Talk about Newsnight

Ethical Man - Justin Rowlatt

There's a rat in me compost...

  • Justin Rowlatt -
  • 3 Jan 07, 05:36 PM

rat203.jpgThey say you can go anywhere in Britain's cities, and you'll never be more than six feet from a rat. I've even seen reports that claim that rats are now as numerous as people.

I've always been a bit sceptical of these stories. The last time I came face-to-face with a rat was a couple of years ago outside the BBC. I know what you are thinking but this one was of the rodent variety and ducked into the bushes as I passed. I fear I may very soon establish a much more intimate acquaintance with our burrowing buddies.

When I went out to deposit the peelings and parings of the season in the compost I discovered evidence of what appears to be an assault on our bin.

I would insert a picture of the three inch diameter hole dug in the earth beneath the bin and the foot or so of debris sprayed out behind it but I am staying with Bee's mum for a couple of days and don't have the technical capability to do so. I know that will make diagnosis difficult but please do your best. What I want to know is whether this is indeed the work of a rat? And if so, what can I do about it?

I was rather hoping that some keen-eyed zoologist would tell me that this is unmistakably the work of a fox. It wouldn't surprise me, there are no shortage of foxes locally.

In fact our foxes have all the urban swagger of hip hop artists. You see them by and night, and they happily pass within feet of pedestrians with little more than a snarl and a glare. But are they really likely to raid my compost?

I think the evidence suggests a smaller animal. I've tried to flush whatever it is out. I've given the in a good kick and even prodded around with a garden fork (admittedly rather gingerly) in the compost itself. The huge snarling rodent I was expecting did not materialise.

Before you ask I have been very scrupulous about not composting cooked food. Our bin holds only garden waste, raw vegetable peelings, some shredded newspaper and the occasional eggshell or teabag.

I'm hoping that this was a single foray and that whatever invaded the bin was disappointed by what it found and will not return but I know that is probably optimistic. So, to misquote UB40, there's a rat in me compost, what me gonna do?

Comments  Post your comment

  • 1.
  • At 08:21 PM on 03 Jan 2007,
  • Mills wrote:

I doubt it is of any use to you - they probably don't work outside - but we have mice and just bought a peststop battery powered mouse killer. It's despatched three of the little blighters in as many days - lured by sesame and poppy seed crackers.

Every now and then while we are watching tele one of the mice zips out from behind the TV and hunches down sniffing the air until a good stamp on the floor sends it back whence it came.

They live in the walls and have scratched out almost comic, Tom and Jerry-style holes in the skirting and floor boards.

I do wonder if killing mice is at all ethical or justifiable but since, at great pains to my knees, I painted those skirting boards I will continue to load the pesttop with crackers until the little buggers have gone.

  • 2.
  • At 06:38 PM on 04 Jan 2007,
  • liz wrote:

if it is outside and there is no evidence of having any problems insode, it is probably best to let it be, If it is a rat they tend to bite when agravated, so poking it with a garden fork is not such a good idea, however having a thoroughly aerated compost heap (ours is made out of wooden planks with about a 2 inch gap between, but chicken wire is very good) and lots of worms in it reduces the smell and reduces the chances of getting rats. I had a wormery inside when I had a flat with no garden, and they are so good at getting rid of smepps that no-one knew that it wasn't just a regular bin under the worktop.

  • 3.
  • At 11:27 PM on 04 Jan 2007,
  • Mark wrote:

Similar "three inch diameter" tunnel but visible inside the bin, disappearing out down through the mix. Can't see the exit/entrance as bin near a stone wall, so maybe similar spray of debris. Tunnels appear every now and then, say once month. Do confess to the odd cooked morcel getting dropped into the bin. No direct correlation between cooked food and tunnels appearing. No sight yet of guilty party. No foxes ever spotted in vicinity.

  • 4.
  • At 01:17 AM on 05 Jan 2007,
  • June Gibson wrote:

Why are people so touchy about the odd mammal getting a meal out of scraps? If humans didn't have such a vast amount of waste food there would be fewer rats, squirrels, foxes being supported. WE support their numbers by our profligacy with food. A lot of creatures like compost heaps which get very warm inside(hedgehogs particularly like them to hibernate in) and the compost supports a lot of bush tucker. I wouldn't mind betting that the urban rich complain the most. They pay fortunes to live near green spaces - e.g. Hampstead Heath, Clapham Common, and then moan about the presence other animals and birds whose space we humans keep invading - animals who have to suffer our racket, fireworks, traffic fumes, broken glass, and all other sorts of human detritus. Really, people,keep a bit of perspective on things. You are not hungry, cold, going without a drink, being shot at (yet) and sleep in a nice dry warm bed indoors - where possibly favoured companion animals access all areas including the kitchen table. Have a bit of gratitude and compassion - or have you forgotten those emotions?

  • 5.
  • At 09:39 AM on 05 Jan 2007,
  • neil spence wrote:

We've had mice living or feeding in our compost bin at one point over the suumer. I see them regularly under the bird feeders. (As ethical man should you feed the birds in your garden?)
I found it a wonderful suprise when I opened the bin and three mice appeared. Two of them quickly disappearing into tunnels but the third froze and peered up at me nervously with its big brown opaque eyes.
We gazed at each other for a while I smiled said hello and it then decided to join it's comanpions somewhere else in the bin.
Great experience but unfortunately they've never appeared again but I like to think that they make regular forays to the bin for midnight snacks of our vegetable peelings.

  • 6.
  • At 10:24 AM on 05 Jan 2007,
  • chris rose wrote:

Buy some sheets of wire mesh - ca 1cm x 1cm squares. Wire over the bottom of your bin - you'll have to clean and empty it first ! Lay down bricks as the floor, flat and on an area slightly larger than the bin, with minimal /no gaps between. Replace bin with wire on it, tucked up around the lower sides. Put more bricks against wire to keep fit snug. Rats will now give up, even if there is cooked stuff in the bin.

hmm, sounds like bea's mum put too much sherry in the trifle to me.

gonna ketch thet ret, thet wha me gonna do...

tony jolliffe, newsnight cameraman

  • 8.
  • At 03:24 PM on 06 Jan 2007,
  • Harry Webb wrote:

This headline is symptomatic, to me, of the urbanisation of Britain that has been taking place for generations now. Outside of towns and cities people live alongside and with nature, but this does not stop them exterminating species which are detrimental to humans. Unfortunately, many urbanites seem unwilling to share their domain with nature or to stamp it out - presumably because of a perceived element of "cruelty" in extermination.

  • 9.
  • At 10:21 PM on 06 Jan 2007,
  • Fanny wrote:

I object to rats around the house or barn. Leptospirosis is worldwide the
most prevalent zoonotic disease, apart from internal parasites, affecting household pets and humans. Rats are the common urban carrier. I had a pet dog die of it when I was a teenager. I will protect my pets and thereby,I hope, myself. Veterinary personnel are one of the professions at risk.
I can conceive of no benefit in a live and let live philosophy here. Get rid of it, Justin.

  • 10.
  • At 10:07 PM on 10 Jan 2007,
  • Philip wrote:

Apparently a lot of the ripped binbags, blamed on foxes, are the work of cats.

Somewhat cuddlier than rats, granted..

  • 11.
  • At 12:14 AM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • James Watson wrote:

Justin - can confirm that chicken wire is the way to go - 100% effective. Problem is that it comes on a huge roll so have plenty left over from when I had to tackle the same problem. Happy to put a bit in the post for you.

  • 12.
  • At 11:08 PM on 16 Jan 2007,
  • Jan wrote:

Apparently rats can chew through wood plastic metal and even concrete. They say sheet aluminium with drilled worm holes is the only guarantee to getting rid of the rats, but the small grid chicken wire sounds like the best suggestion. Alternatively you could just do as I do and build the thing out of loosely piled up bricks with plenty of gaps for them to get out. My top suggestions for Composting are:

1) Use an old carpet tile on top as it is hairy and tough rubbery plastic. Keeps off the worst rain but keeps in the damp. Doesn't rot and they can be found in pretty much any skip.

2) Add urine to your heap. It is damp and the nitrogen is essential to degrade the vegetable waste. If you don't live next to a Horse Guards Parade then this is probably the best place to get nitrogen into your heap. If like me you aren't keen on being seen peeing in your own garden then if you have a little 2 year old who is potty training then try using that. It really works a treat.

3) Use two heaps. One active and one rotting. Turn the active one over to mix the food waste into the cut grass and leaves etc. The mix really helps the breakdown.

4) In the summer put BBQ Ashes into the heap and water it from time to time.

5) When it is really cold out side the heap doesn’t rot very well and it can’t build up enough heat through it’s own rotting, so don’t worry too much about turning it over in the winter.

  • 13.
  • At 10:54 PM on 17 Jan 2007,
  • Helen wrote:

Rats in your compost bin you reckon?
Rats in your compost bin! Ha Ha Ha
How long have you been making compost?
It is a well known thing that rats love compost be it in bins or just piled up in an Alan Titchmarch DIY compost pen.
Where you bin all your life boy!

  • 14.
  • At 02:07 PM on 18 Jan 2007,
  • stu wrote:

I had a similar problem. It seems rats are quite partial to remains of the egg white left on the shell. since I stopped putting egg shells the rats have gone away

  • 15.
  • At 05:51 PM on 18 Jan 2007,
  • Ken wrote:

I have exactly the same problem in my compost bin, however I have twice caught them in the act of eating some of the windfall apples that I put in the compost.

The better composters will include a plastic cone that is buried beneath the composter and this acts as a deterent to burrowing rodents - but probably not for very long.

Mind you, if you know that the rats are in your compost, then slightly dubious logic suggests that they are less likely to be in your kitchen. My compost heap is 65 metres from the house - hopefully far enough away to keep them away.

We did have a rat in the kitchen a couple of summers ago - I think our cat brought it in alive, it escaped and it hid behind the fridge - where it began to nest in the warm insulation close to the compressor.

To cut a long story, (and a rat's life), short, it was chased into the bathroom and took up temporary residence under the washing machine.

The end came when it's head met with the underside of my size 11 boot.

Is it ethical to kill rats in this manner?

  • 16.
  • At 05:11 PM on 23 Jan 2007,
  • Janet wrote:

I had a rat nesting in my compost pile several years ago. It was horrible -- I went to turn it over and all these little babies were there. My husband whacked to death the ones that didn't escape. Block up the hole, and use the wire mesh that others have recommended. Rats are vile.

  • 17.
  • At 10:58 PM on 19 Feb 2007,
  • John 'the composter' Cossham wrote:

Hi Justin, it is a rat and they love the shelter of the heap as well as any edibles therein. Chicken wire and bricks will work, but difficult to retrofit, so you'll need to tip the 'dalek' over and do some not-very-pleasent shovelling and then fit heavy guage chicken wire, with the smallest holes/apertures. The other thing rats like is an undisturbed heap, as they excavate a cavern. So disturb your heap (not easy with daleks) and you'll make it a less pleasent place to live, and they'll move to a nicer place (next door's compost heap?) They are also fairly easy to trap or poison, if you must, or you could just accept that we share this planet with other life-forms.
John from York Rotters

  • 18.
  • At 04:01 PM on 07 Mar 2007,
  • Ella wrote:

we used to have a cat (that's right, a CAT) nesting in our compost. it was a warm place (we figured).

we only found out about it the day we threw pulped veggy/fruit matter on the compost and it jumped back at us!

we've not seen the cat since.

  • 19.
  • At 02:03 PM on 21 Mar 2007,
  • Joe wrote:

I don't know if this has already been said, but:

CAT'S ARE MEANT FOR THIS PROBLEM. Most people don't seem to realise that. Thats why we have them on farms, you see?

Eggshell would probably have trace of egg on it and maybe should be kept separate. A rodent would seek out any trace of egg.

It could be a cat. It could be a fox or a rodent. Is it really a problem?

  • 20.
  • At 10:34 AM on 27 Mar 2007,
  • Zoe Andrews wrote:

The pigeons are actually a much bigger problem in London than rats.They also spread disease,and we all know what happens if one suddenly hovers above invariably involves a trip to the dry cleaners.Worse,my cat is strangely mesmerised by them-when he could be concentrating on rats.I suppose I should take him to some kind of feline psychologist but it's so hard to coax him into that little box...

  • 21.
  • At 12:34 PM on 30 Mar 2007,
  • sue wrote:

All the information and advice given in organic gardening magazines suggest that compost bins will not harbour rats if you don't put cooked food remains inside. This is an utter fallacy. We're told and encouraged to have compost bins, but I have recently found three tiny rat babies in mine. I'm concerned because I don't know what size litters they have, I thought it would be more, so where are they ? And where's mummmy and daddy rat ? Put rat granules down, at the bag of the bin ( I have dogs so have to be very careful ), and found lots of the granules on the top of the compost when I opened it up the next day. So does anybody know how many babies they have in a litter ? Would the adult rats ( mummy and daddy most probably ) have taken the granules into the compost bin, somehow, and why, how ? And why are they there in the first place when we're told they won't be so long as there is no waste cooked food ?

  • 22.
  • At 05:09 PM on 04 Apr 2007,
  • Katrina and Scott wrote:

We have had a burrowing animal in our compost for most of the winter, and the winter before. This time 'he' made a hole in the shed floor (the compost is a nice aerated and planked in pile behind the shed)and half filled the shed with good old compost!
We have had to demolish the shed as it was rotten by the time we noticed quite how much stuff he had moved...We are still finding large amounts of displaced compost and are now getting to the bottom of the compost (turning and sifting it as it is lovely and ripe!)and he is still there, still turning over and piling compost. Quite a little helper in fact (even though he destroyed our shed...)
Once we found a knot-shaped poo in the shed, which did not have a musky or unpleasant smell so I don't think it is a rat (their poo is pellet shaped with a little tip)and I suspect it's a type of weasel or ferret. Also the tunnels we found are quite large (6 to 8cm diameter)which I thought were too big for rats. Plus the tunnels are well down inside the lower part of the compost, at least 60 to 70cm down from the top layer.
PLEASE someone tell us if they have ahad experience with this, we don't want to kill him, just want to know what he (or she) is!
If it is a rat the local council have previously successfully controlled rats with poison (sorry! but there were too many) and there was some pison bait left under the shed from the last time. This creature has been burrowing regardless and is obviously not interested in the rat poison, which the other rats were!

  • 23.
  • At 01:05 PM on 05 Apr 2007,
  • Maz wrote:

Jan suggests peeing on the compost heap to add nitrogen. I've heard of this before but only if it's a male's urine... can't see my husband or sons helping out here, would girlie wee work as well?

  • 24.
  • At 08:26 PM on 07 Apr 2007,
  • Ratty wrote:

Rats and compost do sort of go together.

That doesn't make them desirable and you don't want them in your garden as residents with small children.

Perhaps you could negotiate a discount and buy two vermin proof cages from one for now and one for later...

As often as he let himself be seen
We pitied him, or scorned him, or deplored
The inscrutable profusion of the Lord
Who shaped as one of us a thing so mean—
Who made him human when he might have been
A rat, and so been wholly in accord
With any other creature we abhorred
As always useless and not always clean.

Now he is hiding all alone somewhere,
And in a final hole not ready then;
For now he is among those over there
Who are not coming back to us again.
And we who do the fiction of our share
Say less of rats and rather more of men.
Edwin Arlington Robinson, The Rat

  • 25.
  • At 07:36 PM on 08 May 2007,
  • Kate Mallinson wrote:

James Watson offered some chicken wire - please can you put him in touch with me ? THanks, Kate

  • 26.
  • At 03:16 AM on 28 Jul 2007,
  • Henry Adams wrote:

Right now I can sympathize with you and give you a horror story to give you pause if mercy be your aim.

I saw a rat in my garden about two weeks ago and understandably decided to leave it be, murmuring excuses about "being humane".

Two weeks later the rats have moved into my flat, are living inside my walls, coming out at night and pooing, peeing and nibbling any food left in any cupboard.

They stink the place up so badly I feel sick every time one of them has walked out from one of the skirting boards and relieved itself upon my once clean floors.

My house is now full of spring traps, poison bait and glue traps yet the little buggers keep eluding capture.

The only thing to have come good from this awful experience is my wife now looks at me like I am a hero of epic proportions since I started chasing them around my flat like a maniac with a length of two-by-four!

Your only hope is to kill any rat you see before it decides to move in with you for the winter...

  • 27.
  • At 01:23 PM on 24 Aug 2007,
  • alison wrote:

I have been reading alot about composting and apparently it,s not recommended to use egg shells as these do attract rats.

  • 28.
  • At 07:34 PM on 30 Aug 2007,
  • Peter wrote:

We have had a visit from a rat man who said that because rats carry Wiles disease we must not use the compost and should pay the council to take it away. This seems extreme to me. Any comments?

  • 29.
  • At 11:42 AM on 01 Sep 2007,
  • Philippa wrote:

I live in the countryside, so was not surprised to see rats in our garden after the heavy rains. We decided to call in the very expensive - yet very helpful - Ratman. The five bait boxes were all taken and one dead rat found under next door's decking. I was very worried to find two poos - one of which was on our front door step this morning. It is about 1.5cm long, does not smell and is brown with obvious signs of berries in it (blackberries in the garden so that makes sense!) Much thicker than a mouse poo. Are the rats back, or do we have a friendly hedgehog? I've searched for a poo comparison site on the internet with no success. Any ideas?

  • 30.
  • At 06:36 PM on 15 Oct 2007,
  • Jane wrote:

Garden Organic, previously known as the Henry Doubleday Research Association has a factseet on rats in the garden:

Also, apparently leptospirosis doesn't survive outside the animal for more than a few days, and it needs water or wet mud to do so. This would mean that finished compost (which is not particularly damp) would not carry the leptospirosis pathogen, unless a there was wet rat pee on it.

Can anyone comment?


  • 31.
  • At 12:32 PM on 07 Nov 2007,
  • Stephster wrote:

Sorry, but I don't like sharing my environment with rodents, despite the fact that I choose to live in a country village.
I have found an electric mousetrap to be the most efficient and allegedly humane way to get rid of the three mice who came to visit.
The pest control man has just been, and he suspects the rat poo we found in the garage originated from a rat nest he suspects to be in the compost bin.
He said this was a very common problem, which people are not made aware of, in case it stops them from composting. He too, suggested the chicken wire method.
I too would like to know what to do with the compost now, as I forgot to ask him ?
I have decided to use the composting bin supplied by the council and emptied every two weeks, from now on. The thought of turning over the compost and finding some baby rats, makes me feel sick :(. Mind you, I wouldn't be impressed by finding a fully grown one either !


  • 32.
  • At 09:54 PM on 07 Jan 2008,
  • Neil wrote:

Thanks for all the advice. I am in the middle of the same problem. Just after Christams I went to the garden to put some peelings in the compost bin, only to find two large holes at the back and side of compost bin. The rats, yes rats, which I haven't seen yet are also making large holes in other parts of garden. One of the holes, you would think a little dog had done it. The ratman said this is very common behaniour, compost bins, underneath sheds and decking ( which I don't and never will have )are prime locations. He recommended placing patio slabs underneath my bin ( thats of course if I an going to keep it ) leaving a small hole in the centre for worms to get in and also to use wire mesh. He also recommended lifting my shed and putting slabs under that as well. He said sheds should be high enough for a cat to get in or hight enough ( 2/3 standard blocks ) for a rat not to be comfortable in. I started composting at the wrong time i.e. winter. My ratman reckons that the broken down compost will not attract them. I am living in Ireland and he said there is a huge problem this year with mice and rats here. We have laid bait which takes apparently 6 days to work and will look at preventative methods once I hopefully fix the current problem.

  • 33.
  • At 12:45 AM on 08 Jan 2008,
  • Albert Bond wrote:

I do not know if the folks in the UK have known about a revolving compostor, but here in the has been in an advert, it will eliminate all your problems of Rats getting in you compost pile,it is a rotary bin and does creat good compost, in a few weeks much quicker than the reguler bin. I had a 4ft by 4ft compost bin in San Diego CA and had no problems with Rats just with Squirels, got rid of him by makeing a trap, amd then took him into the wilds around San Deigo. Lots of Horse poop di creat good conpost and lots of Red worms.

  • 34.
  • At 01:45 PM on 15 Jan 2008,
  • Marica wrote:

Hello BBC news. Why should we care about global warming while other people from the world are dying form statrvation. Mother Teresa Sail The only thing to stop poverty is to share so are the people from England Share no they don't so why should we care.

  • 35.
  • At 03:11 PM on 30 Jan 2008,
  • Cassandra wrote:

I'd love an answer to Maz's question about using girls' wee. Is it also suitable for the compost heap or is the right type only produced by the males of our species?

  • 36.
  • At 04:27 PM on 07 Feb 2008,
  • Nicky wrote:

Lots of great advice, we have recently evicted a large rodent. We threw all the compost away as we deemed it unfit for organic veg gardens which we have - were we right to do this?? I can see talk of disease...

  • 37.
  • At 10:38 PM on 14 Feb 2008,
  • JL-S wrote:

We've had a "creature" in our compost bin for a couple of years now. We first noticed its presence when the bin's contents were relatively wet and there wasn't much vegetation to munch on. Despite prods and pokes and the occasional churn, we're found no droppings, no teeth-marks or anything. There's a burrowed hole upon which we playfully drop the next pile of peelings just as an attempt at provocation. Our "creature" simply pushes it to one side and recreates its hole. Our cat is fascinated by whatever lives in the bin and likes to keep guard when the weather is good, but we've had no real evidence as to what it could be. Speaking with a friend other day she mentioned that this has been a good year for grass snakes. Should we have been thinking reptile rather than rodent?

  • 38.
  • At 11:53 AM on 18 Mar 2008,
  • rowena wrote:

Great to hear all the stories of rats. Yes, I see evidence of a rat or rats in my compost bin(dalek) since I have upped production recently.I'm choosing to be tolerant based on what I've read here. I don't think I will do the chicken wire and bricks thing unless the ingredients/materials magically materialise. I will take precautions when handling anything related to composting, wash hands, scrub nails after. Also I will keep to a rule of four -no- seven days min . between compost leaving a rat infected area and going on anything to do with food crops. Lastly I will accelerate the composting in any way I can to minimise the problem.
Nothing like a really healthy compost heap!

  • 39.
  • At 06:45 PM on 29 Mar 2008,
  • claire leaman wrote:

I am trying to design a rat-proof compost bin as part of a design course. Would anybody buy such an item if it were available and worked? It would not entail killing any rats so would anyone still be interested if the price were reasonable?

  • 40.
  • At 07:11 PM on 31 Mar 2008,
  • LORRAINE wrote:


  • 41.
  • At 08:29 PM on 06 Apr 2008,
  • Neil wrote:

In relaiton to Claire Leman's comments, I would def buy a rat proof compost bin. Manufactures will not even ( to my knowledge ) put any hints on their bins on how to keep rodent out as it would affect sales but if you have a unique idea it would def get people's attention. And JL-S, that burrow you have, I would put money on it, its a rat. I had exactly the same issue. I got rid of them with industrial bait ( 7 days, does exactly what it says on tin! ). I want to try again so I've dug a trench around the bin which I will fill with stones to, hopefully, prevent the burrowing and am also going to use the wire mesh

  • 42.
  • At 05:42 PM on 09 Apr 2008,
  • Claire Hubbard wrote:

Found a rat in my compost bin this morning. Problem is the house next door has been empty for over 2 years so the garden is rather overgrown & Im not sure what to do...advice would be greatly appriciated.

We have decided to throw the compost bin contents away & rat proof our bin with chicken wire, but Im not sure whether to have the rat killed. If the house has been empty for so many years & this is the first one we have seen surely there cant be that much of a problem....?

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