TOTTENHAM, Australia – The stink hits you first, hot, musty and rotten. Then you hear it: a sound like ocean waves or pouring rain on concrete. And the occasional squeak.
The horror that lurks in the dark is a flock of thousands of mice swarming over, around, and in a wheat storage bunker on the Fragar family farm seven hours west of Sydney, Australia. After a long and painful drought, the mice devastate the family’s first good harvest in years and endanger the next, putting their business on the verge of ruin.
Her farm is just one of the thousands along the country’s eastern grain belt struggling with the worst mouse plague in living memory, with far-reaching consequences in both the fields and rural communities.
It’s like watching the mice devour your future, said Kathy Fragar, 51.
For half a year that has felt like an eternity to many, the rodents have been chewing a swath through South Queensland, New South Wales and North Victoria, the downside of the happiness of the break in a once-a-century drought.
Not only did they gobble up grain, they bit people into their beds, got out of air conditioners and gnawed on equipment. They ate the toes of chickens in their stalls. They were accused because entire cities lost phone reception and a house burned down.
The mice have added uncomfortable chores to many people’s routines. Shopkeepers set traps and drown the mice they catch. The residents burn dead mice in “crematoria” in the backyard. Grocers clean any nibbling parcels of flour that spills out on the floor. Hospital workers place diffusers in waiting rooms to largely hide the stench of rotting rodent corpses.
On the Fragars farm, the mice disperse when the light hits them. They slide along the sides of a light blue tarpaulin like a waterfall and disappear into holes and in the grass. For every visible mouse there are countless more under the cover.
The family’s wheat bunker has visibly shrunk. The mice won’t eat their way through the whole thing – if they dig too deep, they’ll suffocate. Jeff Fragar, 55, said the family was lucky enough to sell 500 of the 700 tons they had harvested. That could be $ 30,000.
Other farmers have rejected harvests or turned away from ports after mouse droppings were found. Some, like Terry Klante, who works near Mr. Fragar, have baited and fenced off the mice, but still keep watch every night looking for signs of infestation.
For Mr Fragar, the main concern is whether he can plant this year’s wheat. The family is in the middle of the sowing. The mice will eat all the seeds that they now expel. But the longer you wait, the more you risk a lackluster harvest or no harvest at all.
A lobby group, NSW Farmers, warns that New South Wales could lose $ 1 billion worth of crops if growers cut their winter harvests of wheat, barley and canola.
“We’ve had three years in which we couldn’t even get our crops into the ground because of the drought,” said Fragar. “And we have a reasonably reasonable year that the mice are now destroying. If we don’t make it again, I’d say we’re out of luck here. The bank will not carry us any further. “
Australia suffers from mouse plague roughly every ten years. The current one came after heavy rains last year when the farm silos were full of grain. They filled up with food for their animals, and all the grain gave the mice a perfect source of food.
Changes in agricultural practices were also a factor. Cultivated farmers used to burn stubble to clear the land. Over the past 15 years, for environmental reasons, they have started sowing new plants directly on top of the old stems. This had the unintended consequence of creating more food sources and shelter for mice.
These natural and man-made causes, along with the rapid breeding cycles of mice – they can have six to ten offspring about every three weeks – have caused their numbers to rapidly skyrocket into the millions.
At the same time, government aid was slow to arrive. The New South Wales government recently announced a support package that includes discounts on mouse bait and the lifting of a ban on the use of the poisonous bromadiolone, which State Agriculture Secretary Adam Marshall said would be tantamount to “napalming” mice.
In the tiny town of Tottenham, near the Fragars farm, residents say this mouse plague is the longest they have ever seen.
The coming winter in the southern hemisphere has slowed the mice down. Robert Brodin, who owns a business called Tottenham Rural Trading, said he caught 30 or 40 mice in his business every morning, but now only 15 or 20.
But he’s not confident that it will end anytime soon. “They used to say once they start eating each other it will be over, but they’ve been eating each other since December and it doesn’t stop,” he said.
Steve Henry, named by the Australian government as the country’s top mice plague expert, said it was easier to predict when an outbreak will begin than when one will end.
The scene he painted for the later resolution was one of the vermin apocalypse. The tail end of a mouse plague, said Mr. Henry, comes in when “there are too many mice in the system; They all interact with each other and diseases spread quickly. At the same time, they run out of food so they turn on the sick and weak and attack and eat their babies. “
He warned that if the mice survived the winter in large numbers, their populations would explode again in the spring, causing even more damage.
Until it is all over, the plague will continue to take a psychological toll in remote areas where people are largely self-reliant and often suffer setbacks, with the mindset of putting them on the chin and moving on.
Jo Randall, who lives about 75 miles south of the Fragars, said she was moved to tears one morning thinking about the extra work the mice were doing on an already arduous farm and personal life.
The Randalls consider themselves lucky because they were able to keep the mice out of their fields by baiting and burning the land.
But they live in an old house full of tiny cracks and holes that rodent intruders can slide through. Even in the cold of the morning she has to open the windows to soothe the odor.
Signs of mice are everywhere: Ms. Randall’s phone case was chewed ragged on the edges, the family’s stereo was destroyed, and there are dozens of tiny tooth marks in the handle of a pair of scissors on the counter.
She thought the last straw would be if the mice ever got into her bed. But when it actually happened – when she found poop in her good sheets at 10:30 p.m. after a busy day – she just sighed, took off the sheets, and made the bed again.
“You just have to put up with the fact that you won’t win the fight, you won’t get rid of them,” she said. “So you just do the best you can and just wait for it to be over.”