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Do we need the word 'pests' anymore?

A blog post by Nicola Davidson

This week is #GlobalGoalsWeek so it is more important than ever to focus on the 'why' behind climate action.

This blog from our Education and Learning Officer Nicola Davidson tells how her passion for 'pests' has deepened her understanding of UN Sustainable Development Goal 15 ‘Life on Land'.

Did you know that rats laugh when they are tickled? You can’t hear it as the vocalisations are around 50kHz, way above human hearing, but it is there. Rats are one of my favourite animals. They are intelligent and highly social creatures. And yet they are often called ‘pests’. Species we call pests come in all shapes and sizes, but they share one thing, which is they get in our way. They eat our food, spread diseases and damage our property. As such, we often feel little remorse in trying to kill them, often in huge numbers. Many of our methods of pest control are non-specific, which means that lots of other animal and plant species are harmed at the same time. But, what if we reframed our view and stopped designating species as ‘pests’? Maybe then we could learn to live alongside and in balance with them, rather than just killing them.

Our relationship with the natural world has always fascinated me. I started my career nearly 17 years ago as a vet working in private practice, trying to help improve animal welfare and seeing the damage ‘pest’ parasites can do. During my time in practice, I developed a keen interest in parasites and went on to do a Masters in the subject, learning about insect pests as vectors for disease. I spent some time as a veterinary pathologist, seeing first hand the damage that diseases spread by pests, such as leptospirosis, can do. The evidence was not in favour of the pests, yet the indiscriminate way they were killed, and the environmental effects of pest control did not sit well with me.

This feeling led me to my PhD research project, looking to reduce the environmental effects of rat poisons.

During my PhD, I learned how much of an affect rat poisons were having on other species in the environment. Rat poisons are not nice chemicals. They kill animals over several days, often with extremely painful effects. In addition, rat poisons are eaten by lots of rodents other than rats, including wood mice and voles. These are then eaten by birds of prey and other predators, with alarming numbers of these species being found with rat poisons in their systems. As part of my PhD, I got to observe how amazing rats are. I recorded rat vocalisations and their behavioural responses to them. You can see a trace of one of my recordings below.

The vocalisations are complex and used by rats during positive social interactions, including as a kind of laughter when they are tickled.

These are animals that deserve our respect and admiration, not our disgust. It is time to stop labelling species as pests and learn how to live alongside them. This will be vital if we are going to achieve UN Sustainable Development Goal 15 ‘Life on Land’. In order to halt biodiversity loss, we need to stop flooding the environment with toxic chemicals, such as rat poisons. Recently, the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare (UFAW) published guidance on humanely controlling rodents where it is necessary. Their approach calls for a focus on prevention. By preventing rats, and other rodents, from entering our homes and food stores, we remove the need to kill them. Where control is needed, UFAW recommend the use of and use of good quality snap traps, which are more welfare friendly and less environmentally damaging than poisons.

Other organisations are looking at their labelling of species as ‘pest’ in a bid to reduce harmful chemical use. The Royal Horticultural Society recently announced they are moving away from calling anything a ‘pest’. For slugs in particular, it is now recognised that the majority of species don’t actually eat healthy plants. Most of them eat dead and decaying matter, helping to break it down. They are an essential part of the garden ecosystem. Instead, the RHS want to focus on maintaining a balance in gardens, using sacrificial crops to attract species such as slugs away from more valuable ones and encouraging more predators of these species into our gardens, rather than using chemical control.

In my role of Education and Learning Officer with Keep Scotland Beautiful, I hope to be able to spread the word that it’s time for us to live in balance with nature, rather than trying to rule it. I hope the word ‘pest’ becomes redundant in our labelling of animals and we learn to appreciate their good, and funny, sides.

So, the next time you see a rat, remember it can laugh, and maybe you’ll feel more friendly towards it.

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