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It’s literally raining mice in Australia.
They’re in the cupboards, the beds, the water. They’re devouring harvests on farms across New South Wales and southern Queensland, and they’re blanketing the ground in the millions.
The end of Australia’s three-year-long drought and accompanying wildfires might have been a celebratory milestone, but it also set up the perfect conditions for a crazy plague of mice—the worst in a decade.
“People are literally tying strings around their trousers if they're walking through mice because they don't want them running up their trouser legs,” CSIRO mouse expert Steve Henry told VICE News.
Over the past nine months, millions of mice have been nibbling and gnawing their way through anything in their path. Even cats are sick of them. With no end in sight, there’s fear the mice will continue to multiply through the winter and ruin any shot at the next harvest.
Farmers have reported total losses of grain and hay, as well as destroyed machinery. And anything not eaten is contaminated with mice droppings and urine. Some farmers have resorted to burning entire silos of grain to escape the infestation. Others have tried to creatively trap the mice—in some past cases, blowtorching them—or baiting them with a government-sanctioned poison called zinc phosphide. The population-control efforts have taken an economic toll, with some farmers spending upwards of $100,000 on bait.
Henry, who is leading the charge in mouse control efforts and helping farmers cope, says the zinc phosphide is the only humane and effective option.
“It is a nasty chemical and it's banned for use in other countries, but the chances of secondary poisoning are quite low,” he said.
After months of petitioning government agencies to step in, the New South Wales government announced a $50 million support package in May to help rural residents fight off the plague, which includes rebates for the bait costs.
But the terror doesn’t end with crop contamination: Mice carry a number of diseases that can be contracted by humans. In Queensland, there’s been at least 78 reports of leptospirosis, a bacterial infection that, without treatment, can cause kidney failure, meningitis, and respiratory complications.
Mouse plagues are nothing new in Australia. Records of population booms go back 150 years, some time after the house mouse most likely first hitched a ride on British ships in the 18th and 19th centuries — you know, just one colonizer giving a fellow a lift.
While there’s been historically bad mouse plagues, such as the 1993 event that caused more than $90 million in damage, the current plague is reportedly the worst in a decade.
And these plagues don’t end with baiting. There’s usually a sudden population crash. This happens when the mice reach such high numbers that disease quickly spreads through the population. And as the mice eat their way through the food supply to the point of starvation, they resort to eating the sick and the weak.
And then one day they’re suddenly just not there.
“They tend to just basically disappear, and farmers just don't know where they've gone,” Henry said.