There’s a mouse in the house: Why getting rid of rodents is so hard
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Rodents have cropped up uninvited in many of our homes at one time or another, and getting rid of them isn’t always easy – as Richard Burton discovered.
I used to think the tenants were trying it on with all their talk of mice. They'd get in through the tiniest of spaces, I was told, and leave droppings in all sorts of dark places. The mice, that is, not the tenants. The latter would just leave voicemails which invariably included the word, infestation.
I said I'd act quickly but wanted to remind them that, they're in the City. You're never more than six feet from a rat. They pointed out that, where they live, you're never more than six feet from a lawyer.
That put me back in my box. Bit like Harpenden, I thought. Lawyers and yoga teachers.
So I agreed to bring in the experts who sent round a man in a Ghostbusters suit who put poison under the skirting boards in the kitchen which is where they were "bound to be coming in - up the pipes". He added with a sniff: "Chances are, they're all over the block."
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I did wish he hadn't said that, especially in front of Ms Tenant who had a phobia.
Then again, I was equally baffled when she said: "It won't kill them will it?"
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The Ghostbuster, all locked and loaded, got on all fours so we couldn't see his face. Which was just as well.
A week later he was back with a lance to inject foam into the gaps around the pipes. And this, after I'd helped out by stuffing wire wool down there first. He was impressed. "They so do not like that," he said. The words Fort and Knox were mentioned as tools were packed away.
Another week and another email. The tenants had bought an electronic repellent from Amazon, one of those that plugs in and sends out ultrasonic waves, so the fight had gone high tech.
They left, a French chef moved in and if the mice didn't disappear, the problem did, if only because he worked such long hours, he was hardly ever there.
This was happening in Tower Hamlets, which had reported the highest number of call-outs of all London boroughs - 30,000 in five years in a city which was averaging 100 a day. And the charity Shelter estimated at the same time that nearly half a million private rented homes - or one in nine - in England had problems with animal infestation.
Roll on a few years. Another property, another tenant; this time in the Hertfordshire countryside. No-one's talking about infestation now. But everyone has a mouse story. And our new one, it seems, works alone and appears to come out and sniff the air once a week at the most.
The kids even gave him a name. Bobby, as in Bobby Brown (he was a field mouse). The name immediately made him a protected species. You can offer up a peanut butter pellet laced with lethal anticoagulant to something called Vern the Vermin, but not Bobby whose only visible crime is not to clean up after himself. No, he has to be relocated.
So, thanks to the nerdiest use of string, a lollypop stick, a square of Green & Blacks (well, two, before I tested it) and lots of patience, I managed to trap him under one of those £12 clear plastic storage boxes you fill with old photos and stash in the attic.
We drove him out to the woods and let him go in a clearing "where his family live".
I decided that if another one appeared it'd be Bobby popping back to say hello, we'd offer him a lift home and call the experts back during school hours.
I saw a statistic from the British Pest Control Association that said nationally, mice were responsible for 80,375 call-outs a year.
I did a straw poll among parents waiting to do a party pick-up at St George's School and found that all of the five or six I asked had either had mice or knew someone who had.
The ones who lived near open fields even reported rats which was not surprising as they racked up 186,192 call-outs a year.
I saw a video on YouTube from someone who'd made a humane trap involving a bucket, a coat hanger and a beer can with bait on it. There was also a little ramp and the idea was that the can span when the mouse mounted it and dunked it into an inch of water like a contestant on Takeshi's Castle.
A night camera showed half a dozen of them splashing around in the early hours before being released wet and exhausted into the wild.
I mentioned my catch-and-release to St Albans-based expert Luis Lamas of Pestforce and he left me with the rather deflating reality that a domestic mouse set free like that probably wouldn't last 48 hours.
Any misgivings soon disappeared when I learned of his company's estimation of the "accelerated speed" at which rodents breed: "As a yardstick it is estimated that, if two mice were left in a building with a food source for 12 months, their population would grow to 2,000."
A sobering thought. What makes matters worse is the fact that, as homes get smarter, so do the rodents, often becoming immune to, or learning to ignore, traditional poisons. This forces experts to find clever new methods, such as applying it in gel form to entry points, knowing they'll ingest it when they clean themselves. Those entry points can be the width of a pencil, apparently. Or a hole in an air brick.
With Bobby gone, the place was quiet. Quiet as a mouse you might say. Until the weather turned. In came Bobby 2 and 3. Out came the spring traps and, as Rentokil advised, so did the peanut butter, their favourite, next to chocolate.
The cold weather brings them in, I remember the Ghostbuster telling me.
So after weeks of boring the tails off family and friends with rodent anecdotes, I dropped the subject, distracted by a more pressing problem: water dripping down the wires of a ceiling rose and stains forming and widening nearby.
Bits of ceiling were falling away so I got a plaster saw, cut a hole and found what looked liked a blemish in the white plastic heating pipes. I part-drained the system cut a length of push-fit tube, patched the ceiling and called a tradesman to come and do a skim.
But before he could arrive, the leak was back. This time, a few feet further along and staining previously unblemished plaster.
The previous small hole above my head became a 10ft gash, opening it up for proper inspection. A bit drastic, I thought. Until I saw the pipe.
Apart from the bit I'd replaced, it had been nibbled in three other places.
Bobby was back, thirsty (yep, they know what's in the pipes) and needing, as is his wont, to gnaw anything he can to control the one thing that grows faster than my repair bills - his teeth.
All of which means anything's game for a workout: metal pipes, electric wiring, you name it.
And when I say Bobby, I do mean Bobby. Many may not survive in the wild but, Luis Lamas did recall one near-neighbour of mine trapping and releasing one four miles from his house.
Before he did so, he dabbed red nail varnish on its forehead as an experiment. Months later, he caught it again!
Memo to Bobby: if you show your face again be warned. We're off the Cornwall in a few weeks, and there's room for a little one.