Saskatchewan declares war on rats

Forget the Europeans and the Americans – a far more sinister enemy is gnawing away on farm profits right here at home.

According to Saskatchewan Agriculture’s dossier on this fearless foe, it can jump 10 times its height, chomp through lead pipe and glass, produce an astonishing 15,000 offspring a year and poop out 125 droppings a day.

“This is an animal that requires a wide berth and a lot of respect,” said Alberta Agriculture pest specialist John Bourne, a man who has tangled with the Norway rat for many years.

“(It’s) a beguiling, adaptive, successful creature.”

Rats scuttled onto the Prairies half a century ago. The first colony was discovered on a farm near Alsask, Sask., in the summer of 1950.

Alberta immediately responded by setting up a rat control program and has been vigilant about keeping the province “rat free” ever since.

Alberta Agriculture spends $350,000 a year on its efforts to keep the vermin from setting up shop on Alberta farms. Rat control officers patrol a 29-kilometre-wide strip along the Saskatchewan border looking for infestations.

Saskatchewan was slower to react, initiating its rat control program in 1972. By then it was too late.

The scavenger was prevalent throughout the province. Pest control officers say the rat population has surpassed the human population.

Saskatchewan Agriculture has decided it is time to step up efforts to eradicate the Norway rat.

The agency increased its rat control funding by $200,000 this year, bringing the total to $530,000. Municipalities collectively spend much more than that fighting rats.

A little more than half of the new government money will fund the activities of two pest control co-ordinators. Their job is to harmonize the rat attack.

“We’re basically starting out to try and get Saskatchewan rat free,” said Andy MacKenzie, one of the two co-ordinators hired in January.

From border inward

This year they will focus their efforts on a 40-kilometre-wide strip along the Alberta border. The plan is to get that area rat free and then slowly move east in similar increments. Rat-free status could take more than 10 years to accomplish.

The key to the program is to get everybody to buy into the plan, because the program could be compromised if even one area isn’t diligent.

“If all RMs had a pest control officer, that would help,” MacKenzie said.

Part of his job is to co-ordinate rat control activities between the municipalities and Agriculture Development and Diversification boards.

He estimates that rats cause between $15 and $20 million in damage to Saskatchewan farms each year.

“A lot of the damage that they do is in destroying structures – bin floors and stuff like that.”

They also consume and contaminate grain. Rats eat about 10 percent of their body weight each day, up to 40 kilograms per year. They contaminate 10 times that amount of food with their feces and urine.

It is estimated that at least four percent of all stored grain in the world is consumed or contaminated by the dirty little creatures.

MacKenzie said the solution to Saskat-chewan’s ra problem isn’t rocket science. It’s just a matter of doing what’s being done now with more intensity.

“One of the big secrets is persistence. A lot of people will bait for rats and feel they’ve got them licked and quit.”

Here are a few tips for rat prevention:

  • Reduce potential rat homes by getting rid of rubbish piles and old buildings.
  • Eliminate food and water sources like spilled grain.
  • Cut grass around buildings.
  • Reduce gaps in buildings to less than one centimetre.
  • Put bins on hoppers.
  • Use steel floors on grain bins.

MacKenzie said the type of rat poison isn’t important since they all do the trick. The key is to get the animals eating the stuff, which may require experimenting with different baits.

MacKenzie’s colleagues in Alberta are pleased to see Sask-atchewan stepping up its control measures along the border.

“It’s very good news,” Bourne said.

Although Alberta calls itself rat free, the province gets about 12 infestations a year, most coming from Sask-atchewan.

Bourne said a successful Saskat-chewan program will help reduce the number of infestations, but it won’t eliminate the need for an Alberta rat control program.

“I don’t know if we would scale it back. We would certainly want to keep our program intact for several years to make certain there is no escapees.”

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