Just after suffering the worst drought in living memory, farms and communities in western New South Wales are now enduring another natural disaster — millions of mice.
- The NSW government has announced $50m in funding to tackle the mouse plague, but residents say more compensation is needed
- The rodent infestation is also taking a toll on the mental and physical health of regional communities
- One expert warns the mouse plague shows no sign of slowing down and is actually spreading across the country
Regional communities have watched in dismay as any drought recovery from their first good season last year has been destroyed.
Many farmers have been forced to burn hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of hay and grain, now rendered toxic from mouse infestations.
With no end in sight, regional communities are desperate for support to control the vermin as many fight to avoid bankruptcy.
Coonamble resident Anne Cullen is not giving in but has been devastated by the destruction of her valuable grain and hay, which has happened despite her spending $40,000 on baits.
Now, her newly sown lupins are being ravaged by rodents immediately after germinating.
“It just seems to be one thing after another,” she told 7.30.
“It’s just so relentless.”
Government support ‘eight months too late’
This month, the NSW government announced a $50 million mouse plague package which includes free bait but no rebates for farmers.
An urgent application to legalise a very toxic poison, bromadiolone, has not been received enthusiastically by farmers, many of whom are concerned about the secondary poisoning risks and would prefer to continue using zinc phosphide.
Farmers have already spent tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars each on baiting, but mouse numbers are continuing to rapidly rise.
Ms Cullen says the profits from last season have now gone towards fighting the mice, and she says more support is needed.
“We’ve been trying to get some support for months,” she said.
“We really need a bit of compensation for that now because we can’t afford it — the price of spray, fuel, everything just keeps going up. It’s just another cost.”
‘You can’t live like that but you have to’
Not only is it a shocking financial strain, but the mouse plague has had a widespread impact on people’s mental and physical health.
“The first time that I had to pick up a mouse out of the pool and smash it on the cement to kill it, I thought, ‘Oh gosh, I can’t do this,'” Ms Cullen said.
“But then I was doing 50 a day.
“You can’t live like that but you have to.”
Member for Barwon Roy Butler says the issue stretches far beyond farmers.
“It’s absolutely smashing towns,” the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party member told 7.30.
“You go into businesses in towns like Gilgandra, Coonamble and plenty of other places across the state [and] it knocks you around psychologically from a mental health perspective because the smell is just so overpowering.
“And for businesses that are food-based businesses, they’ve been absolutely smashed in terms of the amount of stock they’ve had to throw out.
“There’s been no insurance. There’s no coverage for rodent damage in most cases.”
Regional businesses at risk
The plague could prove the final straw for many regional businesses, which say when farmers suffer “everyone suffers”.
Couple Robert and Karri Brennan run a bakery with their son in Narromine. They say battling through drought, COVID-19 and now the mouse plague has devastated their business and family.
Business has dropped by 40 per cent and they were crushed to reduce their workforce from 28 to just eight employees.
“Something needs to be done. Otherwise, we’ll be closed. I don’t know if it will be still here at Christmas.”
It is a huge effort for food-related businesses to keep their businesses sanitary and ward off the mice.
“We’re paying for pest control to come in, we’re buying storage containers, buying diffusers to keep the smell out of the shop, but customers are still seeing mice running around,” Ms Brennan said.
“No wonder we’re not doing that great at the moment. Everyone knows they’ve got mice at home, so of course they’re going to be in the businesses. But it still doesn’t look good.”
The NSW government has announced up to $1,000 mouse bait rebates for businesses impacted by the plague. The rebate only applies to baits bought on or after May 13 and businesses will be required to show receipts.
The Brennans say it won’t be enough to save regional towns.
“People aren’t spending money. We’re not the only ones in town that are struggling. A month ago or so we were the only shop in this block. The government’s got to help out,” she said.
Fears infestation will spread
If the problem isn’t contained this winter, it is expected to get much worse, with experts saying mice numbers are already in the millions.
“Our concern is if that if we get a high level of survival over winter then mice will start to breed early from a high population base in spring. The number of mice will increase very dramatically at that point,” CSIRO researcher Steve Henry said.
Normally mice would stop breeding at the end of spring, but the latest research shows they are still procreating despite the drop in temperature.
“We’re getting more and more reports through the Riverina or into northern Victoria. And we’re even starting to get some reports of really high numbers from the York Peninsula in South Australia as well,” he said.
“Mice are able to build relatively good burrow networks in paddocks, so then they’ve got really good places to hide from frost and adverse weather conditions.”
Ms Cullen warned the effects of the plague would eventually be felt in the cities.
“We’re producing crops that feed the nation,” she said.
“There’ll be no bread or there’ll be much higher prices for bread and biscuits. If they’re ruining barley crops, the beer prices will go up.
“Then, of course, any exports will be affected. It’s a flow-on effect, it’s a very big thing.”
Watch this story tonight on 7.30 on ABC TV and iview.