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Plague of Mice Overruns Australian Farms After Drought's End Creates Optimal Conditions for the Rodents

The Weather Channel logo The Weather Channel 6/15/2021 Ron Brackett

The end of a drought is usually nothing but good news, but Australians are learning the good can be accompanied by problems — millions of problems.

Since a crippling, nearly three-year drought — accompanied by unprecedented wildfires — ended in 2020, millions of mice have invaded farms across the state of New South Wales, and they have spread into southern Queensland and across the south into South Australia and Western Australia.

The furry horde has devastated grain and hay crops and destroyed farm machinery and household appliances. People even report being bitten in bed.

Mice plagues are not uncommon in Australia, but the number of mice this year have been "just astronomical," Terry Fishpool, a grain producer from Tottenham in New South Wales, told AFP.

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Conditions were optimal for a rodent explosion at the end of the drought. More than 34 consecutive months of dry conditions gave way to rain beginning in January 2020. Near- to above-average rainfall returned to many parts of Australia from that month on, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. The winter of 2020, June through August, in New South Wales was the wettest in four years.

That spring, farmers began harvesting their most successful crops in years. That's also when the mice began showing up, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Not only did the mice have plenty to eat, but they also faced fewer predators. Many of their natural enemies had died in the drought and the fires.

A change in farming methods also benefitted the mice. Instead of burning off old crop stubble, farmers left the dead stalks and planted new seeds around them to preserve moisture in the soil, according to the Washington Post. That provided even more food and shelter for the mice.

A mild, moist summer let the mice continue breeding through the summer months and into the fall, ABC reported. Mice can have a litter every 21 days and start breeding when they are 6 weeks old. A pair of mice can have 500 offspring in a season.

Farmers in Australia's eastern grain belt told the New York Times they are contending with "the worst mouse plague in living memory."

It’s like "watching the mice eat away at your future," said Kathy Fragar, whose family has a wheat farm in Tottenham.

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Thousands and thousands of mice have invaded haystacks and grain silos. What they don't eat is often ruined by urine and droppings.

In addition to eating and destroying crops, the mice are wreaking havoc inside homes. Families have said the mice pull insulation out of ovens and chew through power cords. A pub owner told AFP they eat anything not stored in plastic tubs. Grocery stores find holes chewed in bags of flour.

Officials in New South Wales have secured 1,320 gallons of a banned poison called bromadiolone from India but haven't approved its use yet, the Associated Press reported.

"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," NSW Agriculture Minister Adam Marshall said.

Bromadiolone works faster than the currently approved zinc phosphide bait, but critics fear it would kill animals that eat the mice, such as wedge-tail eagles, because it remains in the system of dead or dying mice longer.

Winter has started now, and one fear is that the mice will eat the wheat, barley and canola that has been planted before it can be harvested.

The plague will chop the value of the winter crop by more than 1 billion Australian dollars ($775 million), NSW Farmers, the state’s top agricultural association, estimates, according to the AP.

"If we don't get a real cold and fairly wet winter, I'm just a little bit worried what's going to happen in the spring," Col Tink, who owns a farm near the rural town of Dubbo, told AFP.

"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," Marshall, the agriculture minister, said in May.

Bill Bateman, an associate professor from Curtin University in Western Australia, said giant mouse plagues seemed to occur once a decade, but climate change could make them more regular.

"If we no longer get those cold winters, such that we are providing resources for mice all year round, then this is going to become a chronic thing rather than an acute thing," Bateman said.

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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