Cash-strapped Trading Standards Authorities could soon be armed with new weapons to weed out hidden caches of illicit tobacco in stores and other premises - specially trained sniffer rats.

Brandon Cooke, lead officer for Age Restricted Sales at the Trading Standards Institute, said rats have proved highly efficient at detecting landmines in Mozambique and cost significantly less to train, house and deploy than sniffer dogs, which can command upwards of £500 a day just to hire.

Once trained, rats which have a highly acute sense of smell can reliably carry out repetitive tasks, unlike sniffer dogs which need to be rested at regular intervals.

A spokesman at detection rat specialists APOPO told C-Store: "Rats learn quickly, and they do not bond to handlers as sometimes occurs with dogs."

Their size would also be advantageous, allowing them to access the smallest hiding places with ease, added Cooke.

Previous raids on unscrupulous retail stores by Trading Standards have uncovered illicit tobacco hidden in drains, chiller vents, under floorboards, behind panelling and inside shelving.

"We've seen criminals hide smuggled and counterfeit tobacco in the most innovative hiding places, hoping to evade detection, but using sniffer rats enforcement agencies can quickly and effectively locate illicit product wherever it is hidden, and at a relatively low cost," said Tobacco Retailers Alliance spokeswoman Katherine Graham.

She added: "In these austere times, responsible law-abiding retailers of tobacco products welcome any innovative and creative solutions, such as the deployment of sniffer rats, to help combat the scourge of illicit tobacco which deprives legitimate businesses of much-needed trade."