Plague of mice threatens huge tracts of land in Australia

The New South Wales state government described the problem as ‘unprecedented’.

A house mouse
A house mouse

Vast tracts of land in Australia’s New South Wales state are being threatened by a mouse plague which was described by the state government as “absolutely unprecedented”.

Just how many millions of rodents have infested the agricultural plains across the state is guesswork.

At night on many properties, the floors of sheds vanish beneath carpets of scampering mice, while ceilings come alive with the sounds of scratching.

One family blamed mice chewing electrical wires for their house burning down.

Agriculture minister Adam Marshall said this month: “We’re at a critical point now where if we don’t significantly reduce the number of mice that are in plague proportions by spring, we are facing an absolute economic and social crisis in rural and regional New South Wales.”

Mice scurry around stored grain on a farm near Tottenham (AP)

Farmer Bruce Barnes said he is taking a gamble by planting crops on his land near the central New South Wales town of Bogan Gate.

“We just sow and hope,” he said.

The risk is that the mice will maintain their numbers through the Southern Hemisphere winter and devour the wheat, barley and canola before it can be harvested.

NSW Farmers, the state’s top agricultural association, predicts the plague will wipe more than one billion Australian dollars (£547 million) from the value of the winter crop.

Australia Mice Plague
Mice scurry away as Eric Fishpool pulls on a tarpaulin covering stored grain on his farm near Tottenham (AP)

The state government has ordered 5,000 litres (1,320 gallons) of the banned poison Bromadiolone from India. The federal government regulator has yet to approve emergency applications to use the poison on the perimeters of crops.

Critics fear the poison will kill not only mice but also animals that feed on them, including wedge-tail eagles and family pets.

Mr Marshall said: “We’re having to go down this path because we need something that is super-strength, the equivalent of napalm to just blast these mice into oblivion.”

The plague is a cruel blow to farmers in Australia’s most populous state who have been battered by fires, floods and pandemic disruptions in recent years, only to face the new scourge of the introduced house mouse, or Mus musculus.

A dog chases a mouse
Hank, a working dog turned mouser, chases a mouse on a farm (AP)

The same government-commissioned advisers who have helped farmers cope with the drought, fire and floods are returning to help people deal with the stresses of mice.

The worst comes after dark, when millions of mice that had been hiding and dormant during the day become active.

By day, the crisis is less apparent. Patches of road are dotted with squashed mice from the previous night, but birds soon take the carcasses away.

Haystacks are disintegrating due to ravenous rodents that have burrowed deep inside. Upending a sheet of scrap metal lying in a paddock will send a dozen mice scurrying. The pavements are also strewn with dead mice that have eaten poisonous bait.

But a constant, both day and night, is the stench of mice urine and decaying flesh. The smell is people’s greatest gripe.

“You deal with it all day. You’re out baiting, trying your best to manage the situation, then come home and just the stench of dead mice,” said Jason Conn, a fifth-generation farmer near Wellington in central New South Wales.

Lots and lots of mice
The state government describes the plague as ‘absolutely unprecedented’ (AP)

“They’re in the roof cavity of your house. If your house is not well sealed, they’re in bed with you. People are getting bitten in bed.

“It doesn’t relent, that’s for sure.”

Colin Tink estimated he drowned 7,500 mice in a single night last week in a trap he set with a cattle feeding bowl full of water at his farm outside Dubbo.

“I thought I might get a couple of hundred. I didn’t think I’d get 7,500,” Mr Tink said.

Mr Barnes said mouse carcasses and excrement in roofs were polluting farmers’ water tanks.

“People are getting sick from the water,” he said.

The mice are already in Mr Barnes’ hay bales. He is battling them with zinc phosphide baits, the only legal chemical control for mice used in broad-scale agriculture in Australia. He is hoping that winter frosts will help contain the numbers.

Bruce Barnes
Bruce Barnes walks past stored hay infested with mice on his family’s farm near Bogan Gate (AP)

Farmers like Mr Barnes endured four lean years of drought before 2020 brought a good season as well as the worst flooding that some parts of New South Wales have seen in at least 50 years.

But then, the pandemic brought a labour drought. Fruit was left to rot on trees because foreign backpackers who provide the seasonal workforce were absent.

Plagues seemingly appear from nowhere and often vanish just as fast.

Disease and a shortage of food are thought to trigger a dramatic population crash as mice feed on themselves, devouring the sick, weak and their own offspring.

Government researcher Steve Henry, whose agency is developing strategies to reduce the impact of mice on agriculture, said it is too early to predict what damage will occur by spring.

He travels across the state holding community meetings, sometimes twice a day, to discuss the mice problem.

“People are fatigued from dealing with the mice,” Mr Henry said.

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