Sunday, 14 September 2014

The Baffling Business of the Bald-Headed Rat

There have been fewer rats hereabouts in the last couple of years. Or rather, one doesn’t hear or see many. Probably there are still more than one would like to imagine, but they are hiding more carefully and perhaps aware that Ellie, the dog who now lives with me, is a skilled and determined rat-catcher.

But a couple of years ago I used to hear them scampering about on my roof at night. There were passion fruit and grapes growing to shade the skylight, so whatever else they were eating they were getting plenty of vitamin C. I had to make something Heath-Robinson out of chicken wire and bits of wood before I dared leave the skylight open at night. (If you’ve once had a rat plop through the skylight onto the bed as you’re sleeping, you’re going to make very sure it never happens again.)

The most common type of rat-trap here is the Ξυλόγατο, the ‘wooden cat’: a wire cage on a wooden base, with a spring-loaded door which slams shut if anything (including your hand when setting it) gets inside and touches the bait. Incidentally cheese is not a very good bait unless it’s a smelly one. A fish-head is better, and, unexpectedly, tomato is best of all.

So I set the trap on the roof, and sure enough late at night I heard ‘Scurry – scurry… Bang! …’ followed by a few seconds shocked silence. Then there was some frantic crashing about as the rat realized he was trapped and jumped about in panic and rage.

By morning when I went up to check he had calmed down and was cowering in the cage, looking at me fearfully. ‘Well it’s not your fault you’re a rat’ I thought, and made the nimby-ish decision to deport rather than kill him. I took him, still in the trap, several miles away, and released him not far from one of the heaps of rubbish local people like to leave in beauty-spots. I had had time to observe the rat quite closely as he stared at me fearfully from his caged perch on the handlebars, and I’d noticed a curious bald patch on his forehead.

Returned home with the empty trap, I set it up on the roof again — there might be more.

Sure enough, in the night I heard ‘Scurry – scurry… Bang!… boing, boing, crash’, and in the morning I climbed up on the roof to fetch the new … Oh. No. Surely not. It had a bald patch on its forehead. Homing pigeons, yes, but … Or could it have followed a scent? No, we went by motorbike … A family of bald-headed rats?

I had an idea. I found an aerosol tin of red paint and managed, against its indignant protests, to get a bright stripe down one side of the rat, and a lot of paint in a lot of other places. Then I deported the rat, but to a more distant place in the other direction.

Next day, another rat. Another bald-headed rat in fact. But no red stripe. Had it worn off on the way ‘home’? I examined it as closely as its terrified jumping up and down would allow. No trace of red. Just the very marked bald patch.

I sat and pondered. Eventually the rat, calmed by my lack of action, settled down and resumed its routine escape efforts: butting repeatedly at the trapdoor with its forehead …

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