It’s a fact of life that no matter how careful you are with storage, livestock feed eventually attracts vermin. Cats are a good way to keep mice under control in and around the home, although some cats can take a heavy toll on other wildlife.

cat peeping through leaves, imageJust over ten thousand years ago, someone in a nomadic hunter-gatherer tribe (we’ll call her Ceres, since in all probability it was a woman) noticed that if some of the seeds she and her sisters spent so long collecting got dropped on the ground, the next year there would be a dense stand of food plants growing in that very spot. Maybe something happened to spark off this recognition, like a carrying skin splitting down the seam; maybe Ceres was just an insomniac who thought too much. Either way, agriculture of a sort was born, and the nomadic hunter-gatherer existence was living on borrowed time. Ceres jumped up to tell her friends that maybe it was time to get into real estate, and by the time she got back to the fire there was a cat on her blanket, washing its bum.

Okay, so it didn’t quite happen like that*. Our move into agriculture is now thought to have been quite gradual, but as soon as human beings started growing and storing food vermin became a problem. Enter Felis domesticus, a recent** offshoot from the African wildcat; a small and social cat that had bred to specialise in killing small rodents and snakes. The semi-nomadic descendants of Ceres soon noticed that wherever these new little cats appeared, the rodent plagues that had accompanied early agriculture stopped.
They also noticed that if you gave the cats a bit of food now and again they were more inclined to stick around, improving rodent control even further. Since then cats have gone wherever we have, and have changed hardly at all (apart from evolving a slightly larger attitude problem). When the pyramids were raised, there was always a cat sitting on the block you wanted to move; when the first covered wagons rolled west across the great American plains, you can bet there was a ginger tom keeping snug on top of the driver’s only clean shirt.

It’s just the same today if you grow any amount of your own food, or if you keep livestock; from time to time you’ll come to the attention of the local rodents. This is basic ecology; create a niche – such as a big corn patch – and something will exploit it. If rats move in, you have a problem that will be too big for your average moggy and it’s time to look for a kindly man with a small and exciteable dog, but cats are usually more than happy to deal with mice for you.

ginger manx cat, imageEnter my own mogs, the Bleedin’ Cats. Number One Cat is a strange, ferrety creature weighing hardly anything, and all but invisible in poor light. In summer she is rarely seen at all, stopping by occasionally for a few bites of biscuit and perhaps a kind word or two. Generally she lives out, and the reason for this is extremely obvious and weighs in at a little under five kilos. It’s called Number Two Cat.

N2C is a large orange manx with marmalade eyes and a perpetually surprised expression. After he unfortunately dislocated his brain in a fall from the bannisters, he was briefly known as Womble because of his liking for making a use of the things that he found; biro inners, old cigarette packets, bits of cellophane, you name it. Unfortunately, the only use he ever identified was leaving them on the kitchen floor as evidence of his prowess as a hunter, but that was on the top of the barren hill on the Isle of Man where he and I first met. Now we live in the most biodiverse area of Britain, where there is enough ground cover to hide even N2C’s impressive backside, and he dines in style.

The point of all this*** is that the owners of most cats live in the epicentre of a relatively mouse-free zone. Ecologically speaking, we are the niche that cats have evolved to exploit. No wonder they purr.



*The bum-washing bit is true, though. Depend upon it.

**About 130,000 years. To a cat, that’s recent. If you’d accidentally locked it in the bedroom 130,000 years ago it still wouldn’t have forgiven you.

***See? And you thought there wasn’t one.


This article previously appeared in a slightly different form on Hedgewizard’s Diary.
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