Tottenham, Australia – First you smell, pungent, beige and rotting. Then you hear them: a sound like the waves of the sea, or the rains that hit the concrete. And sometimes howl.
The Fragger family farm seven hours west of Sydney, Australia, has a herd of frightened thousands of mice lying in the dark, above and around a storage bunker of wheat. After a long and painful drought, the rats are destroying the family’s first good crop in years and endangering the next crop, putting their business on the verge of ruin.
His farm is one of thousands along the country’s eastern grain belt, which local residents call the worst mouse plague in living memory, with far-reaching consequences in both farms and rural communities.
“It’s like” watching mice eat away from their future, “said Kathy Frager, 51.
It’s been half a year, but felt by many as an eternity, with rodents chewing a swath through southern Queensland, New South Wales and northern Victoria, once the second of a break in the century’s drought of good fortune. Is the side. .
In addition to eating crops, they have cut people into their beds, forced them out of air-conditioning units and crushed through equipment. They have eaten the claws of chickens in their pens. They are convicted As whole towns Lost phone reception and A house burned down.
Rats have added unpleasant tasks to many people’s routines. Shopkeepers lay nets and sink caught rats. Residents burn dead mice in a backyard “crematorium”. The grocers clean the flour which is spread on the floor with a nibbled package. Hospital staff employ diffusers in the waiting room in a largely fruitless effort to hide the stench of rotting rodents.
In the Fragers’ farm, when light falls upon them, the rats are shattered, slipping along the edge of a bright blue wire like a waterfall and disappearing into holes and grass. For each visible mouse, there are countless more under the wrapper.
The family’s wheat bunker is clearly shrunk. Rats will not eat their way through the whole thing – if they sink too deep, they will suffocate. But Jeff Frager, 55, said the family would be lucky to sell 500 of the 700 metric tons they had harvested. It can be $ 30,000 down the drain.
Other farmers rejected the crops after the mouse droppings were removed or taken away from the ports. Some, such as Terry Clante, who cultivates near Mr. Frager, have stopped mice from biting and fencing, but still keep watch at night, looking for signs of infection.
The biggest concern for Mr. Frager is whether he will be able to sow this year’s wheat. The family is in the midst of sowing season. Rats will now eat whatever seeds they put. But the longer they wait, the more they risk a bad crop, or no crop at all.
A lobbying group, NSW Farmers, warned that New South Wales could suffer a billion dollar crop loss as growers returned their winter crops of wheat, barley and canola.
“We have three years where we didn’t get our crop in the ground due to the drought,” Mr. Frager said. “And we have a semi-proper year, which the rats are now destroying. If we don’t get it again, I’d say we’ll be out of luck here. The bank won’t take us any further.”
Australia suffers from a mouse plague every decade. The current rains have come after heavy rains last year, which has filled the grain in the farmers’ godowns. They stocked fodder for their animals, and all that grain gave the mice an ideal source of food.
Changes in farming practices have also been a reason. Crop farmers used to burn straw to clear the land. In the last 15 years, they have started sowing new crops directly on old stalks for environmental reasons. This has had the unintended consequence of creating more sources of food and shelter for mice.
These natural and man-made causes, as well as the rapid reproductive cycle of mice – they can have six to 10 offspring every three weeks – have allowed their numbers to explode rapidly into the millions.
At the same time, the pace of reaching government help has been slow. The South Wales government recently announced a support package that includes an exemption on mouse feed and the removal of a ban on the use of poison bromadiolone, which the state’s agriculture minister, Adam Marshall, said would be equivalent to “napping” the mice. .
In the small town of Tottenham, near the Fragers’ farm, residents say this mouse plague is the longest lived.
The ensuing Southern Hemisphere winter has slowed the mice down. Robert Brodin, who owns a store called Tottenham Rural Trading, said he used to catch 30 or 40 rats in his store every morning, but now only 15 or 20 are caught.
But he does not believe it will end soon. “They used to say that once they start eating each other, it will be over, but they have been eating each other since December, and it’s not stopping,” he said.
Steve Henry, whom the Australian government has labeled the country’s top mice plague expert, said it was easier to predict the onset of an outbreak than the conclusion of one.
The scene he painted for the final rebuttal was one of the vermin apocalypse. The tail end of a mouse plague, Mr. Henry said, comes when “there are too many rats in the system; they are all interacting with each other and the disease spreads rapidly. At the same time, they have a meal out” Happening, so they are turning on the sick and the weak, and they are attacking and eating their children. “
He warned that if the rats survived the winter in large numbers, their population would burst again in the spring and cause even more damage.
Until this all ends, the plague will continue to take a psychological toll in far-flung areas, where people are largely self-sufficient and often face setbacks with the mindset that you take it on the chin And get on with it.
Joe Randall, who lives about 75 miles south of Fragers, said he was brought to tears one morning as he contemplated the already laborious farm and the extra work being done by the rats on top of domestic life.
Randall considers himself lucky because they are able to drive the mice out of their fields and burn the land.
But they live in an old house, filled with small cracks and holes, so that rodents can avoid intruders. Even in the morning cold, one has to open the windows to remove the foul smell.
Traces of mice are all around: Ms. Randall’s phone case has been chewed to the edges, the family’s stereo system is destroyed, and there are small teeth marks in the handle of a pair of scissors on the counter.
He thought that the last straw would be if the rats ever got into his bed. But when it actually happened – when he got the drops in his fine sheets at 10:30 pm after a tiring day – he just took a breath, took off the sheets and made the bed again.
“You just have to resign from the fact that you’re not going to win the fight, you’re not going to get rid of them,” she said. “Then you just do as good as you can and just wait for it to end.”