Sunday morning, after a bit of a deluge, I came downstairs to find yet another casualty of our cat’s nocturnal hunting. It was a tiny grey mouse marooned in a puddle outside the back door, and I think it was pregnant. If I wasn’t used to these gifts from our ginger peril, Kingsley Shacklebolt, I would have thought it had drowned. Alas, I’m pretty sure it was death by cat. This got me thinking about just how much damage our domestic cats are doing to the wildlife population, and is there anything we as owners can do to lessen the problem?
Our cat goes out every night and sometimes in the day too. If he’s not out by the time we go to bed, I just know I’m going to be woken up by him scratching at a door or carpet, such is the strength of his instinct to get out there and prowl.
During his latest TV series “Springwatch 2012”, Chris Packham, one of the UK’s wildlife experts, urged cat owners to keep their pets indoors at night to help curb the killing. So, let’s say we could change the cat’s behaviour and persuade it that daylight is the best time to be out and about, that might give the rodents some respite, but what about the birds? To my knowledge, Kingsley has caught two birds in his life and maybe 15 or so mice/bank voles/shrews/baby rats, but which is more serious for our wildlife overall – death of garden birds or death of rodents? And can our ecosystem afford these losses?
According to the online magazine Wildlife Extra, there are about 9 million cats kept as pets in the UK and between them they kill up to 55million birds every year. In the late 1990s a 4 month study of one thousand cats showed that up to 250 million small mammals a year could be being killed by them. That is beyond my imagination and seems to be pretty damning evidence that the domestic cat could easily upset the balance in our natural world.
In my immediate neighbourhood, a terrace of 4 houses, there are 5 cats – that’s one for every three humans. So what is it about cats that makes us continue to want to keep them as pets? Imagine if people’s dogs ran around killing birds and mammals. It just wouldn’t be tolerated would it? But cats, they’re stealthy, smart, independent, aloof, furtive, secretive. They are fluffy and beautiful; they rub up against our legs; they love us…don’t they? They are usually game for a bit of playtime. They will indulge us by chasing a piece of string or a toy mouse, but mostly we have no idea what they get up to. When my kids were small we had a favourite picture book called Slobcat about a cat which led a double life. His human family saw him as a lazy good for nothing, but all the while he was an after dark hero keeping vermin away from the house, spooking burglars and performing other good deeds.
There is something very soothing in stroking a cat and hearing it purr. It allegedly reduces stress and promotes a more positive perspective on life, and there are signs that cat ownership has a beneficial effect on those afflicted with Parkinsons and strokes. So there could be some evidence that cats are good for our well-being.
The overwhelming evidence is that thousands of small creatures are losing out to our pampered pets as well as to feral cats which have not been studied. Rarer species such as dormice, water voles and shrews cannot sustain these losses. Numbers of sparrows and dunnocks, ground feeding birds, have been seriously depleted in recent years. And what are we, as cat owners, prepared to do about it?
From my research I have gathered that doing all, some or any of these could go someway towards redressing the delicate balance that needs to be maintained in this cat-heavy society…..
- cats need to be wearing a bell on their collar when out in the garden. Not a little rattly one, but a big jangly one.
- cats need to be kept in at night, litter tray provided. There is some evidence that if their nocturnal hunting is stopped, the desire to kill in daylight will also peter out after time.
- cats should be engaged in play and provided with toys. This might prevent them getting bored and going out to kill for thrills.
- if you feed birds in your garden, make sure the cats can’t get to any feeding stations.
That leaves just one word…..RATS. Common brown rats are thriving. We are throwing away so much food, that they have a more plentiful supply than ever before. If there’s a species of small mammal that could take a bit of a beating from domestic cats, it’s the rat. I live just a couple of yards from the river bank and see brown rats scurrying around most days if I care to look. Unfortunately, rats fight back, and that puts them way down on the list of a cat’s favourite prey.
Should we live and let live or live and let die?