The ‘modern’ management of rats: British agricultural science in farm and field during the twentieth century

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During the period from 1919 to 1970, rat killing was ‘modernized’: official, scientific, commercial, agricultural and county advisers sought ‘rat control’. Scientific expertise on rat parasites and rat control circulated internationally. The risks posed to human health through plague, as traced by researchers who were already expert on the third pandemic, led in the UK to the Rats and Mice (Destruction) Act 1919; and the United Nations Conference on Food and Agriculture, at Hot Springs, Virginia, USA, 1943 informed its replacement, the Prevention of Damage by Pests Act 1949. Anticoagulants such as Warfarin developed in the USA at first sold widely in the UK, then later British research on resistance informed subsequent American research. This UK application of international policy and science paralleled the emergence of an official case at Parliamentary level for the national, multidisciplinary and multi-agency approach to rats. Within the UK, animal ecologists under Charles Elton mapped rats in the emergent field of population studies; and new forms of economic costing at MAFF quantified the damage done to farm buildings and machinery and the consumption, soiling and contamination of food, seed and fodder in store. Yet nineteenth-century rat catchers already had an excellent and long-established grasp of rat behaviour, a necessity in either taking or executing their subjects. Though characterized as inefficient, picturesque and craft-based, that vernacular knowledge was reproduced and formalized in the twentieth century through empirical research and evidence-based practice, shaped by experiences at the intersection of human demand, the interests of the (wild and domesticated) animals that humans have preferred, and the endeavours of the rat.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)235-263
JournalBritish Journal for the History of Science: Themes
Early online date1 Jun 2017
Publication statusPublished - 7 Sept 2017


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