Six months ago, Australia’s mouse plague was a war zone; now, entire towns have accepted their presence.
Farmers and residents in New South Wales and Queensland are still battling an increase in rodent populations, but they fear the ordeal will last months.
When the mouse plague struck rural New South Wales and Queensland, residents spoke with the authority of war generals. It was all about strategy: laying the most cunning traps, fortifying homes to keep the enemy out, and outwitting the tiny creatures as they attacked in waves.
However, six months later, with rodent populations surging again despite the deployment of thousands of tonnes of poison and devastating floods, conversations about mice have shifted. They are no longer adversaries to be defeated; they are more akin to a colossal dark cloud hovering over each town.
“It is simply constant. To me, it’s similar to having an injury that causes constant pain. Eventually, it will have an effect on your mental health,” John Southon, principal of Trundle Central School in central west NSW, explained.
“Nobody understands a mouse plague until they have experienced one. Nobody understands the nauseating odor or the fact that your furniture has been devoured; it’s just abhorrent. Our air conditioning systems are completely insulated due to the mice. They’ve consumed wires from the school’s roof and portions of the power board in the principal’s residence.”
According to Southon, the children used to scream and giggle at the sight of a mouse, but now “at least one runs through the classroom every hour.”
“It’s perfectly normal… We had Naplan testing yesterday, and a mouse ran across the room without a single child blinking.”
The NSW government announced a $50 million regional rescue package on Thursday, including funding for new rodenticide research, free poison for farmers, and $1,000 mice bait rebates for small businesses and $500 for households.
However, for residents such as Louise McCabe of Tallimba, a small town located about 500 kilometers west of Sydney, the belated relief does not begin to compensate for the damage caused by the mice.
“We were gone for four weeks and had family checking in on the house every day due to the mice situation… There was a four-day period during which no one could come over, and they simply ran wild,” she explained.
When her family opened the front door, thousands of mice were inside.
“We had new carpet installed last year, and they’ve chewed through it as well as the wooden floor. The oven has ceased to function… They devoured our dishwasher’s insulation.”
McCabe discovered baby mouse nests in their couch cushions, and mice had infiltrated every cupboard, eating through the laminate on the shelves and destroying the chipboard with their urine.
“Our kitchen will require replacement. We also had a butler’s pantry, which we recently demolished,” she explains.
McCabe estimates that the mice have caused $30,000 in damage, but her insurance company will not cover it because mice are considered a controllable problem.
“The $500 [government rebate] is fantastic, but I’m not sure I’m even eligible… however, $500 does not even cover the cost of a lounge at Fantastic Furniture.”
Her family is not taking the risk of purchasing new furniture now, fearful that the plague will last months and destroy everything.
McCabe’s breaking point occurred when she placed her urine-stained clothes in the washing machine and returned to discover a mouse’s waterlogged body inside the glass.
“I’m at my wit’s end trying to hold it together… but Scott, my partner, and I both have other sources of income, so we can rebuild. There are individuals out there who have a great deal more invested in this.”
Ben Storer is one of those people. He is a farmer from near Walgett, about 300 kilometers north of Dubbo in north-western New South Wales. The mice destroyed an entire 800 hectares of his sorghum crop, causing an estimated $200,000 in damage.
“We never even attempted to plant a [havester machine] in those fields… We didn’t even touch it; the mice had ripped it apart,” he explained.
“As farmers, we’re accustomed to taking losses… However, to transition directly from a drought to a mouse plague is difficult. Each morning, you get up and remove 400 dead mice from your pool and filters, and as you know, that sort of thing takes its toll.”
At the height of the plague, as Storer drove past his grain piles, the ground rithed and rippled with the bodies of thousands of mice.
“With poison, you could kill 100,000 people in one night around your house and 200,000 the next night.”
Because baiting is the only method of controlling mice populations on a large scale, the smell of death and urine pervades the worst-affected towns. Local residents describe the acidic odor as “unbearable” and “inescapable.”
For Graham Jones, a farmer in the central NSW town of Tottenham, the killing part is especially difficult, as he admits that despite the mice’s devastation, he still feels for them.
“They are intelligent little creatures… it’s a bit like a world war for them as well, isn’t it? They are simply attempting to survive, but we have a plague on our hands, and we need to eradicate them. It’s harrowing,” he says.
“People believe farmers lack compassion, but they adore their livestock. I’m sure everyone wishes to kill mice in a humane manner.”
This week, a video of mice apparently raining down from the sky as an auger was being cleared out on Jones’ farm went viral. The family has been inundated with calls from journalists from all over the world, which makes Jones a little uneasy.
“I’m surprised the media embraced it, because I thought it was a little heinous… but we’ve grown accustomed to it now that dead mice are everywhere.”
While rural NSW residents may have long abandoned hope of winning the mice war, the state government has only recently decided to take up arms. Experts believe the late intervention may be sufficient to avert a second year of the plague.
Human troops now have a new arsenal of weapons, with the government requesting expedited approval for the use of the super-potent poison bromadiolone, despite concerns that it could be lethal to indigenous animals that feed on the dead mice. Additionally, a double-strength version of the conventional agricultural mice bait, zinc phosphide, is now available, and mouse expert Steven Henery of the CSIRO predicts that the approaching winter will deal the mice a fatal blow.
“I’m hoping that the winter will slow mouse breeding and result in a low overwinter survival rate,” he says.
“One of the real concerns is that if overwinter survival is high and spring conditions are favorable, they will begin breeding from a large population base. So what we’ll be telling farmers is that beginning in August, they should be out walking their crops, looking for the first signs of damage and, if they see any damage or signs of life, they should begin controlling them immediately, before they breed.”
This strategy should reduce the numbers, but in order to truly win the war, a truly heinous series of natural events may be necessary.
“You get a large number of mice interacting with one another, which facilitates disease spread and coincides with them running out of food. As a result, they turn on sick and weak animals and eat each other, while also preying on babies, and the entire system collapses,” he says.
However, until that day arrives, residents in the regions will be left emptying traps, setting bait, and checking the weather forecast, crossing their fingers for cold temperatures.
“I’m simply praying for frost,” McCabe says. “That is all you are capable of.”