Eternal vigilance the key to being rat free

The effort to keep the rodents out of Alberta continues unabated after seven decades

It takes a lot of work but the Alberta Rat Control Program is an unqualified success, says provincial rat and pest specialist Phil Merrill.

“Someone must have had incredible foresight and said, ‘We don’t have rats, and we’re only going to battle them in the east. We can do this,’” said Merrill, the face and voice of the Alberta Rat Control Program for more than 30 years.

Rats arrived in Saskatchewan in the late 1920s and moved to the Alberta border in the 1950s.

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Before a rat breeding population could take hold, the provincial government launched the Alberta Rat Control Program.

“We were half ready for them,” said Merrill. “Our government was organized enough that we put the Health Department in charge of them because we didn’t want the disease factor to come into Alberta. The Health Department looked after it for one year. They then thought it was an agricultural problem and turned it over to the Agriculture Department.”

At that time, rats were moving from one farm to another, and the program started with about 800 infestations. Every rat found along the Alberta-Saskatchewan border was eliminated.

“There were a lot of farms that were infested, and the rats had gone 18 miles into Alberta,” he said. “It took us a lot of years to whittle that down. We didn’t eradicate them in one year.

“Ten years later we still had hundreds of infestations a year, 30 years later, we had it whacked down to 20 or 15 infestations a year. Finally in 2000, we had zero infestations in that rat control zone.

“Now we just maintain that rat control zone and we get one or two or three rat infestations a year, coming overland from Saskatchewan.”

The No. 1 reason for the program’s success is government dedication, said Merrill.

“They (the government at the time) said we don’t want rats and we’re going to put money into it. They backed it up with legislation that said that rats are illegal.”

The other advantage is Alberta’s geography — a cold north, mountains to the west and southwest, and open and unfriendly prairie to the southeast.

“So, it’s just the east that we need to have our rat control zone.”

Farming innovation and changes in practices have helped contribute to the success of the program. Pig and chicken barns are now enclosed and built with cement floors. Farmers no longer store grains in wooden granaries, but in steel bins with steel or cement floors.

“You turn a rat into one of those facilities and they can’t live because they have no place to burrow and can’t get away,” he said. “The risk has dropped a whole lot on our farms. That has helped us tremendously.”

However, there are new threats.

“We have a higher risk right now from rats coming into the province via transportation means — recreation vehicles and commercial trucks are the big ones,” said Merrill.

“We are finding we have to step up our urban pest control because we are getting more coming in on recreation vehicles. Our direction changes a little bit, but it is the same basic program. We don’t want rats, and when a rat comes, we get rid of it.”

If you spot what you think is a rat, call 310-RATS (7287). And remember that pet rats are illegal in Alberta.

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