Living with a ship rat

Ship rats or black rats (Rattus rattus) are a separate species from brown rats (Rattus norvegicus) which are what lab rats and our domesticated rats are. In Roman times ship rats were in Britain and were the common rat here until the early 18th century when the brown rat arrived from Asia and took over! Ship rats are now very, very rare in Britain though common in other parts of the world.

Friends had a colony of ship rats which they had acquired from two sources (one was the Isle of Lundy a few years before a wildlife cull which aimed to eradicate all of the rats on the island and the other a well known pest control company).

The Lundy rats were much more healthy physically and mentally. They were not tame but some were hand reared by my friend which made them trusting and I was lucky enough to have several as pets.

Contrary to what you would expect, quite a number were agouti with white tummies. The majority were black or very dark grey.

The hand reared ones could be handled and let loose in the room. I could catch them fairly easily in my hands though not as easily as domesticated brown rats, most of whom will come when called.

Ship rats are smaller than brown rats and more delicate with large eyes and ears and very long tails. They were quite something to live with.

I had one, Timbers, free range in my house for several weeks after she leapt past my hand when I was putting food in her cage. She was virtually wild as she was not hand reared and it was like living with a poltergeist. Things got moved and some of my post disappeared behind a cupboard.

If I had visitors she was invisible but when we were alone together she would sit on the stairs and watch me. She knew I didn’t have a hope of catching her. I left food in her cage with the door open hoping that I might surprise her in it but she was far too wary.

Eventually my friends bought a humane trap. I set it up in the dining area and then went to the kitchen to find some bait. Meanwhile nosy Timbers went in and got caught. She swore and swore. (They are noisier than brown rats and more temperamental).

She was decanted back into her cage and we made a deal – she would not try to escape and I would not try to touch her. Timbers spent the rest of her life in a compost heap in her cage which was never completely cleaned. I think this suited her.

We undoubtedly had a relationship but I would not say we were equals. She knew she was cleverer.

Article by : Veronica Simmons from Kropotkin Stud