Spare that flea! How to deal humanely with every common household pest
Is it possible to keep your home free of rats, mice, moths and ants without killing them? And which ones should you get rid of – and which should you learn to live with?
They turned up in shifts, all through the course of lockdown: mice, ants, weevils, moths, a fox and, on one unhappy occasion, a magpie in the kitchen. I have been obliged to show the door to all manner of wildlife, with varying degrees of success. The magpie was eager to leave. The ants less so. The moths are still with us.
It’s easy to get angry with household pests, and sometimes – on encountering a particularly rapacious mouse, say – it’s possible to wish them great harm. But most people, I suspect, would rather be as humane as possible when getting rid of invaders. And even when kindness can’t stop you killing things, squeamishness often will. Unfortunately, many pest control products still associate effectiveness with lethality. The ant trap I bought says it “destroys ants and their nests!” I really just wanted them off the worktop. Is it possible to keep your home pest-free using only humane, nonlethal means?
The first thing I had to learn about humane pest control is that the people who promote it don’t like the word pest. Rodents and insects are all wildlife, with a vital part to play in our ecosystem. “Commonly, people call them pests, but they have the same right to live on this planet as we do,” says Laura-Lisa Hellwig, campaigns manager at the vegan charity Viva!. “And some of them have been here for a much longer time than we have. Really, we should find a peaceful way to live together instead of eradicating or cruelly killing some of them.”
Step one, then, is to check if you can simply coexist with your would-be pest.
“When people see, you know, a bee nest in their guttering on the side of their house, the first thing they think is: ‘We need to find a way to control that,'” says Kevin Newell, the founder of Humane Wildlife Solutions, a pioneering nonlethal wildlife control company based in Scotland. He is speaking to me by phone over the peeping of recently rescued baby lesser black-backed gulls, which are temporarily living in his office before being rehomed at a wildlife refuge.
Newell’s answer to a bees’ nest is simple: leave it. “Nine times out of 10, they’re bumblebees, and you can just leave them, they’re not going to cause you any harm.”
Even where intervention is warranted, Newell says, humane methods are often more effective than lethal means, which rarely address the root of the problem. Here, then, is a guide to escorting various pests from your premises in the most polite way possible.
Mice and rats
With rodents, the only true solution is prevention – poisoning is not only cruel but ineffective, especially with rats. “If you put poison out for them, they will eat a little bit, go away, see if it’s safe and come back only if it is,” says Hellwig.
It may even make the problem worse. Commonly used poisons are designed to attract rodents, and rats can develop remarkable tolerance to them. Newell cites an example of a Scottish supermarket where conventional exterminators had been refilling poison traps regularly for six years. In between refillings, the rats would get through all the poison and then start back in on the stock. Newell traced their entry point to a broken air vent, blocked it, and the problem was solved permanently.
To rodent-proof your home, you’ll need to do the same thing: find out where they’re getting in, and seal it up. It’s that simple, and, unfortunately, that difficult. An adult mouse can squeeze through a hole the size of a 5p coin. And if you live in a flat, you probably won’t have access to their external entry point, so you’ll need to ringfence your premises from the inside. Look for droppings and work backwards. Check the gaps where heating and water pipes meet walls and floors. Jamming steel wool into cracks and holes is a good idea, according to Hellwig, because the mice can’t chew through it.
If you’ve got rodents in the house that need catching, use humane live traps with plenty of room inside. “When you’re going to trap these animals, the best thing to do is put the traps exactly where they’re getting food,” says Newell. “And then use the food that they’re attracted to. If you imagine they’re in your cereal cupboard and they’re just eating the Weetabix, there’s a reason: they’ve got a taste for that. So if you remove the Weetabix, crunch one up and put it in the live trap, you’re most likely going to catch them the first night.” If you don’t know what your mice fancy, Newell recommends Nutella as bait: “They love the combination of chocolate and nuts.” Check the traps last thing at night and first thing in the morning to ensure that trapped mice don’t get too stressed or dehydrated.
Online advice about setting your caught mice free is confusing: some councils will advise you to take them at least two miles away to stop them returning, while some animal charities claim that a mouse probably won’t survive unless it’s released within 50 metres of where it was trapped.
Newell says a freed mouse will be fine at this time of year if left somewhere close to a natural water source, food and shelter. “These are the three main things,” he says, “so ideally, a riverbank or an old railway line.”
Here’s how an invasion proceeds: one little ant will wander into your house through a tiny crack. If she finds some sugar she’ll take it back to her nest, leaving by the same route. The next day, she’ll return, following her own scent trail. The more often she makes that journey, the stronger the scent she lays down, until other ants begin to follow it. Soon the whole colony is marching into your kitchen single file.
Find their entry point and wait for nightfall. “Because the ants will go into their nest at night – they don’t come out at night to forage,” says Newell. “You just need a simple Polyfilla or something to block that hole up.” Wash down the surrounding area with hot water mixed with lemon juice or vinegar. “If you keep it clean, and you wipe that whole area, you’ll essentially remove their scent trail so they’re back to stage one. Then if you make sure, that same night, to clean your kitchen floor to within an inch of its life, and there’s no food there to be found, even if the ant comes in again, when she doesn’t find anything she’ll simply go back out, and it will be deemed an area where there’s no food for them.”
First, consider the possibility of doing nothing. Wasps are no problem at all for most of the year. “It’s only in the two months in the summer when the females start looking for food, which then would be our picnic. So that’s why they come close to us,” says Hellwig.
Even if you’ve got a waspnest in your attic, you don’t necessarily need to take action. “If you’re not using it, you can just leave them,” says Newell. “And if you love your garden, they are one of the best gardener’s friends you can have. They eat all the insects that normally would destroy plants.” Left on their own, they will live out their cycle and die out.
Sometimes it’s necessary to remove a nest, especially if a member of your household is allergic to wasps. But you shouldn’t approach a waspnest on your own – even the carbon dioxide from your exhaled breath can trigger their defences.
Newell routinely removes and relocates nests without harming any wasps. He goes in at night, wearing a face mask, and manoeuvres the nest into a big plastic container. Then he finds a tree or an old stone wall where the wasps can adjust to their new surroundings in peace. “This is how I would do it, not how I would advise people to do it,” he says. Best to get a professional in.
“Cockroaches love wet floors, or anything really moist,” says Hellwig, “so keep spaces dry, so they’re not inviting.” They’re particularly attracted to leaking pipes, which may be the true source of your problem. Poisoning cockroaches is generally not that effective – they’re extraordinarily resilient – but getting rid of them humanely is a big job, even for a professional.
“It is a case of trying to catch as many as possible by hand for release away from households and then deep-cleaning the areas they were living in,” says Newell. “It is also a good idea to make sure all the gaps between walls and floors are sealed up to prevent further re-entry.”
“I’ve found ways that I can clear a house full of fleas from cats and dogs without harming the fleas and catching them all,” says Newell, though at the moment his method is still a trade secret. “It involves water and a bowl,” he says. “I won’t say what the magic ingredient is because we’re still trialling at the moment. But from early studies, it seems to be able to catch the fleas live, so they can’t escape, and this is all due to gravity and how water reacts with fleas.”
For you and me, he says, the secret is to give your dog or cat a bath regularly, and to vacuum carpets and dog beds frequently to remove flea eggs, bearing in mind that the eggs can still hatch in the vacuum bag, so you need to empty it somewhere outside.
Woodlice, flies and other insects
Newell has a short answer for this: spiders, in particular harvesters, AKA daddy longlegs. “If you’ve got a couple of them kicking about, keep them around because, yes, they’re very spindly, but they’re not very scary, and they’ll keep your house free of woodlice, silverfish and other creepy crawlies people may not want.” If you feel the need to relocate a particular insect – or, if you must, a spider – there are humane catchers on the market, but nothing works better than a glass and a bit of card: trap the subject under the glass, slide the card between the rim and the wall and carry the package to the nearest window.
According to Hellwig, peaceful coexistence is your best bet. “Foxes are protected under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, so if you cause any harm to them, you can be fined,” he says.
Newell says most of the calls he gets about foxes are from people who are worried about their cats, but it’s likely that by the time you’ve noticed a fox, he and your cat have already reached an accommodation. “You can pretty much be assured that they’re coexisting, and they’re very good at it,” he says. If foxes are in the habit of digging up your new plants – as they often do mine – it’s usually because of the fertiliser; the smell of it leads them to believe there’s something to eat down there. If you need to keep foxes out of your garden, a prickle strip laid along the top of surrounding fences and walls should do the trick. Ultrasonic repellents can also be effective.
Don’t listen to anyone who says they can humanely trap a fox and set it free in the countryside for you – Newell says they rarely survive when dropped into a new area. “It’s also illegal,” he adds. “If you have an animal under your control, it’s your responsibility to make sure that animal is going to be safe. And we know that foxes in this situation are not safe.”
Natural deterrents can be effective – Hellwig recommends lavender, mint, thyme and rosemary, either dried or in essential oils – but eradicating a moth problem humanely will take time. It’s the larvae that eat your clothes, but the adult moths are the ones you need to catch. “When they emerge, they’ll look for a mate straight away,” says Newell. “If there’s no breeding adults, the population of those moths will stop.”
But be warned: this method requires persistence. “I was once in a Buddhist temple where their prayer mats and prayer rugs were being ravaged by moths,” says Newell. “They have a cycle, which is between two and four weeks, so I went back every other day to catch the moths. We caught the moths, we put them outside, until there were no more moths emerging. After a couple of weeks, we advised that they wash all their rugs and their prayer mats. And it solved the problem.” This nonlethal discipline is all the more impressive when you find out how much a new Tibetan prayer mat can cost.