When mouse plague started in the New South Wales and Queensland region, people were talking like generals in a war. It was all about strategy, setting the smartest traps, fortifying houses to keep the enemy out and outwitting the tiny creatures that attacked wave after wave.
But, six months later, as rodent numbers rose again despite the deployment of thousands of tons of poisons and devastating floods, the conversations about mice changed. They are no longer enemies to be defeated, they are more like a giant black cloud hovering over every city.
“It’s just constant. To myself, I would describe it as an injury where you are in constant pain. Ultimately, it will affect your mental health, ”said John Southon, principal of Trundle Central School in west-central New South Wales.
“No one understands a mouse plague until you experience it. Nobody understands the absolutely pungent smell, the fact that your furniture is eaten, it’s just awful. The mice have eaten up all the insulation in our air conditioning systems. They ate wires from the roof of the school, they ate parts of the electrical panel in the principal’s residence.
Southon said children used to scream and laugh at the sight of a mouse, but now “we walk through the classroom at least every hour.”
“It’s just normal… Yesterday we had Naplan tests, and a mouse came across the room and no child even blinked.”
The NSW government on Thursday announced a $ 50million bailout for the regions, including money for new rodenticide research, free poison for farmers and bait discounts for mice of $ 1,000 for small businesses and $ 500 for households.
But for those like Louise McCabe, from Tallimba, a small town about 500 miles west of Sydney, the late relief isn’t starting to compensate for the damage caused by the mice.
“We were away for four weeks and we had family members checking in every day at home because of the mice situation… There was a four day period where no one could come, and during those four days, they collapsed, ”she mentioned.
When her family opened the door to the house, there were thousands of mice inside.
“We had a new carpet installed last year, they gnawed at the carpet and the floor. The oven doesn’t work… they ate the insulation in our dishwasher.
McCabe found baby nests in their couch cushions, and mice had crept into every closet; eat through the laminate on the shelves and destroy the particle board with their urine.
“Our kitchen will have to be replaced. We also had a butler’s pantry, we just demolished it, ”she says.
Overall, McCabe estimates that the mice caused $ 30,000 in damage, but since mice are considered a controllable problem, his insurance company told him they wouldn’t cover it.
“The $ 500 [government rebate] is really lovely, but I don’t know if I’m even eligible… but also, $ 500 won’t even buy you a living room at Fantastic Furniture. “
Her family is not at risk of buying new furniture now, lest the plague will spread for months and everything will be destroyed.
For McCabe, the breaking point came when she put her urine-covered clothes in the washing machine and returned to find the water-soaked body of a mouse inside the glass.
“I’m right on the end of my tether trying to hold on… but Scott, my partner, and I have other jobs and income, we can rebuild. There are people who have a lot more to do about it. “
One of those people is Ben Storer, a farmer from near Walgett, nearly 300 miles north of Dubbo in northwest New South Wales. Mice wiped out 800 hectares of his sorghum crop and caused more than $ 200,000 in damage.
“We never even stuck a [havester machine] in those fields… we didn’t even touch it, the mice had just torn it up, ”he said.
“We are used to taking losses, we are farmers… but coming straight out of a drought like a mouse plague is hard.
“Every morning you get up and pull 400 dead mice out of your pool and out of your filters, and you know, that sort of thing hurts you a little bit.”
At the height of the plague, the ground around Storer’s grain piles shook and rippled along with the bodies of thousands of mice as he passed.
“With poison you would kill 100,000 per night around your house and the next night 200,000 would come back.”
Because baiting is the only large-scale method of controlling mouse populations, the smell of death and urine is pervasive in the hardest-hit cities. Locals describe the acid stench as “unbearable” and “inescapable”.
For Graham Jones, a farmer in the town of Tottenham, in central New South Wales, the killing part is very difficult, saying that despite all the damage the mice have done, he still feels for the creatures.
“They’re smart little animals… it’s a bit like a world war for them too, isn’t it. They are just trying to survive, but we have them in plague proportions and we just have to get rid of them. It’s brutal, ”he says.
“People think farmers have no heart, but they love their animals. I’m sure everyone wants to kill mice in a human way.
A video of mice apparently raining down from the sky as an auger on Jones’ farm was being cleaned went viral this week. The family was inundated with media calls from around the world, which made Jones a little uncomfortable.
“I’m surprised the media took it on, because I thought it was a little brutal… but we’re just used to it, you know, dead mice are everywhere now.”
While people in rural New South Wales may have long given up on winning the Mouse Wars, the state government has only just decided to take up arms. Experts say late intervention could be enough to reverse the trend and avert a second year of plague.
Human troops now have a stockpile of new weapons as the government seeks urgent approval for the use of the super potent poison, bromadiolone, despite fears it could be devastating for native animals that feed on mice. dead. A dual strength version of the conventional agricultural mouse bait, zinc phosphide, is also available, and mouse expert Steven Henery of CSIRO says the approaching winter will deal a death blow to mice.
“I hope that the winter will slow down the reproduction of mice and that we will achieve a low rate of winter survival,” he says.
“One of the real concerns is that if you get a high level of winter survival and conditions are right the following spring, they start to breed from a high population base. So what we’re going to tell the farmers is around August you need to walk your crops, looking for the first signs of damage and if you see any damage or signs of life, now is the time to start. to control. them, before they start to breed.
This strategy should tone down the numbers, but for the war to be truly won a series of truly horrific natural events may be required.
“You get a very large number of mice all interacting with each other, which makes it easier for the disease to spread and at the same time coincides with the lack of food. And so then they start turning on sick and weak animals and eating each other, and they prey on babies as well, so the whole system falls down and collapses, ”he says.
But until that day arrives, people in the regions will be left, day in and day out, to clear traps, set the bait and check the weather forecast with fingers crossed for cold temperatures.
“I’m just praying for the frost,” McCabe says. “That’s all you can do.”