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Rats Flourish in Britain’s Mild Winter

March 6, 1989

LONDON (AP) _ Wintertime, and the living is easy in the kingdom of Rattus norvegicus, the common brown rat which has become uncommonly numerous around Britain.

Complaints about rats are up as much as 70 percent in parts of London, which has had just a touch of slush during a very mild winter. Similar increases have been reported in Bristol, Manchester and other large cities.

″I’ve never, never known such a year,″ said Stuart Slater, chief environmental services officer of Babergh District Council northeast of London. ″I haven’t had a Saturday off since the end of November.″

Norman Foster, health officer for the Mid-Suffolk Council, said he received 1,323 rat complaints last winter. This year, he had matched that total by late December - before winter had officially begun.

Rentokil, one of Britain’s largest exterminators, has doubled its sales of poisons this winter, said Peter Bateman, the company’s director of public relations.

With the increase in rats, there has been a growing concern about Weil’s disease, which is spread by rat urine in water. The ailment used to be seen mostly in miners and sewer workers, but cases have cropped up among water skiers and canoeists.

The reasons for the rat’s prosperity are various.

″We’ve had mild winters before, without having more rats,″ said Graham Twigg, retired senior lecturer in Zoology at Royal Holloway College at the University of London and author of scholarly books on vermin.

″Certainly in towns, one aspect of it is the lack of good hygiene,″ said Twigg, who has done research on rats in coal mines and Caribbean canefields.

″It’s one of those things, a general lack of attention. This country is pretty scruffy,″ he said.

Hilary King, spokeswoman for the Institution of Environmental Officers, said decaying Victorian sewage systems in big cities have contributed to the problem. She also blamed the illegal dumping of garbage, and the spread of fast-food restaurants.

Efforts to poison rats have been frustrated by the rich menu of trash and debris, especially from fast-food restaurants, said Angela Moon, environmental health officer for the borough of Lambeth in south London.

″They would rather eat that than our poison,″ she said.

The sewers, at least, have their defenders.

″There have been a lot of stories around recently, a story which comes up year after year after year, that rat populations are increasing and sewers are decaying. I just say: prove it,″ said Brigette Daniels, spokeswoman for Thames Water, which is responsible for a thousand miles of sewers in and around London.

If there are more rats about, she said, ″we believe they are above-ground rats.″

In Bristol, an industrial city in western England, the sewers are taking the blame without dispute.

″The sewers are crumbling because of lack of upkeep, and the rats are finding it increasingly easy to get out,″ said Peter Archer, Bristol’s assistant chief environmental health officer.

″Also, there is a great deal of redevelopment going on, and if the drains are not properly sealed when the old buildings are knocked down the rats can find their way up them and appear, to everyone’s horror, on the nice piece of landscaped garden outside the gleaming new office blocks.″

Archer said his rat-control budget has not been increased in three years, and nine of 54 positions in his department are vacant.

″We can control rats in two ways - by blocking up the holes in the sewers so that they cannot get out, and by poisoning them. We want to do both, but the government’s spending limits mean that we cannot do either properly,″ he said.

Twigg dismissed stories in the tabloid press which have claimed that a ″super rat″ has emerged from the sewers.

He recalled coal miners telling him about big rats, rats big enough to enter in a dog show, and the sage insight of one miner: ″No one ever sees a small rat.″

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