Michael Moynihan: Pest news yet! Giant rats won't overrun Cork city anytime soon

Pest control experts have not seen any huge growth in vermin numbers despite much of the city spending months shut down
Michael Moynihan: Pest news yet! Giant rats won't overrun Cork city anytime soon
Rat numbers have declined by the Lee as the city has become cleaner and the vermin are unlikely to swarm across Cork even during a lockdown.

Expressions I won’t miss from the lockdown?

‘Nature is healing’ is an obvious candidate. Whenever I saw this pop up I thought of Lopburi, a tourist destination in Thailand.

One of Lopburi’s big attractions is a large population of macaques: visitors enjoyed feeding the macaques, but when the pandemic vaporised the tourist trade the macaques got hungry and overran the city, terrorising businesses and residents.

This didn’t bother me unduly because whatever issues we have at least there isn’t a macaque problem in Cork (no jokes please).

My antenna fairly crackled, however, when I saw reports that New York was bracing for an explosion in rat activity because the rodents were emboldened in their search for food while restaurants were shut down.

After a long lie-down to contemplate the possibility of a ratpocalypse in Cork, I decided to ask an expert whether I was worrying unnecessarily.

After forty years in pest control, Joe Sheehan of Arrow Pest Control in Mary Street would surely be able to allay my fears. And in fairness, we got off to a promising start.

“There are reports coming out of Dublin about issues with rats where rubbish seems to be accumulating, but we don’t seem to have the same scale of problem in Cork.

“Like every other business, we had a falling off in the lockdown, but we were still working through it. There were businesses which told us they’d suspended our services but they’ve had to call us back out.

“It went from a situation where they were talking about a moratorium to a fair share of them having to call us back out. The pests don’t know about Covid.” 

Not so promising. Joe proceeded to go into some detail about rodents.

“Are they more plentiful? That depends.

“For instance, your proximity to the river matters because you’ll get rats near it, but what we’ve noticed, whether it’s because of the dry spring, is an increase in the number of mice rather than rats coming into late May and June.

“Sometimes you get that as in very dry weather mice move around a lot more. I’m forty years in the business and it happens every now and again, particularly when it’s dry, that there are more mice.” 

Mice I can handle, Joe. Rats?

“I couldn’t say we’ve had a lot of rat activity in the closedown. We’ve been busy but not run off our feet either.

“The Monday a lot of businesses reopened (June 29) was a good bit busier than it had been, but with everything opening up again people were a bit jittery, which was understandable.

“Don’t forget that you have two peaks for rodents anyway, pandemic or not. They migrate in the autumn and they tend to migrate again then in the spring, so those are the two busy times for us.

“Another factor is what’s sometimes called a ‘lemming year’ for certain species. The numbers go way up, it might be very bad for rats, and then the next year it falls off a cliff.” 

I have to say I liked the pest-control humour, but Joe played with my emotions by pointing out that rat numbers can be influenced by far more quotidian factors than a once-in-a-century pandemic.

“If you look around town there’s a lot of building going on, a lot of cranes are visible, and we’d always be very busy on the sites.

“If the sewers aren’t closed up during construction then you’re guaranteed to have an infestation on a site. When those are opened up it increases infestation to a huge extent, and that’s particularly true of the surrounding buildings.

“Because there’s a lot of construction going on in the city centre, we’d be doing a lot of work in the buildings near those sites, because that’s where the rats go when they leave the sites.” 

For all that, however, Joe says the trend is generally upward. The chances of seeing a rat if you were strolling around Cork thirty or forty years ago were far higher because the conditions were better.

For the rat, that is.

“Things have cleaned up generally around the city, and that’s a factor in rat numbers.

“I know you’d hear people say you’re never more than two metres away from a rat in the city, and fair enough if you happen to walk on top of one.

“But in the last twenty years or more, the city council has spent a lot of money and time upgrading the sewers around the city. That makes a big difference.

“There was a time, not that long ago, when there was sewage flowing into the river in the middle of the city. 

"I can remember going to school and there were places like Parliament Bridge where you’d have to hold your breath going over it, literally, because of the smell from the river. It was terrible.

“I can remember looking down into the river around there and you could see the rats swimming there.

“From that point of view, there’s been a huge improvement. You only have to look into the river now and the colour of the water is completely different to what it was back then.

“You don’t see that any more, rats swimming around an open pipe with sewage coming out of it right in the middle of the city.” 

Changes like that work by the council have made the pest situation “not so much a public health issue any more as a private matter”, he says.

“You’ll see rats in your house, for instance, if you get a cowboy builder in to put up an extension and he does a shoddy job that allows rats in.

“That’s unfortunate, obviously, but forty years ago it was a public health issue because the sewage was literally being pumped into the river and drawing the rats.

“There may still be some places where raw sewage gets into the river (there might be the occasional drain that wasn’t caught) but you only have to compare the smell of the river thirty years ago to now to realise how much cleaner it is.” 

Well, it is reassuring to hear that whatever other problems the pandemic throws up, a plague of rats isn’t on the horizon.

Mind you, the virus isn’t the only global phenomenon that’s influenced the pest control business. Joe sees the effects of climate change in another area he deals with, for instance.

“We’d deal with bees quite a bit. They can be a problem for people if they get into a house, obviously.

“Overall, though, the number of call-outs for bees declined quite a bit.

“It seems to be rising a bit now again, but then again a hive of bees is worth money. 

"Anecdotally a hive could be worth as much as €600. Obviously beekeepers were always interested in them but now they’ll really go to lengths to save them.

“A man rang me last week with bees in his house and I told him he had a valuable asset on his hands, but it wasn’t any consolation to him; he had bees coming down into the kitchen and he was beside himself.” 

Count yourself lucky, pal. It could have been an invasion of macaques.

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