It is not the sort of animal that is usually encouraged to thrive on the streets of Southampton.
But the authorities are having to wage a war against an infestation of rats in a Southampton community after a local resident has taken to feeding the rodents.
Such is his fondness for looking after the animals, he has been dubbed ‘Ratman’ by locals.
He has been seen leaving food around the streets and has also been spotted buying up to 20kg bags of wheat, which has been recovered from the rats’ burrows around the Highfield area where the infestation has taken hold.
As a result of public health concerns, it is understood the man has been handed a Community Protection Notice in a bid to stop him encouraging the rats. The notice, which is similar to an anti-social behaviour order, means he faces being fined if he doesn’t stop feeding them.
Such is the scale of the problem it has led to Highfield Church graveyard being closed to the public.
Residents have also been advised to keep their pets indoors as a wide-scale pest control operation, which includes laying poison, has been launched.
Rodent specialists will spend the next six weeks putting poison down burrows in order to establish the extent of the network, after previous attempts at getting rid of the rodents failed.
Dogs have been used to hunt them down, whilst pest controllers have also used burrow baiting and attempted to cull the rodents.
Now a mass programme of laying down poison has begun, with pest controllers warning it could take up to two months to get the problem under control.
Southampton city council’s pest control manager Justin Crow said there is ‘an abundance’ of rats in the area centred on the edge of the Common around Highfield.
He said: “It’s a difficult situation but it’s got to be resolved. It’s a public health concern and has just got so desperate.
“We’ve tried everything from culls to terriers but they don’t achieve a lot – it’s poisoning that will get rid of them. The rats are destroying the ecology of the area.”
Pest control have alerted tree surgeons to the problem, as the extensive burrows made by the vermin could damage tree roots making them dangerous.
Wardens at the busy Highfield Church – next door to Highfield Church of England Primary School – have closed the churchyard to prevent people using it as a shortcut whilst the pest control programme is underway.
The Furzedown Road area of the Common is said to be the worst affected, with extensive undergrowth affording ‘harbourage’ for the rodent population, whilst the network is thought to spread as far as Burgess Road and beyond, with evidence of rats also at Woodmill.
According to pest control, the problem in the area is as a result of food being left out for the rats intentionally by the local resident. Rashers of bacon have been seen strewn on pavements whilst he has been seen leaving bird seed near their burrows.
One residents, who asked not to be named, said: “It is just awful; it is thanks to him that we now have pest control on our doorsteps. It is disgusting the food he leaves all over the place. No wonder they are thriving.”
Furzedown Road resident Clare Mar-Molinero said the rats have even got bigger in size.
She said: “It’s been significantly worse this year... they do seem to be bigger. My cats can’t get hold of them - only the smaller ones.
“All of our fruit was stolen from the fruit trees in the garden – all our plums, figs and peaches are gone and it can only be rats. I want my garden back now!”