SYDNEY – After one of its worst wildfire seasons and a global pandemic, Australia now faces its latest challenge at the end of days: a “monumental” infestation of mice.
Millions of rodents are going berserk in parts of the eastern states of Australia, and residents share terrifying encounters on a daily basis.
With an epicenter in rural New South Wales, farmers have uploaded videos to social media of mice covering their land, damaging crops and taking up residence inside houses.
Guy Roth, who works on a sprawling University of Sydney research farm near the New South Wales town of Narrabri, said mice had taken over the property.
“I know we had two mice per square meter in our breeding paddocks at the top … [so] If I have the math right, that’s 20 million mice. That’s more mice than the population of most big cities, ”he said.
Roth said that at one point he and his family captured and disposed of about 100 mice each day inside their home and offices.
They are all over the house. Every time you open a drawer, you are potentially going to find one, ”he said. “You will be sitting at the desk and a mouse will go through it.”
He said the mice were eating the cotton crops and grain stored in the silos.
Roth, who has spent his entire life in regional and rural Australia, said this was “the worst mouse infestation I have ever seen.”
“They certainly smell. That is what my memory of this is going to be: the smell, ”he said. “The smell of dead mice in and around the house and farm.”
While the impact on human health has not been severe, there has been at least one report of the rare mouse-related disease, lymphocytic choriomeningitis.
And at least three people have been bitten by mice in NSW hospitals while being admitted for problems unrelated to mice.
A spokesman for the NSW Health state government health department said these bites were “minor” and that “appropriate treatment has been provided.”
“NSW Health staff are responding with appropriate control measures,” the spokesperson said, listing measures that include increased baits and traps, odor repellants and blocking access.
The spokesperson added: “The current mouse infestation in western New South Wales is a natural occurrence.”
What is causing the plague?
Steve Henry conducts mouse research with Australia’s national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization.
Henry said the outbreak, which is of the non-native house mouse, is “monumental” and continues to have serious economic and social effects.
“Some farmers are giving up summer crops … because mice have damaged them so badly, so it’s essentially a total loss of crops,” he said. “And in some scenarios where farmers have gotten crops to harvest, they have rejected them because they are full of mouse droppings.”
But he said mouse infestations can appear every five to 10 years in Australia due to a combination of factors.
“We have had a streak of dry years and [now] the drought is essentially over, so the mice are activated by that change in environmental conditions and begin to reproduce, “he said. “The farmers have had a good harvest and that brings a lot of food to the system. So you have favorable weather conditions, favorable food in the system, a lot of good shelter, a lot of humidity. “
And he said mice are prolific breeders, as they can “begin to reproduce when they are 6 weeks old, and then they can have a litter of six to 10 puppies every 19 to 21 days after that.”
But Henry said a plague of mice usually ends abruptly with “a population collapse,” although it is difficult to predict when this will occur.
Farmers in plague-affected areas are now looking to winter crops, which in this part of the southern hemisphere are typically planted in April and May.
The NSW Farmers industry group has “grave concerns” that some farms will lose all their planted seed to mice.
NSW Farmers President James Jackson said there must be urgent action from the state government, including an emergency permit to use the pesticide zinc phosphide and financial assistance through a small grant program.
“Mouse control is very expensive. The severity of the current pest has resulted in the need for multiple aerial and ground bait applications in growing regions … Action is needed now, ”he said.
According to the group, heavy rains in recent days have slowed the numbers of mice in some areas, but they are still “rampant” in west central and northwestern New South Wales.
“I heard that the rain has pushed more of them into houses and vehicles,” said the group’s spokesman, Michael Burt.
For now, Australians like Roth hope the plague will end quickly.
“Everyone tolerates it, but we’ve really had enough,” he said.