CM – « Billions of little bastards »: NSW mouse-plague-hell

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Not just eating things, but nibbling people in their beds, in their houses, and in their cars.

Farmers lost a fortune of valuable grain in the plague, causing economic chaos across western New South Wales.

Those who live in the countryside and live in cities have had no relief from the waves of rodents chewing through house walls, attacking schools and devouring crops after lean years of drought.

For Warren farmer Ben Storer, whose town has been overrun by more than a billion mice, the cost has already risen to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Mr. Storer’s 5,000 acre cattle and farm, which he runs with brothers Greg and Doug 60 km north of Warren in the central west of the state, has been one of the worst hit.

« They totally destroyed 800 acres worth of sorghum (wheat). They see a pile of sorghum and they eat it all. The mind is baffled at what the little bastards can do, » Greg said.

After three devastating years of drought, during which the brothers had no income, the plague is a severe blow.

« We had (mice) bad once in the 1980s and we had outbreaks of them here and there, but nothing that bad, » said Ben.

« Then to lose a whole sorghum crop and about 1,000 rolls of hay … you could easily put in a few hundred thousand dollars for the sorghum (grain) and then with the value of the hay during the drought you could probably tell it was worth the same.  »

Farmers’ frustration at combating them is compounded by the difficulty of combating them.

« We put the plane over the sorghum once and abandoned it; it just made no difference, » said Ben.

Matthew Madden, chairman of the NSW Farmers Association’s Grain Committee, said stored forage such as hay had been « extraordinarily damaged » in the central west of the state.

« It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars for certain people, and forage like hay is difficult to replace.

« They have done it in good times and bad, like the impending drought, » he said.

The total damage bill for farmers across the state will be hundreds of millions of dollars.

Lockie Roberts operates a mixed sheep, citrus and cultivation farm in Mumble Peg, east of Warren.

« They just jumped out of the ground in a paddock when we were plowing it, » he said.

« The cost of an airplane load of bait in our paddocks is between $ 10,000 and $ 20,000.

« The drought hit us for three years, then we had a great year. Now the mice are going on. »

« They’re eating holes in the wall on some of our lots … they’re just so sick of the smell, » said Mr. Roberts.

In the stoic way of peasants who had so much weather, he said there was little point in reaching out for help.

« It’s a plague, it’s a natural disaster, so the government could definitely help by subsidizing poison and luring itself in … but we’re an industry that always takes care of ourselves, » he said.

CSIRO research officer Steve Henry said little research had been done on the economic impact of mouse plagues on agriculture.

A study completed in 1994 in a 1993 outbreak found that farmers suffered $ 67 million in damage that year. Adjusted for inflation, that’s a blow worth more than $ 127 million today.

Mr Henry said that over 800 mice per acre was considered a disease, but « in this scenario it is much higher ».

This means that probably more than a billion mice pierced the Warren Shire alone.

Just as taxation is the social impact of the plague, Mr. Henry said the rural population was « exhausted ».

« These people survived a few years of drought, now they’re being crushed by mice, » he said.

MP Mark Coulton, whose massive electorate in Parkes, west New South Wales, includes Warren, said the government intervening in bait operations is « not without risk ».

According to experts who say spring breeding could bring a new wave of hungry pests, it cannot be trusted that the upcoming winter will stop the state’s mouse plague.

CSIRO research officer Steve Henry said this year’s outbreak, the result of a bumper harvest after a wet summer, would fall off in winter when the bugs turned on each other.

« There’s a lot of talk about wet weather and frost wiping out the population, but that’s not true, » he told The Daily Telegraph.

Rather, he said the population would « crash » when it reached a certain point, while breeding would also slow over the winter as the rodents « focus on survival ».

« The numbers are just getting to the point where there are so many mice in the system that they interact a lot, spread disease, run out of food and then turn each other on, » he said.

Mr. Henry warned that the important metric was how many mice survived the winter – with the possibility of sequential epidemics if the number did not decrease significantly in the colder months.

« It depends on how many survive the winter because that determines how many come in the spring, » he said.

Mice become sexually mature in as little as six weeks and can have litters of puppies as little as three weeks apart, producing up to six young rodents each time.

« There is no interruption in the production of offspring, so their numbers can boom so quickly, » said Henry.

« We would go to our shed at home and there would be thousands of them, » said 10-year-old Hamish Barclay.

Joe McNair, 11, said in his father’s workshop that the mice were so fat « they would run over your feet ».

Ask anyone in the bush and they will tell you that the west of the state is bad, but there seems to be consensus that Warren and the region around him is the epicenter.

And there is little relief at school: the 140 children and staff at Warren St. Mary’s Primary School remember endless stories of mice infesting classrooms and the schoolyard.

« We have mousetraps in the office and they are constantly walking around us, » said director Terina McNair.

« They chewed through our pens, books and papers … we kept buying bait and traps, we just had to find them in our school budget.

« The best we got from a class in one night was 17 … in one classroom they moved a pile of pillows and there was a whole nest of about 20 mice. »

« It’s just the next cycle for them (the kids) … drought, floods, rain, mice, » he said.

« The bigger problem we have is that we were forgotten … As soon as it rained a little, everyone in town thought it was healed.

« I don’t think people realize the challenge of having to change your sheets every few days because the mice get into your beds.

« What really worries me for our children is that they think the ongoing struggles and disadvantages are normal. »

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