“There will definitely be something there,” he says, kicking an overflow bin. “Mice are like small survival machines; wherever they get reliable access to food waste, they will keep coming back.”
Coates’ prey became more evident in London the longer England closed.
Moreover, the animals move.
Pest control monitors say that as many restaurants and office buildings in bustling London remain empty, rats are forced to migrate to more residential areas in search of food.
Families spending more time at home – and eating all of their meals there – has increased waste, which is what attracts mice to suburban dwellings. Meanwhile, bird feeders – which are replenished during the winter – encourage rodents to dig into backyards.
“We had a case of an old lady who used to feed her beloved Robins,” Coates told CNN. “By the time she called, there might be 10 to 15 rats digging around the flowerbeds,” he says.
Paul Claydon, another exterminator operating at the edge of Epping Forest in the east of the capital, has seen worse. He says he recently killed a colony trying to dig into a rabbit hut to eat an unsuspecting family pet.
“We may see and hear them a lot,” says Claydon. “We work from home in the office under the loft … but I’m afraid London might get a big surprise when it reopens.” “Especially if the companies and properties that have a problem are not keeping up with the pest control plans.”
Both Coates and Claydon left long jobs in other fields to start small businesses in what has become a booming sector.
Coates, a veteran of the Iraq War, built his costume five years ago, and has since written an e-book called War and Bugs: From Basra to Bugs.
Clydon spent 25 years in the IT industry at a financial services firm before founding his company two years ago. “I wanted something recession-proof, and it was relentlessly busy,” he says.
Claydon says he usually receives about 10 calls from rodents a week, but during the lockdown it was “over 20 calls easily.”
The British Pest Control Association (BPCA), which represents 700 insect hunters across the country, said its members reported a 51% increase in rodent activity during the first lockdown, in the spring of 2020, and a 78% increase in November after another one. They haven’t calculated this year’s numbers yet, but they told CNN that viewership has gone up, which is a public health problem that many homeowners are left to deal with on their own.
“We might see mice now where we wouldn’t normally because they are so desperate,” says Natalie Bungay, of the BPCA. “Mice can chew very hard materials like soft metals and bricks.”
When it comes to controlling rats, London doesn’t seem to have a blanket plan.
The mayor’s office told CNN that the London councils office is best placed to answer questions on the matter. But they said they are not collecting data on this issue because that is the mission of each of the capital’s 32 boroughs.
However, a Richmond-upon-Times neighborhood spokesperson told CNN that it does not collect data on mice and does not provide pest control services.
In 2017, after a video of rats pouring from a flower bed went viral in Harrow, the Governors of the Greater London Association (GLA) commissioned a report that found more than 100 complaints were filed with the councils every day.
Nobody really knows how many mice there are in London, although some private surveys by exterminators claim they could be as high as 20 million. They are likely larger than the city’s nine million residents, whose population growth is slowing, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Meanwhile, mice can reproduce quickly. Research by the pest control company Rentokil, cited in the GLA report, has claimed that only one pair of mice can lead to about 1,250 births per year.
The size of mice is also increasing. Clydon claims that it is not uncommon for him to hunt a mouse up to 40 cm (15.7 in) these days. Many of them, he says, need stronger traps and more poison to kill.
Bungay says the best pest control starts with prevention. This means closing any outdoor food waste in appropriate litter boxes, keeping food closed inside the home and inspecting all ventilation openings protected with steel mesh and cracks filled with steel and cement. She says a avid gardener should also realize that compost piles attract mice.
Londoners are also becoming more accustomed to seeing their new neighbors upset by their daring.
“I actually saw someone come to me while I was walking,” says Jane Johnson, who lives in the eastern neighborhood of Tower Hamlets.
“I saw another one jump over an apartment block and screamed. I’ve lived in London for four years and have never seen anything like this,” she says. “They show up in places I thought were scenic. But now it’s like, oh, there’s a giant rat out there. Oh cool.”
“According to accounts, the pest control team received fewer calls during the pandemic,” Tower Hamlets, which offers its residents some free help with the insects, told CNN. However, a town spokesperson did not provide data to support this claim and said it does not keep figures on the numbers of mice killed.
The City of Westminster, Harrow Township, and the neighborhoods of Waltham Forest and Redbridge, both of which are close to Epping Forest, had not responded at time of publication.
Oscar Featherston of CNN contributed to this report.