Rats! These visitors are driving me mad

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Spending much of one's time alone in an isolated farmhouse in the countryside can have its spooky moments. There are noises at night, tappings and scrabblings, to which one becomes preternaturally alert. You wake, lie there for a moment to ascertain that the sound has been caused by some small act of nature - a mouse behind the skirting board, starlings in their nests in the eaves - and then drift back to sleep.

Spending much of one's time alone in an isolated farmhouse in the countryside can have its spooky moments. There are noises at night, tappings and scrabblings, to which one becomes preternaturally alert. You wake, lie there for a moment to ascertain that the sound has been caused by some small act of nature - a mouse behind the skirting board, starlings in their nests in the eaves - and then drift back to sleep.

The spooks are never genuinely paranormal. I have encountered a ghost years ago but not here; this house, old as it is, contains no spiritual presences. There have, on the other hand, been some visits from uninvited human guests. On the small road that runs past, a white van or a dodgy-looking old Vauxhall or Ford occasionally slows down and somehow one senses that the driver is not simply admiring the architecture.

In the circumstances, you take your company where you can find it. One morning, not so long ago, I walked into one of the bedrooms to find a tawny owl perched on the dressing-table. It had fallen down a chimney and had spent the night in the house, which must be an omen of something or other.

The imminent arrival of the swallows who nest in the woodshed under my office is a big annual event. During July, I have taken to sitting outside in the early evening to wait for the swifts returning to their nest, watching them circle the house, so high that they are hardly visible, before they swoop low and then up into the eaves.

A group of five roe deer who live in a nearby wood occasionally pass through at speed. A fox seems to have made its earth, insultingly near the house, under a tree-trunk.

Yet now, rather to my surprise, I find myself spooked by one particular group of animal visitors. Last summer, a family of rats took up residence in the front garden. Like the other animals around here, they took a relaxed attitude to the company of a human, scampering skittishly under the nearest bush when I walked by, only to emerge once more seconds later after I had left the scene. Now and then, one of them would forage for nuts under the bird-feeder just in front of the kitchen window.

Apart from the adult rat which took up residence inside the house and paid the price for pushing my goodwill too far, we all got on rather well. It seemed to me that to be delighted by the visit of a hare and yet to shudder at the sight of a family of rats was both snobbish and sentimental.

I was wrong. Rats are different. They are strangers to any idea of moderation and respect for others. These days, the playground gets trashed every day. They are no longer under the bird-feeder but on it, swinging happily, sometimes two at time, forcing the great tits and greenfinches to wait their turn.

Visitors have been startled to look out of the window to see three large rats romping happily on the bird table. Look into the garden at any time and you'll see them skipping about as if they owned the place. You can see four or five at time, which means that there are probably about 50 more that are out of sight.

Someone should study these creatures for their astonishing, downright creepy ability to outwit humans. Poison or a trap, however temptingly baited and well-hidden, will not only be ignored but will prompt a new wariness in their behaviour, as if somehow they know that the rules of engagement have changed.

So, once again, a call has had to be made to the brutally efficient environmental health office from Mid-Suffolk Council. A few weeks ago, I worried about the effect of his lethal methods on the food chain - on my friend the owl, for example. Now, feeling besieged and oddly foolish, I just want the rats gone.

terblacker@aol.com

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