The serious rat problem in Barbados

This is the first in a series of articles produced by the Barbados Society of Technologists in Agriculture (BSTA) to better inform Barbadians on issues related to agriculture that should be of interest to all.

“Rats and mice are responsible for billions of dollars of damage worldwide each year. They eat vast quantities of crops, food and livestock feed and contaminate far more stored food than they consume.”
– Riley Woodford (http://www.wildlifenews.alaska.gov)

The publicity given some time ago to the presence of rats in a business place near the Bridgetown Port and at the Society Elementary School in St John highlights the problem of the lack of rodent control and the danger these pests pose to our health and economic well being.

Earliest efforts in modern times to deal with the rat problem were taken by Government in 1964-65 when Mr. K. D. Taylor of the Ministry of Agriculture in the UK was assigned to Barbados, St Kitts and Montserrat for a period of 13 months during which time significant research was done on rats, Leptospirosis and to a lesser extent the monkey problem in Barbados. As the sugar industry was the main economic activity in the island at the time, most of the work related to its problems, but work was also done in Bridgetown and at the Port.

The literature indicates that there are two species of rat in Barbados, a brown rat, Rattus norwegicus or Norway Rat and a black rat Rattus rattus or Roof Rat. K. D. Taylor found brown rats in Bridgetown and black rats in the residential areas where there were trees. It is not known if the same separation exists today.

Rats have litters of 6 – 12 young, which are born 23 days after mating. The average female reaches productive maturity in about 3 months and may have 4 – 6 litters per year. Given such fecundity is it any wonder that we see an explosion in the rat population every year, especially after a good rainy season which provides more food for rats?

In the early days, the sugar industry generally carried out systematic baiting annually. In 1965 for example, 125 plantations purchased 50,000 pounds of bait. Crop losses island-wide were estimated at 2-5% with a few badly infested fields showing losses as high as 26.5%.

Over the years a declining sugar industry saw a waning in control efforts and an increase in the rat population island-wide. In 1984 Government addressed the problem in the form of a rat bait subsidy to large and small farms. The Barbados Society of Technologists in Agriculture submitted proposals to the sugar industry in 1985 and 1986 for renewed campaigns, and Government provided a 25% subsidy. Success could be claimed by the purchase of over 42,000 pounds of bait.

The problem persisted; and in 1988 cane delivered to factories from 65 plantations and a number of small farmers was checked for rat damage. Twenty nine plantations had over 10% of cane damaged by rats. Twelve of the 65 had over 20% damaged. With the change from manual to mechanical harvesting this type of research cannot be done today, but it is clear that systematic destruction of rat harbourage and frequent inspection and observation of fields of growing crops are absolutely necessary.

As last year’s cane harvest came to a close we received a personal report of the sighting of nine rats on the road in the area of Golden Ridge, St George in one night. Coupled with the economic loss to agriculture and spoilage of food in improper storage, is the very serious threat to human health through Leptospirosis transmitted by rats.

Dr. H. H. Bayley established the presence of Leptospirosis in Barbados in the 1930s, but in the 1960s ,statistical evidence was unreliable, given the known difficulties in diagnosis at the time. The General Hospital reported only 60 cases between 1960 and 1964, but mortality was very high at 28%. Dr. Everard of the Ministry of Health advanced the research process in the 1980s but what is the status today? Forty nine cases were reported for the years 2004 and 2005 , years of higher rainfall, with three deaths in 2004.

Since a major threat from poor rat control is the increasing incidence of leptospirosois, a health problem, adequate provision should be made annually in the Ministry of Health’s budget for a rat control programme .We should no longer be reacting to perceived crises but should have a sustained programme designed to raise the level of awareness of the dangers which rodents pose to the entire community. Funding, communication, education and action will bring results.

It seems strange that the Government is willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on chemicals to control the Giant African Snail which, to date, has done little damage to our agricultural crops, when rats are causing considerable damage annually besides the significant increase in Leptospirosis experienced in 2006. The BSTA has stated that it is prepared to co-ordinate a ‘Rat Campaign’ for as little as $75,000, but no decision has yet been taken on the issue… Tell us: Do You Care?

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