Are rats ‘bad’ wildlife?

I have of late become sensitised to bias and subjectivity in interpretation. That's not surprising as I have been working at the interpretation of conflict and contested histories. The importance of recognising perspective and prejudice is clear there.

There is more than one way of looking at almost everything. That's what makes communicating about culture, heritage and environment  so interesting. (picture: Piccadilly station, Manchester)

There is more than one way of looking at almost everything. That’s what makes communicating about culture, heritage and environment so interesting. (picture: Piccadilly station, Manchester)

I have found that the aspects of a history are tense or troublesome are often expressed as omissions in the interpretation, in the stories that have gaps in them. Things are left unsaid – sometimes consciously, sometimes not.

Interpreting wildlife can seem much more straightforward than delving into the murky waters of human history.

Nature is so much more black and white (especially orcas, avocets, ring ouzels and marbled whites). Except that some of it – like some history – is darker than that.  Some of it we are not neutral about at all.

Some does not fit well with the story we want to tell. Sometimes wildlife is awkward.

Like rats. 


This picture (taken on my i-phone) comes from a nature reserve run by a wildlife organisation dedicated to building good connections between people and wildlife. There are of course many such reserves run by a range of organisations with similar goals across the UK.

What struck me as I looked at this rat family scurrying about under the bird feeders, is that it is a long time since I had such a good view of rats.

The next thing that struck me is that although there was attractive interpretation about the birds that were visiting the feeders, there was none on these mammals.  That sounds like discrimination, in any money.

That ‘gap’ in the story can’t be because the mammals are hard to see. They are very obvious. Unusually for mammals, that tend to be shy, secretive and nocturnal, the rats are predictable. A visitor with a long lens told me he often comes here to photograph them.

It seems that the rats have been edited out of the interpretation.  I imagine this was based on the reasonable assumption that ‘people do not like rats’. As generalisations go, I imagine that’s a good one. The argument seems to have gone ‘so let’s turn a blind eye, and keep quiet’.  Just like we do with uncomfortable histories.

I can understand why. There are problems with talking about rats, especially with rats under a bird feeder.  However, not talking about something does not make it go away. The history of the slave trade is still embedded in many of the great houses of this country, for instance,  even if it is not mentioned. The rats are still there, twitching their whiskers, crawling over each other and stuffing their faces with bird seed.

These rats can provoke strong responses from visitors.

These rats can provoke strong responses from visitors.

Like most wildlife organisations, the one that owns this site, supports all of nature and  the value of habitats with all their diversity. But maybe not rats? Can we have an ecological reason for this apparent value judgement? I suspect not.

There is a more worrying angle to this. Again, along with many others, this organisation frequently suggests that people could do more for wildlife in their garden.  That is a very good idea. However, despite the interpretation boards’ silence on the subject, the rats tell their own story on that. ‘We’ll come too’ they say to any visitor who will listen. ‘Put out the food,’ they say ‘ and we’ll be there, possibly in drove ‘. I suggest, that’s the point at which the organisation absolutely needs to join the dialogue.

Similarly, I suggest, in those great houses that are silent about the human cost of the accumulated riches the gap in the narrative is eloquent. It says things like ‘places like this are not for people like you’ and ‘… and we still don’t really care’.

It is naive to hope that visitors only hear what we want them to hear, or see what we want them to see. They come to our places with their own attitudes, histories and predispositions and direct their attention accordingly. If we want them to hear us we need to put our attention and our messages there too.





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