Heather Harris uncovers an unwelcome visitor amongst her spoons, and finds herself sucked into the surreal world of Pest Control…
While other eight year olds were catching cricket balls, Mark Jervis was catching mice. Forget wanting to be a sportsman or fireman when he grew up – the only things this boy had on his mind were nets and traps.
“My uncle was a game keeper in Kenya and for me this was the ideal life,” Mark tells me. He never quite made it to Africa but after starting out as a fish farmer in his teens, he moved onto mole-catching and then into the Environmental Health Department of Barnet Council. And for the last 35 years, he has been the Pied Piper of Hertfordshire, ridding the county of every unwanted little specimen that crawls, flies or scampers or takes up unwanted residence…
…And not only the little things.
“As a Pest Control Officer, I’ve been sent out to catch lions, pumas and even dragons,” he recalls, adding that the pumas and lions always turn out to be just huge domestic cats, while the dragons that needed slaying were in fact red clawed crayfish. “When I first started my area covered a private animal collection which kept flamingos, white wallabies, parrots and penguins. The biggest problem were the foxes – very partial to a penguin!”
I resist the obvious joke about getting the wrapper off first, and settle for pure admiration of the man. This largewhiskered chap (he could give Captain Birdseye a run for his money) is one of those rare individuals who possess an infectious enthusiasm for their job – even when describing the rising number of mice and rats now running under the counties’ floorboards. “The problem is that we all now store so much more food at home, we throw tons more away and our houses are warm with lots of boxed-in areas – all perfect for hungry vermin.”
And so our story begins…
Over a festive late Christmas breakfast of left-over Yule log there came a strange rustling from the cutlery cupboard. Arming my 11 year-old son with a ruler (perhaps he could measure it to death?), we threw open the drawer…
What greeted us was not a tiny field mouse, a sweet little rat (our attitude had changed since watching Ratatouille with its cute computer animations) or even a bushy-tailed squirrel...
No, this creature was something else. Its eyes were huge saucers, its body the size of a pyjama case and its tail something akin to a small fox cub. And it was sitting on my forks…
Slamming the drawer shut, we fled – my motherly instinct abandoning me as I left my three children to the jaws of the beast and did a Usain Bolt for the door.
I quickly rang the Council, resisting the temptation to dial 999, after recent publicity about wasted calls and in the fear of exposing myself as an unfit parent.
And that was when I first met Mark Jervis, my knight in shiny overalls, arriving in his white VW charger. Armed with nothing more ferocious than a phone and a clip board, Mark bravely began examining the evidence – small, brown and round plus runny and green. Pretty average by-products for such an unaverage beast.
Reaching for his mobile – presumably to call the local zoo, I thought – a wide grin spread across his face. “You’ve got Glis Glis,” he cried, pointing to a photo on his screen. Even at 10cms square its bulging eyes were unmistakable.
“Edible dormice… introduced into Tring Park by Lord Rothschild about 1902 as part of his private collection. Still pretty rare though, so officially an endangered species.”
He quickly sensed that I wasn’t sharing his excitement, and explained that not only do they not swallow children whole but also that I could get rid of them.
But not with a piece of cheese or a sprinkle of poison...
“Officially, under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 all you can do without a licence is shoot them!” he explained. As I was more likely to hit one of the children, he reassured me that, as a licensed official, he was allowed to lay a special trap, baited not with the odd human limb or two but with your average Granny Smith.
And this was the start of my three month relationship with Mark, his traps and the Harry Houdini of the dormouse world. You name it, he escaped from it – each time defying the laws of Pest Control, eating the apple but remaining at large.
‘Large’ became the operative word; daily one of the family would scream after uncovering the ever expanding Gary (whose name was quickly changed from Gertrude on Mark’s anatomical advice) in a new hiding place. The fruit bowl would be decimated overnight with worryingly large bite marks missing out of all the bananas and the vegetable rack reduced to a pile of peelings. Soon our fridge was crammed with all our edible groceries – even the rabbit food – in an effort to starve him into submission.
Tea towels then became his chosen aperitif, and a cosy nest. We even went on holiday – and who was first to greet our little suntanned faces on our return but our trusty ‘house sitter’ with a mouth full of half-chewed post.
“He’s certainly a stubborn one,” was Mark’s cheery response after his fourth visit. Passing me a couple of tennis balls, he instructed “Next time you hear him in the trap put one of these in the end before he can reverse out...”.
It sounded simple enough – until we realised that Gary just didn’t want to play ball. On we sat night after night, into the wee small hours, like a couple of Wimbledon ball boys either side of the cutlery drawer, waiting for that first rustle.
But it never came – and next morning the apple would be gone. We became obsessed – staying up later and later, even disguising ourselves as kitchen units in our efforts to outsmart him – but in the evolutionary chain the Glis Glis clearly came far ahead of the human Harris family.
Finally we called in reinforcements from China – brandishing the latest issue of Pest Control News, Mark announced he had ordered a top of the range trap, hot off the Asian presses.
And much to my daughter’s dismay – she had now officially adopted Gary as a fully fledged member of the family – it worked. Even I admit to having a lump in my throat as I threw a tea towel over the occupied trap. Call me sentimental but I couldn’t cope with those bulging eyes looking at me pleadingly, and called Mark.
As he left to take Gary to an apple-filled forest far away (well, that’s what we told the children and what I like to believe, though I think the truth may be slightly less happy), the house fell strangely silent.
This is what it must be like when your children leave home, I thought, as – newly alone during the day – no rustle came from behind the sofa, no crunch of apple from the cutlery drawer, no patter of paws along the hallway.
Vermin they may be but, as I confessed to a clearly bemused Mark, they are still little animals.
“And that’s the problem,” he said firmly. “People feed pigeons, squirrels and even foxes because they think they look cute and then wonder why we get overrun with them.”
“Even feeding the birds in the back garden is causing us a huge problem as people don’t just throw crumbs but huge chunks of bread, which attract everything except the birds!”
Hardly surprising then that Pest Control business is booming. Mark is on call six days a week from 8am to rid the latest home, office or indeed restaurant of their particular pest.
“The best thing about this job is that people are always pleased to see me, and I can make a real difference to their lives...” Especially in the spring when televisions go on the blink because in February squirrels were eating all the wires in the loft.
Summers have been quieter of late, because the wet springs have meant fewer insects, so less wasps and bees.
“But there are always stray dogs to catch or call outs from people who’ve accidently swallowed rat poison….”
And I never did hear the end of that particular story as Mark’s ‘ratphone’ was ringing again – and off he flew, grin across his face, clearly relishing the challenge of his next assignment.
With Mark Jervis just a call away residents of Hertfordshire can sleep easy in their beds...
Even if there is a Glis Glis – or a puma – hiding underneath it…