I went on a nighttime rat safari by essentially the most notorious elements of London with somebody who actually likes rats

I went on a nighttime rat safari through the most infamous parts of London with someone who really likes rats

I was on safari recently. It was less about spotting majestic giraffes from a jeep in Kenya at dawn and more about poking a torch in the undergrowth along London’s canals on a rainy Monday night.

It was a rat safari, but exciting nonetheless. Going in search of the much-maligned creatures instead of running away from them (as my instinct would be) gave me a surprising thrill.

I went rat hunting with Florence Wilkinson, who wrote a book called Wild City: Encounters with Urban Wildlife, as a result of her fascination with creatures in all kinds of urban spaces, from the sky to the sewers. She loves and knows a lot about the unloved pigeons by a park bench, the mosquitoes on the London Underground and the mighty, more glamorous peregrine falcons.

Florence Wilkinson, rat fanatic and author of Wild City: Encounters with Urban Wildlife

Recently, Florence, who was heavily pregnant at the time, found herself in rat heaven in New York. It turns out that New Yorkers are more likely to dispose of their garbage bags on the street than in garbage cans. So many rats pounce on the leftovers that the garbage bags wiggle and wiggle. Her friend waited while she watched the rat drama and then asked if maybe they could walk away from the rats in sacks and go to a bar or something.

“No matter how many rats I see, I always stop to look at them,” she says. She later sends me a video of a rat visiting the bird feeder in her north London garden. She names him Ratticus Finch.

What is it about rats that Florence finds so appealing? “Rats have such personalities and are so intelligent,” she tells me, flashlight off, eyes peeled, and lamenting that it might actually be a bit wet for rats.

“People don’t think rats are worth studying, but there is so much to explore and we owe them so much in terms of what we’ve been experimenting on them. Then there’s the way they’ve adapted to humans in urban spaces, it’s so impressive. ”

Florence is not alone in her interest in rats, she is part of several community groups and networks in the UK that love rat discovery, including one called The Rat Detectives Group. I learn from Florence, just as we glimpse a giant rat hole, that rats have an irresistible urge to chew with their incisors, which continue to grow at 11-14 cm per year and are comparable in strength to steel.

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Humans’ rat abhorrence comes from fear of disease and our history – both ancient and recent – of viruses ravaging populations. Our fear of them is hardwired and understandable. On the other hand, rats are easy to blame.

Black rats, one of the two species of city rats, have long been suspected to be the culprit in bringing bubonic plague to Europe. But some scientists have recently postulated that the scarcity of rat remains from that period and the speed of spread suggest that the infected fleas and lice mainly spread from person to person. Florence isn’t suggesting we snuggle up in bed with a wild rat from a London canal.

“No matter how many rats I see, I always stop to look at them,” says Florence. (Photo: Sandra Standbridge/Getty)

Rats have a bad reputation; being called “a rat” suggests someone is immoral and disloyal. But Florence’s friend Bobby moved into a nearby barn with a rat colony while he was doing his doctorate on the creatures. In the book, she writes, “During this time, what surprised him most was the variety and complexity of the behavior he witnessed. Bobby admits that the behavior he observed in the barn was in many ways similar to our own: “I saw aggression, I saw camaraderie, I saw joy…”. When Bobby had to leave his rat colony, it was “with a heavy heart”.

Rats have always been a part of Florence’s life. Her childhood in north Essex with her mother, a sculptress, was like something out of Doctor Dolittle. They had giant rabbits, beagles that went and reappeared, rescued cats and ducks that waddled into their mother’s sculptor’s room to be fed.

They often kept pet food in the bath as it seemed to be a good storage place. Her parents woke her up at night to see a family of hedgehogs running around nearby. Most importantly, Bruce, her pet rat.

A pet rat is one thing, but Florence wouldn’t want a feral rat in her home and is aware of the havoc rat infestations can wreak in poorly constructed homes and that they can also cause fires by chewing through cords. “They can ruin lives,” she says. Rats are invading our urban buildings because so many buildings are so sloppily constructed and because the increasing flooding from the climate crisis is causing them to be flushed out of the sewers where they otherwise happily live.

Florence and many of the pest controllers she spoke to agree that we often reach for the poison too quickly without getting to the root of the problem, and that if we learned, we would be more likely to keep rats out of our buildings to better understand their behavior. We saw a lot of rat dens on our safari but I will return on a drier day to see more of them scurrying around. “You don’t have to like rats,” says Florence, “but you might find something interesting about them. I think they deserve our attention and respect.”

Wild City: Encounters With Urban Wildlife (£16.99, Oriona Spring) is available now

Infestiation Nation: Britain’s Rattiest Cities

There are only two types of city rats – the black rat, Rattus rattus, also known as the roof or ship rat, and the brown rat, Rattus norvegicus, the Norwegian rat. It is estimated that there are around 150 million rats in the UK. The roughest part of an urban area will be around landfills, sewers, waterways, and warehouses. Here are the UK cities considered the hardest by the Pest Control Association.

    If you love rats, go to Birmingham. The city reported the most calls to pest controllers in October 2020, research shows, making it the No. 1 wicked city. Notable hotspots included Washwood Heath, Ward End, Saltley and Alum Rock.
    The number of rat sightings rose by more than 600 after lockdown in 2020.
  3. LEEDS
    It is estimated that there are now 2.2 rats for every inhabitant in the city. Warren Peaker, owner of pest control company Warren and Sons, said there are more rats now than there have been in the last 25 years he’s been in business.
    The Liverpool Echo freedom of information request showed that Norris Green, Everton, Old Swan, Yew Tree and Knotty Ash had the most rats in the city.
    Among the seediest districts are; Tower Hamlets, Brent, Camden, Lambeth, Ealing, Redbridge, Newham, Hackney, Islington and Wandsworth.

Ratty Second:
Manchester, Sheffield, Cardiff, Bristol, Edinburgh.

A rat getting ready someone’s diner in New York (Picture: Gary Hershorn/Getty)

Two million rats call the US city their home, and recently a rat dragging a slice of pizza down the subway stairs went viral online. They thrive so much in the Big Apple that the City of New York has a website where you can check the estimated rat population in your immediate area with the click of a button. You can search by address, county, block, lot number, or neighborhood and look up the history of specific rat inspections. The Lower East Side and East Village are particularly seedy.