Science: Get ready for Son of Super Rat: The National Rodent Survey is about to be released, and the news is not good. Charles Walton explains

Something crept into my bedroom the other night. It rustled a discarded crisp packet and sent my wife scurrying for the safety of the children's beds. They, at least, were two feet off the floor. I slept on uneasily, conscious that only three inches of futon separated me from the scavenging mouse.

Ours was an all-too-frequent visitor to British homes. Roughly one in 20 households was believed to harbour mice when the last comprehensive survey was undertaken in the Seventies. More recent reports suggest that rodents, particularly rats, are on the increase. A definitive answer will soon be with us, courtesy of the National Rodent Survey. Fifteen months of peering into the nation's larders came to an end last December, and the results are expected this month.

The environmental health officers who are conducting the survey will be looking for exactly the kind of evidence that we found the morning after our nocturnal visit. Mice leave about 80-odd droppings a day. These rice grain-sized black spindles were spread around the house, often accompanied by the sweet and depressing smell that signals a mouse's territory.

Rats and mice owe their success to an astonishing fecundity - a breeding pair of mice can generate 2,000 offspring in a year - and to man's propensity to dump refuse on his own doorstep. Not until the introduction of efficient public sanitation were the plagues of rats that besieged earlier generations eradicated. Ironically, it is those same sewers that now harbour the rodent population. Constant vigilance is required to keep numbers in check, yet the water authorities who are responsible are regularly accused of cutting funds for sewer baiting.

Rodents present a serious public health risk. Rats are still recognised carriers of bubonic plague and were responsible for an outbreak during the Vietnam war. The last British case of plague was in the early 1900s. Another potentially fatal and increasingly common health problem is Weil's disease. Water sports enthusiasts are particularly at risk since the bacteria responsible find their way into water via rat urine.

Rats and mice carry other diseases such as murine typhus, are major destroyers and contaminators of food and have been known to attack children. They also take great pride in their teeth, gnawing continually to keep them short and sharp. When gas pipes and electric cables are involved the consequences can be disastrous. The arguments for reducing rodent numbers are strong.

When all else fails we resort to chemicals. Rodent pesticides are not permitted to cause pain or suffering, so the chemical industry has adapted to delivering death with a smile. The most common of these gentle killers are anticoagulant poisons. The first generation of anticoagulants worked well until the targets became resistant to them.

This development resulted in a host of newspaper headlines proclaiming the arrival of Super Rat and the demise of civilisation. In the event, civilisation scraped through, but resistance became so widespread that a second generation of anticoagulants was introduced. Can we expect to see resistance developing again? Peter Bateman, of Rentokil, believes so. 'Though still rare, Super Rat Mark II is already with us,' he claims.

The onward march of rodent populations has been well documented by the press. In 1989, the Institution of Environmental Health Officers published a report claiming that rat numbers in England and Wales had increased by 20 per cent. Various explanations were offered: a succession of mild winters, cutbacks in the funding for environmental health departments, changes in agricultural methods and increased levels of urban refuse and litter.

Two groups came in for particular criticism: the water authorities for giving a low priority to sewer baiting, and British Rail for an unwillingness to clean up its property or co-operate with local pest control officers.

So what is happening to rodent numbers in the Nineties? The co-ordinator of the National Rodent Survey, Dr Adrian Meyer, of the government's Central Science Laboratory, says: 'Scare stories appear periodically, but nobody knows what the real situation is.'

Rodent surveys that rely purely on reported infestations are known to be unreliable in London since fewer than 10 per cent of mouse and less than 30 per cent of rat infestations are reported to local authorities. The National Rodent Survey looks instead at households selected at random from council tax registers. This allows a direct comparison with a similar survey conducted during the Seventies. In addition, the survey will identify differing treatment methods and highlight regional variations in the allocation of responsibility for rodent control.

The headline numbers may not mean much in themselves. Rodent populations rise and fall under the influence of many factors, the greatest of which is the weather. Cold winters reduce the population, mild ones bring rapid increases.

Another round of shock newspaper stories will at least concentrate minds on rodents. If that unlocks funding for prevention and persuades the nation to change its habits, the survey will have done a worthy job. Jackie Marsh, of the Institution of Environmental Health Officers, says: 'Everyone has a double responsibility: to take care not to encourage rodents and to report

infestations immediately.'

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind-the-scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
News
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Algo-Developer (BDD/TDD, ASP.NET, JavaScript, RX)

£45000 - £69999 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Algo-Develo...

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, Apache Mahout, Python,R,AI)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Data Scientist (SQL,Data mining, data modelling, PHD, AI)

£50000 - £80000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Data Sci...

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone