Over the winter we've been having some work done on the house, which at various points was enough to drive me to distraction.
On one particularly bad day I decided would take my frustrations out by emptying the compost bin, but the finished compost had settled and was too solid for me to wrench the top off my plastic bin, which is my normal means of accessing the compost.
I took the lid off and dived in with a spade, hoping to take out enough to enable me to remove the top. As I delved deeper, what I thought was an air pocket collapsed and the compost level fell. And then the compost moved.
My first thought was that I had disturbed a mouse nest. Horrified at the thought that I had buried defenceless mouse babies, I went back into the house to get my husband, who pulled the top off the composter with no problem.
With better access I carefully dug out the compost, and was pleased not to discover any mice. And then my brain warmed up a bit and I remembered the animal droppings I had seen when I opened the lid. Too big for mice.
Big droppings. Large tunnels. Moving compost. Oh rats!
I put the bin back together, but left the lid off for the winter - a cold, wet heap is far less attractive to rodents then a warm and dry one. My mistake was in leaving my finished compost for too long, something I will try and avoid in future.
We're never far from a rat, but I have yet to meet a composter who is happy with them living in a compost heap. And people who don't compost are often put off by the thought that they may attract rats - but as a Master Composter I know that there is no need for a compost heap to cause problems.
Tips for avoiding rats in your compost
- Rats are shy creatures and don't like being disturbed. A well-kept compost heap, visited regularly, will be less attractive. A swift kick every time you pass wouldn't go amiss either!
- Try to keep the contents of your bin actively composting (with the correct mix of carbon- and nitrogen-rich materials and water), in a sunny spot.
- Don't position your bin next to a fence or hedge, which gives rats unseen access - leave a gap around it.
- Don't compost cooked food, meat or dairy.
- If you have rat problems then it is possible to stand a compost bin on a hard surface, or line the bottom with narrow-gauge metal mesh. A tight-fitting lid stops them getting in at the top.
If you suspect you have rats in the garden then you have a legal requirement to inform your local authority, who will send out a pest controller. And remember that, whether you've seen rats or not, gardens are grubby places and you should cover any open wounds when gardening and wash your hands thoroughly when you come inside.
Emma Cooper is a garden blogger and author based in Oxfordshire. She advises the public on home garden composting as a Master Composter, under a scheme run by Garden Organic to encourage recycling, cut waste and improve our gardens.