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The rat population of Britain outnumbers humans - and they're still breeding. NIGEL BLUNDELL prepares for a rat attack with these amazing rat facts:

There are more rats than human beings on the planet - 550 different species in total.

Because of mild winters and fast-food scraps, experts warn that the present plague of rats sweeping Britain has topped 70 million - outnumbering us.

The largest rat ever recorded in Britain measured 2ft. It was dubbed Ratweiler.

According to the World Health Organisation, one in five patients in US hospitals is suffering with a disease caught from rats.

James Bryce, 18, tried to hold up a Victoria Wine shop with a rat, by pulling the rat from his pocket and demanding cash. The rat, which disappeared in the fracas, was later found and adopted by one of the Edinburgh shop staff. Bryce was sentenced to 18 months detention.

In 1995 a rat left in a box outside Bristol Zoo by its owner, who was seeking a new home for his pet, was blown up by Army bomb disposal experts because staff feared it was a bomb.

Rats are good swimmers. They can float for 72 hours in drains while waiting for food.

They can - and often do - enter houses by swimming up the outlet pipe, through the U-bend and into the toilet bowl. Rodent controllers recommend putting a brick on the lavatory seat until the infestation is dealt with!

Rats' teeth grow continuously at the rate of five inches a year so they gnaw for survival as well as for food.

They have jaws of steel and can gnaw through practically anything - cables, computer discs, tin cans, lead piping.

Some rats have strange tastes - such as chewing gum and cellophane. A Manchester department store once lost its entire counter display of 250 fluffy toy chicks after a single rat spent the night removing all the eyes. They were made from a particular seed that it liked.

Rats in a soft-drinks factory nibbled all the labels off the bottles. Others gnawed through production line machinery in a car factory in Germany causing pounds 100,000 worth of cars to fall off.

Rats have put the lights out at Heathrow Airport after chewing through vital double-insulated safety cable.

Rats have wiped out a bank's entire records.

A cornered rat will not go for your throat, as the old wives' tale has it. Zoologists assure us that they will always run away rather than attack.

Sir David Attenborough is terrified of rats. He may have lived with lions, gambolled with gorillas and swum with sharks but he'd never touch a rat, saying he has an "irrational phobia" that began when rats ran across his face while camping in the Solomon Islands as a youthful film- maker.

India is still plagued by rats - they have 10 to every human. In Bombay 20,000 people are admitted to hospital with rat bite diseases every year.

In 1994, plagued by thousands of rats which destroyed its grain stocks and spread disease, the Bangladeshi government launched a massive rat- hunting contest. Anyone producing the tails of 10,000 rats won a colour television set.

Bubonic plague is an infectious fever caused by the bacillus Yersinia Pestis which is transmitted by fleas riding in rats' fur.

Known in the Middle Ages as the Black Death, the plague killed 75 million people worldwide and 25 million in Europe - a quarter of the continent's population.

Plague first reached Britain in 1348, travelling from the port of Weymouth, via Oxford to London. One third of the population of the British Isles is believed to have perished.

The Great Plague of London in 1665 killed more than 70,000 out of a population of 460,000. Many victims were buried in crematoria pits at Blackheath in South London and Gravesend in Kent - which is how they got their names.

In the last decade, plague has broken out in at least 20 countries. Penicillin has no effect against it. A recent outbreak in India killed 200 and caused incoming flights to be health-screened at British airports.

In 1993 secret Japanese army documents were discovered which revealed that in World War Two Japan planned to send submarines to beaches off Sydney and Melbourne and release plague-infected rats on Australia.

In Victorian London, men would bet on "rat fighting" - where the rodents were put together in special pits in "sporting" public houses. The rats were provided by a small army of men who scoured the city's sewers.

In 1961 the RAF parachuted 30 cats into Sarawak in Malaysia to try to save the rat-ravaged crops. All the cats were killed.

A law passed in Britain in 1911, which still exists, states that if you are going to hold a rat in a trap for more than six hours you must either kill it or provide it with food.

The male rat is a cannibal, so is kept well away from the young by their mother.

Rats can migrate by the tens of thousands. In wartime Liverpool, they caused Navy vehicles to halt for five minutes as they crossed a road. And in 1960, on the Cumbrian coast road between Barrow-in-Furness and Whitehaven, a motorcyclist was marooned for terrifying minutes as an army of rats swirled around him, heading for the mountains.

Rats infest one in every 100 urban buildings, 50 per cent of farms and 60 per cent of sewers.

They live for up to two years, breed at three to four months and can produce up to 12 rat pups every four weeks, the record being 27. A female rat can theoretically produce up to 1,000 offspring in a single year.

If all their offspring were to live, one pair of rats could have 350 million descendants in three years.

Accomplished athletes, rats can run 100 metres faster than Maurice Greene - easily under 10 seconds. They can jump six feet. They can even walk a tightrope - or at least a clothes line - using their tails for balance.
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Blundell, Nigel
Publication:The People (London, England)
Date:Oct 15, 2000
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