Imogen Levenson casts an expert eye over the more irritating inhabitants of our homes

I used to work as a Field Biologist for Rentokil and later as Technical Manager for Dynokil (the pest control division of Dynorod). Then I married and had our first child. We were faced with the predicament of childcare, and the conflict between long working days and wanting to spend quality time with our daughter. I was offered part-time work and the chance to extend my maternity leave. I was fortunate to have a boss who had three children of his own, whose wife worked as a child minder. Both our mothers offered to help. You would think these were the ideal conditions to maintain my career path, but in the end I chose to stop working until our daughter started school.

Fourteen years later, after moving house twice, two more children (boys), two dogs (girls), four pet rats and the deaths of both our fathers, my husband was made redundant. He is now re-employed but our youngest is in Year One at school and it seemed like a good time to get back to work and earn some money. But how employable would I be? The economic climate was hardly favourable. The years of voluntary work with committees and schools, parent forums and Sure Start equate to very little.

I decided to start my own business, Tufnell Park Pest Control, working as the technician who goes into people’s houses and actually does the work. I went to a pest control conference called PestTech and joined the National Pest Technician’s Association, organised my insurance and became an affiliate of the British Pest Control Association.

The main change that has happened in the industry is the use of computers, the web, smart phones, Twitter and Facebook. There are some changes to the rules governing use of biocides, but the essential task of killing pests is very much the same.

What is good is that the focus has shifted to integrated pest management and using the lowest levels of toxic products as possible. Think Wildlife, for example, campaigns for responsible rodenticide use. Sprayers can be set to an ultra low volume level and products approved by the Soil Association are available. There has also been a good change to ensure that there is a register of pest controllers and a requirement that they keep up to date with changes in legislation and follow a code of practice.

Keeping up with all this, recently I went to a farm in the depths of Gloucestershire and suffered the freezing cold in a converted cow shed in order to go through bespoke training, filling in any gaps during my absence from work. It included learning more about trapping, a pesticide free method of control

Pests need somewhere to live, something to eat and drink and suitable conditions for breeding (optimum temperature, humidity). The aim in treatment is to make premises inhospitable to potential pests: keep them out, deprive them of food and water sources, and lay traps or baits. When using rodenticides the aim is to use the least toxic first, avoid bait being taken by non-target species, and to remove baits when treatment is complete.

How to treat pests

A summary of things you can do at home before you call in a professional:

Mice: Seal any access points; use wire wool or chicken wire and mortar around pipes (under the kitchen sink is a favourite). You can use expanding foam but it is difficult to control. Fit kick plates or bristle strips to the bottom of doors with gaps underneath. (If you can fit a Bic biro under a door then a mouse can get through.) Be diligent about wiping surfaces clean after preparing food or eating, and store all food in sealed glass, ceramic or plastic containers. Mice only need to eat a very small quantity of food (3-5g) but will eat from many different places. They are good climbers and can produce eight young every three weeks in good conditions

Rats: Make an integrated rodent management survey: clean, block access points throughout the house, control infestation and store food in ratproof containers such as glass. Rats will eat (25-30g) from three to four places and will eat it all. They can produce eight young every 24 days. Usefully, they are shy and averse to novelties and like a predictable environment, so changes to layout or movement can deter them.

Clothes Moths: These can be very challenging. Vacuum regularly, especially around skirting boards and in corners. Move furniture to vacuum underneath or behind because they live on the dust which accumulates there and under floorboards. Draughtex.co.uk sells suitable strips to seal gaps. Do not put clothes away dirty – it is it is the human residue on the fabric that attracts the moths. Adult clothes moths do not cause the damage to your best clothes and Persian rugs. It is the larvae (little maggots) that eat their way through any animal-based fibres before pupating. They wrap themselves in frasse, a mixture of webbing and debris. They tend to move high up walls to pupate at ceiling level. If you find an infestation wash clothes, bedding and cuddly toys at 60°C, if possible. You can revert to more environmentally friendly laundering temperatures when you rid yourself of moths. Alternatively leave items in the freezer for 24 hours. Historyonics.com sells pheromone traps for the male moths. As well as reducing numbers, you can monitor the problem by checking the tally of those caught.

Wasps: Make sure that they are not bees before treating. If the nest is accessible, cut it off and drop it into a bag and spray insecticide into the bag. Wear protective clothing, hat plus veil, gauntlets. Have antihistamine on stand-by. If the nest is hard to reach make sure that you can move away quickly without injuring yourself.

Ants: There are several species of ants, all of which need to be addressed in a slightly different way. The black ant nests outdoors but will come into houses to find food, moving along trails along which bait points can be placed, if the original nest cannot be found.

Bed Bugs: These are on the rise throughout the world. They cannot fly but will move in people’s suitcases when they go on holiday. They live in or around beds, headboards, wooden slats, screw heads. Again, a good vacuum is essential especially if there are holes between your floorboards. Wash all bedding at high temperature. Avoid spreading the infestation between different parts of the house on the soles of your feet.

Fleas: The main treatment is to de-flea the cat or dog, unless it is a rat flea. Flea preparations need to be given at regular intervals, whether they have them or not. Wash the bedding, vacuum diligently. Then apply insecticide to the house if still necessary.

Pigeons: There is a range of tools available to prevent pigeons perching and roosting. Some can be fixed quite easily from inside the house but others require some sort of access equipment. If you have pigeons living in your loft there will be a myriad of insects living in their nests, such as varied carpet beetles and mealworm beetles. There will be guano too. Wear a mask if you clear it yourself. Be very careful that there are no bats in the loft space before you do any work.

I won’t deal with squirrels or foxes here, but if anyone wants advice I am happy to give it.

Tufnell Park Pest Control is at tufnellparkpests@gmail.com or 07946 433 156.

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Clothes moths: one TPPSG member’s tale of wo– (all that’s left when the little sods have got your woollies)

One early summers evening the house was full of tiny narrow brown moths that hadn’t come through open windows. Weeks later I extracted blanket from the back of a cupboard and unfolded it to find a hole made by shotgun at close quarters. Some time after, having moved a piece of furniture, several square inches of wool carpet shot up the Hoover.

We spent two years vacuuming carpets and catching hundreds of moths on pheromone traps. Then we got serious. Even so, it took a couple of years to clear the infestation, having discovered, finally, what worked: fumigating the entire house with insecticidal smoke bombs.

These come in tins the size of a 35mm film canister and kill anything with more legs or fins than you. Close all windows, take batteries out of smoke alarms, check cats are outside and the cat-flap locked (take hamsters and fish tanks to neighbours). Open wardrobe and cupboard doors, take drawers out and put them on the beds, ensure no overhanging bedding will impede smoke from getting under the beds.

Starting at the top of the house, furthest from the door you will be exiting, unscrew the lids and stand the canisters on place mats to prevent the hot tin burning the surface on which it is standing. Light the blue touch paper inside. Smoke will plume out for a minute or so. As soon as it starts, leave the room, shutting the door. Set off another in the loft, others at the top and bottom of the stairs to cover the hallway, then leave the house for a few hours, preferably most of the day. On your return the house smells of mosquito coils until all the windows have been open for an hour or two, then it is all over. That night, not a moth is to be seen. It is eerie.

Anything that was flying will be lying on its back. Most of the eggs and grubs will also be caught, but if things are really bad some just-laid eggs may have survived, requiring the same again in a few weeks. Having said that, these survivors will be very few in number compared to the original problem.

Fortefog P insect killer mini fumers, ‘deal with clothes moths, bed bugs, fleas, ants, cluster flies’ (according to the blurb) and are available from Hygiene Supplies Direct, 0800 091 3171, www.hygienesuppliesdirect.com/th/moths. Kit to treat one room about £15; six rooms around £100 (6 smoke bombs, spray for carpets not easily reached with vacuum cleaner, powder). If this seems expensive, how much did your two favourite wool sweaters cost?

Maintenance: heat above 60°C kills moth eggs. Water that temperature also shrinks woollen sweaters. Therefore, heat them when dry. In March we put all the dry jumpers in the tumble drier on hot to kill any eggs, i.e. before they have chance to become grubs that would chew holes.

Sections of carpet that we know seem to be vulnerable, because they never get vacuumed, are sprayed with moth killer.