Property: Pests can prove lethal - for your finances
Saturday 06 December 1997
Stepping, or rather sliding, barefooted on a slimy slug the size of a small rodent, sent me reeling. It was just the start of a nocturnal nightmare - slugs of all sizes were regularly found hanging out of the larder or silently gathering in a great pow-wow on my ceramic tiles.
Criss-crossed silvery trails were the tell-tale signs every morning of our unwanted visitors. We tried slug pellets - too dangerous for the cat and our toddler; grapefruit halves filled with beer placed strategically in the garden - a waste of good beer and they didn't catch any slugs anyway.
In the end the solution was simple and environmentally friendly. Plant a half barrel in the garden, fill it with water, add plants and the magic ingredient - nature's slug predator - the common frog. Our house is now slug free and our hostas are no longer reduced to a stalk by midsummer.
However, some pests are more difficult to track down. Jane Hayball discovered a loaf of bread savaged in her kitchen one morning. "Then we kept finding walnuts scattered around the house, but the crunch came when some avocados disappeared one by one."
Mice were eliminated from the suspects list as "there were no droppings", and Jane finally laid the blame on squirrels. "We found a hole under the doorstep where we thought they could possibly get in."
Jane boarded up the hole and thought her squirrel problems were over until a neighbour spotted a few popping in and out of a gap under the eaves. This time she was taking no chances and called in a pest control company, who discovered a drey in the roof space.
They put down poison and returned to remove the corpses. Jane sees squirrels as major pests. "They love chewing and could do quite a lot of damage."
Whatever pest decides to descend on your house, you're unlikely to get much help from your local authority. Environmental officers will probably point you in the direction of the Yellow Pages to get the problem sorted out yourself, if they don't have their own pest-control teams.
Following complaints from neighbours or tenants, some councils may take legal proceedings against private householders or landlords who refuse to get rid of pests. In very extreme cases they may even pay for the work to be carried out, although the risk of not recouping the money is a big deterrent to them.
Josef Church's landlord was most co-operative when he was informed that his large Victorian house in Hornsey, north London, was infested with cockroaches. "I was quite disgusted," says Josef, who was away in his native Sweden when his flatmates signed the contract for the house.
"But I suppose it wasn't the landlord's fault and he did act quickly." After the treatment the flatmates found dead cockroaches everywhere, but a few weeks later they started finding the odd live one again. "I haven't seen any for about a week," notes Josef, "and I'm pleased I haven't ever found one in my bedroom. I've been keeping all my food in bags just in case. My mother kept calling me up from Sweden terribly stressed at the thought of them in my food."
Residents in Ridley Road in London's East End took matters into their own hands a few years ago when Hackney council seemed to ignore the rats infesting nearby derelict shops. Rubbish from the adjacent street market provided the rats with a ready source of food and after dark they were everywhere.
A petition had no effect so the residents took action. A dead rat on the desk of the appropriate council official was considered essential. After much discussion one resident - ex-forces and a good shot - reluctantly volunteered to do the business with an air rifle. Watched by his pyjama- clad neighbours in the dead of night he took aim. Unfortunately for him, the pellets were not fatal and the rats lived to run another day. When the shops were finally demolished, the residents' worst fears were realised when the rats rehoused themselves in nearby basement flats.
Tony Stephens, of Rentokil Initial, says that despite some horror stories the most common pests are house mice, which are usually removed by laying poisonous baits (note: DIY traps need chocolate, not cheese).
During the summer months Rentokil is deluged with calls from people discovering wasp or black ant nests. With around 15,000 to 20,000 wasps in a nest the size of a football you can have some sympathy with seasonal entomophobics. In fact, stored product insects (or SPIs as they're known in the business) are making themselves at home in our pastas and cereals.
"Although these insects are harmless," adds Mr Stephens, "you can understand the horror of finding an insect doing backstroke in your cereal bowl."
Bina and Andrew Martin-Davis's pests were similarly microscopic but just as lethal, especially to their savings. "We'd just moved into our house in Surrey when I was suddenly covered in literally hundred of tiny bites," says Andrew. "The previous owner had five cats, so we suspected fleas."
A spray from a pet shop didn't work and even treatments by the local environmental health department failed to shift the fleas. "Our son had just started crawling," adds Bina, "but I couldn't put him down on the floor - it was a very stressful time."
There was only one solution. They removed all the floor coverings and sprayed each room around the edges with a pesticide bought from the local vet. "We hadn't budgeted for replacing carpets, some of them were brand new," says Andrew, "but we had to get rid of the fleas. It cost us around pounds 3,000 by the end of it."
They've been told that the eggs could lay dormant for some time and vibrations and central heating can make them hatch. "It's a good excuse for not doing any DIY," Andrew says.
And finally, the man from Rentokil would like to set the record straight about a certain dinner party tale. Rats do get into drains and, yes, they can swim up around the U-bend. His advice? Keep your toilet seat down.
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