As if one plague wasn’t enough, I have succumbed to the pest pandemic

A good year for mice. And rats, squirrels, pigeons, seagulls, fruit flies and flour beetles, apparently.

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I have an admission that won’t make me very popular with the New Statesman’s law-abiding readers. I’ve been having another household round to my flat, on the regular, and they are not part of my bubble. They stay for dinner late into the night, eat the same food as me, touch the surfaces, and never wear masks.

I can already hear the sirens, so let me explain. My new visitors are mice. A mousehold, if you will.

They shoot across the kitchen surfaces, eating the crumbs of sourdough loaves lovingly and so-very-predictably baked by my boyfriend, and generally treat our worktop like the Glastonbury toilets. We hear them running under the floorboards, squeaking and chewing, and rustling in our ever-growing pile of bags for life (off topic, but apparently the average household has 54 of these – a mouse housing boom).

The first was a novelty. It shot out from under the bedroom floorboards, and after making that very specific involuntary sound every human makes when they see a mouse (“wuRH!”) we decided to pretend it hadn’t happened. At 4am the next morning, we heard it scrabbling around in the wastepaper bin. In an inspired early-hours move, I trapped the little fella with a salad bowl over the bin, ran outside into the carpark of our block to tip him out, and went back to bed, a humane hero.

The next morning, a quick google revealed that mice can find their way back home from two miles away.

He came back.

[see also: Winter is coming, and stubborn little field mice are beginning to take up residence in my house]

We live in a groundfloor flat on a housing estate, so we share our new friends with our neighbours. If it wasn’t quite so disgusting it would almost constitute a highlight of each monotonous day – swapping war stories with next door (one lady forced a terrified gas man passing by to kill a mouse on her kitchen floor) and recounting our moments of bravery (hitting the pile of bags for life with a broom).

In summer, the kids who live in the flat above us took it upon themselves to run a round-the-clock watch for the rat that regularly came to indulge in our birdseed. A lot of my interview recordings from that period have delighted cries of “IT’S BACK!” in the background.

We are far from alone. There have been harrowing stories all year from residents of boroughs that suspended their pest control services during lockdown – affecting those in deprived inner-city areas with high-density housing the most. Further cuts to local authority budgets would exacerbate the problem, and seem likely; the Commons’ Public Accounts Committee recently predicted that more councils will go bankrupt.

Luckily for us, we receive regular help from our council pest control team every few weeks: a wry woman who regales us with stories of the latest jobs she’s attended. (She particularly enjoyed the man who told her he had a Zoom meeting, otherwise he’d help – only to turn around and see him standing on a chair, quaking).

According to her, pests are in part a consequence of lockdown. As we are at home for longer we are doing more clear-outs, disturbing nests and filling up municipal rubbish bins, leading to more pests. “People who have never cooked before are thinking ‘maybe I’ll have a go’,” she tells us with a raised eyebrow – the extra food lying around, along with failed culinary endeavours abandoned to the bin, are also a pest party waiting to happen.

On her most recent visit, she gently informed me that rats in the area are “booming” and also “bulking”. “Their babies look like guinea pigs now,” she said. Mice, too, are becoming bolder – apparently the ones in our postcode are so hardened that putting poison down is akin to “feeding them”. 

The UK rat population grew by 25 per cent during 2020. And rats have migrated from urban-centre commercial areas (where they would enjoy rich pickings around restaurants, pubs and offices) to inner-city residential spots in search of food, according to research by Pest.co.uk.

“Certainly in the first lockdown, when all your takeaways were shut as well, on your trading estates where you’d have a McDonald’s, KFC, that food source disappeared, therefore the rats and mice are moving further afield, trying to look for new sources,” says Paul Bates, managing director of Cleankill Pest Control.

He tells me his company saw a “massive increase” in domestic calls from May last year, a month into the original lockdown. He has hired four extra staff since then, and three hawks.

His recent commercial success is partly, he believes, down to what he calls “the simple clothes moth problem”. If you go into work, normally you’d see a couple of moths in the morning and a few when you get home. You would swat them and think nothing of it.

However, “when you’re at home for 23 hours a day, you’re seeing these things permanently”, he says. “The feedback from our technicians is that pests are having a mental effect on people stuck at home. You could hear squirrels running around in your loft during the day in March, April time when they’re nesting – people were stuck at home hearing them all the time.”

It’s not all in the head, though. Bates describes some very du jour recent pest control jobs: flour beetle infestations as amateur bakers buy pesticide-free organic flour and grains; rats and mice enjoying fuller compost bins amid a boom in gardening and green aspirations; a bird netting job to stop pigeons taking advantage of a busy ambulance station; fruit fly infestations in hastily abandoned offices where workers left bananas in their drawers; and flying hawks around a crematorium on the south coast because seagulls – which have become increasingly desperate and aggressive – were dive-bombing the mourners. (“They’d come out after saying goodbye to their loved one, open a bar of chocolate and the seagulls would come down and attack them.”)

Although it all feels a little too plague-like, this recession-proof trade is preparing for business to keep booming. “We know that pests are not going to disappear, they’re still going to be there,” says Bates. “It feels like we’re making better conditions for rats and mice these days than we are for humans.”

[see also: Ten years of data reveal how austerity weakened the UK’s pandemic response]

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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