Sleeping with the enemy - can rats and rabbits be a solution?
Sleeping with the enemy (1) : The joy of rats
Many people have what appears to be an innate fear of snakes and spiders that may be engrained in poisonous encounters in the evolutionary past, but the widespread horror of rats seems to be entirely cultural. Plague, Weil's disease, contamination - the 'dirty rat'... Although you clearly don't want rats eating their way through your food store, what harm did rats ever do you ? - I thought not. They've even been exonerated recently for the Black Death. And in some parts of the country they are favourite cage pets - the self-same evil denizens of the imagination and the compost heap.
It's the compost heap I want to talk about. I have two compost bins and a heap in my urban garden, which produce compost very slowly, such that it tends to build up out of control, as I never send anything rottable to the council's collections. Every now and again there's a noticeable increase in rats, and in the past, if the cats didn't act quickly, out came the warfarin. However in recent years I'd begun to notice that if the bins had active rats, the composting went a lot quicker and was very thoroughly and regularly turned. So I stayed my hand on the poison and waited to see if any problems arose. And waited. Well, I did have to improve overnight security in the chicken run, as they seem to think my tolerance gives them the right to sample the layers' pellets, despite their inability to make the intended eggs.
I think the reason it all works fine is that one of my cats is a very efficient 'mouser', and the bigger the 'mouse' the better. So when the rats breed too fast, the cat simply removes the excess, either leaving them on the lawn for the crows, or kindly presenting them to me on the corridor carpet. She only eats the very young ones, so I do have to bury anything up to 4 or 5 rats a month in summer, but it's a small price to pay for having much improved composting ! And my (grown-up) daughter's pet rats are very cute.
Anthony Cheke, Oxford
Sleeping with the enemy (2) : Rabbits eating your crops? Solution = rabbit stew
I’ve been aware for a long time that livestock was not a part of the Permaculture design of my garden. I did think chickens, but my other half does not want to have to arrange their care every time we go away. I did have a wormery but they froze solid in the early Arctic conditions of last November, and I have not so far got around to replacing them.
This summer I finally saw red on the rabbit front. I had protected pretty much everything except the second precious crop of dwarf French dwarf. These were in containers half a metre off the ground. They replaced the first planting out of home grown seedlings and the second of bought in plants – both of which perished in sudden unseasonal gales up here in the Cambrian mountains in early summer. I was away dealing with a family emergency for 2 weeks and when I came back I found the rabbits had eaten all the beans down to the stalks.
Brian had been setting a humane trap to catch rabbits that keep entering our barn and woodshed and digging great holes in the packed earth floor – a useless exercise as it is mostly slatey rock under the surface. They give up quickly and start somewhere else, leaving holes which are just right for you to sprain your ankle in. Previously he had just killed them in the approved manner and given them to the farmer next door for the dogs. This time, I was so mad about the beans, I said enough was enough – let’s eat the b*****s!
So a nail was fixed in the barn wall and a bucket set under it, and I tried to remember how I used to do this 35+ years ago in my 70’s Good Life incarnation.
Half an hour later we had the thing dressed (or should that be undressed?) and jointed, and I cleaned up and peeled a couple of onions. I have to say it was delicious and I was looking forward to the next one. B had managed to observe, help a bit and not actually throw up in spite of a tendency to faint at the sight of blood. I thought we made a pretty good team as I could not kill rabbits and he could not gut them. I also thought this was going to close the circle for us on the livestock issue: livestock without responsibility, plus a fair recompense for all the veg they have eaten etc.
And so it may turn out – but – since this incident, we have seen no rabbits actually in the garden, no holes have appeared in the barn or the woodshed, there is no missing veg, and NO rabbits in the trap! The word has obviously gone out, and Peter and his mates are giving us a wide berth it seems. And just when I was acquiring a taste for rabbit stew and plotting fricassee de lapin. Never mind - I can wait.
Roz Brown, Radnorshire
Permaculture forum recently hosted an nteresting exchange on rats, especially in relation to chickens:
“Has anyone had a problem with rats in their deep straw layer of a no-dig bed?… straw is currently in with my chickens who are turning it over, loosening it and adding fertiliser...and I was going to put this on my beds…rats have been seen fleeing from the chicken coop, removing the straw. So I'd like to find out whether rats are generally a common problem for no-dig gardeners, and what to do about them etc
I've read online that rats do not go to the straw for food, but for shelter so wherever the straw is, there would be a risk of rats squatting?
Posted by webwahm
This produced the following response from Permaculturebella:
The problem is feeding your chucks in the chicken coop, not the straw. Whenever and wherever you have a static feeding place for chickens it will attract rats. If you are wanting a high yield of rats (no I am not being sarcastic, Permaculturists love high yields of rats) then feed your chickens in the same place, particularly if it is sheltered and not daily disturbed by humans. For example, in a chicken coop, If you are keeping chickens and don't want rats, plant lots of chicken fodder plants, seed and berries, insect attracting plants and let the chickens forage or, feed them somewhere you want to attract rats to and obtain a yield.
Now a high yield of rats can be exceptionally advantageous and to my thinking as a Permaculturist it is, as long as it is not a nest in my fridge or they are not chewing their way through the house electrics or my car electrics. A rat did nest in my car engine one exceptionally cold winter, it chewed it's way through the wires. So although I want a high yield of rats I would prefer them outside.
We have tried a variety of different sheet mulching systems and we have had lots of rats nesting. We also get some fantastic snakes too. In other cultures people happily eat rats, it is our culture that sees them as dirty, plague spreading, which had it's basis in the fleas on rats that caused The Black Death. To Permaculturists if you have a high yield of something it is great. We have snakes because we have rats, we have also have Barn Owls etc, each with their own niche or 'job'.
The key is food source. Cut off the food source and the rats won't nest regardless of how warm, dry and uninterrupted their home is. So let your chickens feed else where, watch your produce with eagle eyes, ensure you collect eggs daily. If you are using plastic mulch or carpeting, manoevour it, by lifting sections of it regularly; disturb the rats daily. I suppose you could do the same with your sheet straw mulch bed; fork it through regularly, but it would probably disturb whatever you are trying to grow. Rats will take anything and use anything for their nests. They are great rubbish processors and if you leave black plastic sheeting around or past landowners have buried plastics, they will shred them very finely. Anything from billybanding that goes around bales to old crisp wrappers can be found in rat's nests. So keep the area litter free too.
If you really have to feed the chucks bought in foodstuff, even if you are feeding away from the coop, say in a chicken tunnel, ensure that you buy metal food bins and check them regularly. Ensure the lids are tight fitting and weighted down or lockable and keep an allotment cat.
I love having high yields of rats, means our smallholding is going to have loads and loads of predators coming onto the site.
Reader contributions invited on the usefulness of pernicious weeds, slugs and squirrels in a Permaculture garden!