months. Each litter might have as many as a dozen young, roughly half of which will also be female and potentially just as prolific. According to one source, a breeding pair of brown rats could produce as many as half a billion descendants in three years, if all of them were to survive.
But let’s face it: even one rat is too many. It’s a good job they make a popular dinner for a wide range of birds and animals.
When it comes to controlling rodent populations our friend the fox is perhaps the most efficient of our predators. Badgers and feral cats are also enemies of the rat, as are many birds. Should there be less fish in the freezer than I think are there, there’ll be another hungry mouth at large…
An elderly farmer told me of the annual plague of rats that descended on his farm each autumn to help themselves to the contents of his potato clamp. They were led, he said, by the King Rat, an abnormally large and hairless specimen. As long as the King Rat was allowed to stay alive there would be no end to the plague, but should it be destroyed, those of its subjects that remained alive would disperse and the crop could be saved.
There is another kind of rat in Ireland – the Black or Ship rat, Frannach dubh, properly known as Rattus rattus. This is the creature that carried and spread the Black Death, or bubonic plague, via the fleas that survived only in the presence of their host. In the early part of the 14th century this dreadful disease was spreading along trade routes throughout Europe, and in 1348 the people of Dublin and Drogheda began falling victim. Eventually, about a third of the population in those port towns fell victim and succumbed. Across Europe various estimates put the death rate at between 25 and 60 percent.
The black rat is still found on Lambay Island, where it is said to be common.
Outbreaks of bubonic plague continue to trouble people in various lands to this day. It would seem logical that in order to eliminate the black death, the Black rat ought to be exterminated. However, once a rat is killed the fleas that live upon it find themselves forced to find another host. As they cannot live on the human blood they keep on the move, infecting each person they take a taste of.
If you see a rat in Mayo it is almost certainly going to be a brown one, for Frannach dubh lives only on Lambay Island, and is rarely encountered in other marine ports. A fat brown rat might make a tasty dinner. They are commonly eaten in parts of Africa and Asia, and according to various reports are sold in Chinese meat markets, which is where all this trouble began. Hopefully we won’t be that hard pushed. I can send James for supplies: he can them leave at the crossroads.