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Science
COSTING THE EARTH
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Thursday 21:00-21:30
Repeat Friday 15:00
Costing the Earth tells stories which touch all our lives, looking at man's effect on the environment and at how the environment reacts. It questions accepted truths, challenges the people in charge and reports on progress towards improving the world we live in.
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LISTEN AGAINListen 30 min
Listen to January 10
PRESENTER
TOM HEAP
Tom Heap
PROGRAMME DETAILS
Thursday January 10 2008
Rat catching: Tom and Marco Fernandez rifle through rubbish


Rats on the rise?

Council pest controllers are reporting record numbers of complaints about rats across the UK and although it's impossible to quote exact figures, there are an estimated twelve to thirteen million rats thriving in our towns and countryside thanks to the way we live today. Much has been made of an apparent rise in the number of rats due to the fast food culture and a reduction in waste and council pest control services in some areas. Whatever the reason,the public perception is that rat numbers are going up.
In this edition of Costing the Earth, Tom Heap gets down and dirty with one of our least loved mammals, Rattus Norvegicus, otherwise known as the brown rat, to find out if their numbers are increasing and if so, why. Could it be that rats are simply becoming more audacious and encroaching further into human territory? Recent reports of a cinema audience in London sharing their popcorn with several rats during the film would appear to confirm this. And many more people now report rat sightings during daylight hours when rats are more nocturnal by nature.
What is clear is that several factors are conspiring to make the life of the rat far more comfortable and easy in 21st century Britain and some experts believe that we could be setting ourselves up for problems in future if we allow rat colonies to flourish. Firstly, Environmental Health experts believe that a fragmented approach to rat control across the country is worrying. They say that the government no longer funds much needed research into rodents, nor ensures a joined up approach to pest control among local authorities. So putting down poison in one garden is pretty pointless when the rats will just move next door or to the nearest alternative source of food. Water privatisation is another factor, they say, which has meant less baiting of sewers in order to keep rat numbers down.
They say more research is needed into why rats in some parts of the country are completely resistant to the poisons we are currently allowed to use. Professor Robert Smith of the University of Huddersfield has found large areas of Hampshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire where rats have eaten more than their body weight in rodenticide and failed to even become ill. He is concerned that this resistance could spread and that we do not have enough alternative poisons to use. At present little work is being done to find other forms of poison because they are not economically viable.
Dr. Gai Murphy of the University of Salford specialises rodent borne disease. She says the health risks associated with rats are underestimated and we could face an outbreak of disease in future if we don't take the problem more seriously. Environmental Health specialist Dr. Stephen Battersby agrees and warns that many common diarrhoeal illnesses we put down to food poisoning could actually be being caused by rats, but that there's a general lack of awareness of the health risks posed by rodents.
There are economic costs too. Rats gnaw almost anything and just one cable chewed through on the rail network can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds. Then there's the risk of fire caused by rats gnawing electric cables. All of this, these experts say, mean Rattus Norvegicus can be a far more powerful threat to human existence than we may realise.
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