Rats on rampage in Belfast and even City Hall can't escape them
Belfast City Hall is being plagued by large rats, it can be revealed.
As the rodent problem deepens across the city centre, it has also emerged that firearms have been used in a desperate attempt to rid some local businesses of vermin.
It is now feared that rat infestations are reaching epidemic proportions in Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland.
The City Hall rodents were first spotted by shocked guests leaving an evening function last month, and then by civic leaders themselves after Monday night's council meeting.
The council has admitted that it has a problem with rats at one of Northern Ireland's best known buildings, which is open to the public and runs conducted tours on a daily basis.
It follows an incident last week at the Shaftesbury Square KFC, where a large rat scurried around the floor, prompting shocked diners to flee.
Last year a Caffe Nero near the City Hall was forced to close for several weeks after video footage emerged of rats running amok on the premises late at night.
A vermin specialist said it recently took 10 days of intensive work by a pest exterminator to rid one city centre business of a rat infestation.
Yesterday, an office worker reported rodents were being shot in a car park behind offices in Wellington Place and Fountain Street in the city centre.
The landmark City Hall is the most high-profile building to have had problems with the disease-carrying vermin.
The Belfast Telegraph has taken pictures of large traps, bigger than shoe boxes, which have appeared at various locations around the premises, although councillors have yet to be formally notified of the plague.
One City Hall source said: "The rat infestation is out of control. We have seen them ourselves. They're huge. City Hall has never seen anything like it. Boxes, 18 inches wide by 12 inches by five deep filled with poison, have recently been placed all over the courtyard."
A council spokesman said it operates preventative and reactive pest control programmes for a number of city centre buildings, including City Hall.
"A number of rats were sighted in the courtyard area recently and our pest control company laid additional bait boxes to ensure, as far as possible, access points for rats were blocked. This work is ongoing," he said.
Rat exterminator Steve McCart, who owns Newtownabbey-based Pestforce NI, said rats in Belfast have been a bigger problem than usual this year.
"The rats we're seeing now are around 10 inches long and I have also seen some a foot long," he said.
"The problem is spread out across Northern Ireland. Rats, this year, seem to be more prevalent. In Belfast it is now more of a problem than ever before."
Mr McCart said the infestations were exacerbated by bad weather, underspending on pest control - and the public.
"A lot of it is down to the damp weather we've been getting," he said. "But the second biggest problem is what the public do with what they've purchased from fast food outlets. If you go round Belfast city centre at 2am you'll see people just dump their food. That's the second biggest cause of rats on our streets.
Pestforce NI, which has private and commercial clients, dealt with a major rat job in Belfast city centre this week.
"We're a specialist control company. We get called in when other companies have failed or where people are having a very difficult problem where it doesn't matter what they do, they're still being overcome by the pest," he said.
"It can take months to get rid of rats, depending on the circumstances. They breed very fast - potentially every eight weeks. Theoretically, a pair of rats in perfect breeding conditions would multiply to 2,000 in a year." Neither Pestforce NI nor Termapest Ltd - the pest control service that has been called in by the Belfast City Council - shoot rats, but the office worker we spoke to witnessed this form of eradication.
"Several office staff were frightened out of their wits after rats ran over their feet in the dark when they went to their cars," she said.
"Then one morning after the 'Rat Man' went night hunting, I looked out the window and saw what I thought was a dead cat - but it was actually a dead rat and I was even more shocked when I was told it was a baby rat.
"The man from pest control told us he shot 15 rats on one evening alone."
The council spokesman confirmed that the shooting of pests is permitted, but must be carried out in accordance with current legislation, ie: the Wildlife (Northern Ireland Order) 1985.
He added: "The designated person must be trained in the safe use of firearms.
"They must also report to the PSNI when and where the shooting will take place. It must not be done in certain built-up areas, or where members of the public could be at danger."