Ratwoman Patricia Page blazes trail for female pest control workers in Northern Ireland
The 46-year-old Northern Ireland woman tells Lee Henry how she swapped working in a factory for her dream career ... ridding homes of rodents, insects and other little nasties
Patricia Page is the ratwoman. It's a moniker that she embraces. Having rid Northern Irish homes, hotels and business premises of pesky rodents, ferreting fleas and cocky cockroaches for the past 25 years, Patricia has developed a pride in her work. When an email arrives confirming her interest in being interviewed, the address begins 'ratwoman'. I'm not at all surprised.
"I love everything about my job as a pest technician," says the 46-year-old from the Waterside area of Londonderry. "I get to help so many people get rid of unwelcome guests in their homes and, for me, that's a real privilege.
"The pests we mostly deal with are rats and mice, and wasps during the summer months, and we are also seeing a significant increase in bedbug infestations in recent years. But it's really not as gruesome as it sounds."
Patricia reveals that only a meagre 5% of pest controllers operating in the United Kingdom in 2017 are female. In a "male dominated industry", she argues, that statistic is a disappointment but something that she is working hard to improve.
"People are surprised when I turn up at their door in uniform," she continues. "They don't expect to see a woman, I suppose, but it's a great icebreaker. I feel that, as a woman, I tend to maybe have a wee bit more empathy with the customer. I often turn up to deal with a rodent problem and leave knowing all about their family and life problems.
"I would highly recommend folks trying it out as a career choice, especially women, as we are very under-represented at the minute. It's an extremely rewarding job and I will be looking to hopefully bring on new pest techs in 2018 as I look to grow North West Pest Control Ltd even further."
Page inherited the running of her family business from her father, Charlie Page (75), known locally as the ratman, who founded North West Pest Control in 1975. It was a business born of necessity, with Charlie having just lost a building job. Ever resourceful, and not one to let a disappointment get him down, the young Derry man decided to open his own business.
"He wasn't quite sure what that business would be," Patricia adds, "so one night he and my mum, Eileen (70), wrote down the alphabet, ran a finger along the list and came to the letter 'R'. From that, they came up with 'rat' and North West Pest Control was born.
"My dad is an exceptional man, both personally and professionally. He is the kindest, most patient man I know. He left school at 14, with very little education, and he struggled initially with his young business, even resorting to making and selling toffee apples in the early years to help finance his dream.
"He even went to travel to Warwick on his own, where he gained his diplomas from the British Pest Control Association. If I become even half the person he is, I'll be extremely happy and I hope to make him proud in the years ahead."
Patricia became aware of her father's unusual work aged seven. Her schoolmates were naturally inquisitive and regularly sought advice in dealing with their own pest problems at home.
"In primary school, no one really knew what dad did but in secondary school friends and even people I didn't know would ask questions if their parents had mice in the house. I would, in turn, ask Dad what he thought, or indeed would have given them a telephone number so that their parents could contact him direct."
Patricia always shared her father's willingness to help rather than harm animals. "I wanted to become a vet," she recalls, "but my careers adviser told me I wasn't smart enough. So when I left school, I started working in the local factory, United Technologies Automotive, as a lot of girls at that time did."
The idea that she would follow her father into the pest profession, however, was always something that interested Patricia. Going out on a job with her father as a young girl piqued her interest where most little girls would have turned tail and ran.
"I actually only ever remember going out with dad on one job, probably because I nagged him that much to go. He was digging up a woman's kitchen to locate a rat entry point and I was fascinated. But I didn't go on very many jobs, as dad didn't think that it was a suitable job for a girl at that time. But when the factory closed down, dad gave me the opportunity to join the family business."
Lots of studying followed, with Patricia keen to learn the ropes professionally and to as high a standard as her father had always operated. Working for a year in the field under the supervision of her cousin Michael, she progressed to achieve both BPCA diplomas and loved learning about the minutiae of pest prevention.
"It depends on the actual problem at hand, whether it's an insecticidal or rodenticidal treatment that's carried out, but we offer a range of services. Our work is carried out in accordance with current industry legislation and regulations and as a team we continue our personal development by undertaking training to stay abreast of current practices.
"We comply with the Campaign for Responsible Rodenticide Use Code to ensure responsible rodenticide usage and we are also members of Basis Prompt, the National Pest Technicians Association and the Royal Society for Public Health. There's a lot more that goes into pest control than most people probably think."
In her daily work, Patricia and her colleagues at North West Pest Control work mainly in tandem with the Housing Association and maintenance companies, with the majority of their work commissioned through service contracts. Day-to-day, Patricia is called out to a variety of premises, from private homes to cafes, bars, restaurants and hotels.
There have been innumerable jobs since she turned professional 25 years ago, including one memorable trip to a cruise ship, the details of which Patricia says will forever remain confidential, but thankfully she has never experienced anything too dangerous in her time on the frontline.
"I was never involved in any particularly dangerous jobs but dad was. One that stands out in his memory was of a rat job he was doing in a secondary school. He was carrying out an inspection under the school stage, where the ducting system was, and he had his head and neck between two pipes.
"Suddenly he heard scurrying and saw rats running towards him on the pipes. He couldn't duck or rotate his head, so there was nothing he could do but stand still and hope for the best. He actually counted the rats as they brushed past and jumped over his head. There were 11 of them."
Patricia has successfully cleared premises of rats, mice, wasps, cockroaches, beetles, fleas, silverfish and bedbugs - and many more unmentionables besides - but remembers one instance of mistaken identity that left her and her client in stitches.
"One particularly unusual call-out was from a very distressed woman who was literally screaming and crying down the phone late one night, pleading with me to come out as she had a large black rat with no tail trapped in her living room.
"I couldn't leave her in such a distressed state so I went out and was met at the front door by a very tearful lady. I calmed her down and went in search of this giant rat and after about 10 minutes I recovered an equally distressed guinea pig from under her corner unit, which had escaped from a neighbour's shed."
Having been with her partner, Carmel (53) for many years, Patricia spends her downtime looking after their three dogs, all rescued from the local Rainbow Rescue and Rehoming Centre in Eglinton.
With no children of her own to pass on her unique knowledge and skills to, she is confident that more young people will nevertheless enter the pest profession in the years to come.
She credits her team at North West Pest Control with maintaining standards in the meantime.
"I have an absolutely amazing team around me," Patricia adds. "Martin, our office manager, Jackson, our store clerk and Michael, my right hand man and pest tech, are all invaluable to the success of our business."
Her father, meanwhile, remains active to this day.
"Dad will never retire," Patricia laughs. "He has an amazing work ethic and even at 75 he still goes out on the odd job. I'd be lost without him. His knowledge is invaluable. He truly is the backbone of this company and a legend of a man."
Patricia intends to follow his example, adding that "as long as I can drag myself up into roof spaces to dig out wasp nests, I'll keep doing what I'm doing. And if I can't keep doing that," she concludes, "then I'll help train the next batch of up and coming rat catchers in any way that I can. I hope to continue doing that for a long while yet!"
North West Pest Control, tel: 028 7137 7082