When the mouse plague began in regional New South Wales and Queensland, residents spoke like generals in a war. It was all about strategy, setting the cleverest traps, fortifying houses to keep the enemy out and outsmarting the tiny creatures as they attacked wave after wave.
But, six months on, with rodent numbers surging again despite thousands of tonnes of poisons being deployed and devastating floods, conversations about mice have changed. They aren’t foes to be bested any more, they’re more like a giant dark cloud hovering over each town.
“It’s just constant. To me, I would describe it as having an injury where you’re just in constant pain. Eventually, it’s going to affect your mental health,” said John Southon, principal at the Trundle Central school in central west NSW.
“Nobody understands a mouse plague until you’ve lived through it. Nobody understands the absolutely pungent smell, the fact that your furniture is eaten, it’s just horrendous. The mice have eaten all the insulation in our air conditioning systems. They’ve eaten wires out of the roof of the school, they’ve eaten parts of the power board in the principal’s residence.”
Southon said the kids used to scream and giggle at the sight of a mouse but now “one runs through the classroom at least every hour”.
“It’s just normal … Yesterday we had Naplan testing, and a mouse ran across the room and not one child even blinked.”
On Thursday, the NSW government announced a $50m rescue package for the regions which included money for new rodenticide research, free poison for farmers and mice bait rebates of $1,000 for small businesses and $500 for households.
But for those like Louise McCabe, from Tallimba, a small town about 500km west of Sydney, the belated relief does not begin to compensate for the damage the mice have caused.
“We went away for four weeks and we had family checking in every day on the house because of the mice situation… There was a four-day period when no one could come over, and in those four days they just ran rampant,” she said.
When her family opened the door to the home there were thousands of mice inside.
“We had new carpet laid last year, they’ve chewed through the carpet, and through the wooden floor. The oven is no longer functioning anymore … they ate the insulation of our dishwasher.”
McCabe found nests of babies in their couch cushions, and the mice had crawled into every cupboard; eating through the laminate on the shelves, and destroying the chipboard with their urine.
“Our kitchen will need to be replaced. We had a butlers pantry as well, we’ve just demolished that,” she says.
All up, McCabe estimates the mice have caused $30,000 worth of damage, but because mice are deemed a controllable problem, her insurance company told her they won’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 lounge at Fantastic Furniture.”
Her family is not risking buying new furniture now, afraid the plague will stretch on for months and it would all be destroyed.
For McCabe, the breaking point came when she put her urine covered clothes in the washing machine and came back to find the waterlogged body of a mouse inside the glass.
“I’m just at the end of my tether trying to hold it together … but Scott, my partner, and I have other jobs and income, we can rebuild. There are people out there with a lot more riding on this.”
One of those people is Ben Storer, a farmer from near Walgett, nearly 300kms north of Dubbo in north-west NSW. The mice wiped out a full 800 hectares of his sorghum crop and have caused upwards of $200,000 in damage.
“We never even stuck a [havester machine] into those fields… we didn’t even touch it, the mice had just ripped through it,” he said.
“We’re used to taking losses, we’re farmers … but to come straight out of a drought into a mouse plague, that’s 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 takes a bit of a toll on you.”
At the height of the plague, the ground around Storer’s grain piles would rithe and ripple with the bodies of thousands of mice as he drove past.
“With poison, you would kill 100,000 a night around your house and the next night 200,000 would come back.”
Because baiting is the only large scale method of controlling mice populations the smell of death and urine is everywhere in the hardest-hit towns. Locals describing the acidic stench as “unbearable” and “inescapable”.
For Graham Jones, a farmer in the central NSW town of Tottenham the killing part is extra hard, saying despite all the damage the mice have caused, he still feels for the creatures.
“They are 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 don’t have a heart, but they love their animals. I’m sure everyone wants to be killing the mice in a human way.”
A video of mice apparently raining down from the sky as an auger on Jones’ farm was being cleared out went viral this week. The family has been inundated with calls from media across the world, making Jones a little uncomfortable.
“I’m surprised that the media took to it, because I thought it was a bit brutal … but we’re just accustomed to it, you know, dead mice are everywhere now.”
While the residents in rural NSW might have long given up on the idea of winning the mice war, the state government has only just decided to take up arms. Experts say the late intervention might be just enough to turn the tide to avoid a second year of the plague.
The human troops now have a stockpile of new weapons, with the government seeking urgent approval for the use of the super potent poison, bromadiolone, despite concerns that this could be devastating for native animals that feed on the dead mice. A double-strength version of conventional agricultural mice bait, zinc phosphide, is also now available, and mouse expert Steven Henery from the CSIRO says the approaching winter will deal the mice a deadly blow.
“I’m hopeful the winter will slow down mouse breeding and we’ll get a low level of overwinter survival,” he says.
“One of the real concerns is if you get a high level of overwinter survival and conditions are favourable the next spring, they start breeding from a high population base. So what we’ll be saying to farmers is around August, you need to be out walking in your crops, looking for the first signs of damage and if you see any damage or any sign of life, that is the time to start to control them, before they start breeding.”
This strategy should dampen the numbers, but in order for the war to truly be won, a truly gruesome series of natural events may be required.
“You get really high numbers of mice all interacting with each other, which facilitates the spread of disease and at the same point that coincides with them running out of food. And so, they then start to turn on sick and weak animals and eat each other, and they’re also preying on babies, so the whole, the whole system just falls over and collapses,” he says.
But until that day comes people in the regions will be left, day after day to empty the traps, set the bait and look up the weather forecast crossing their fingers for cold temperatures.
“I’m just praying for frost,” says McCabe. “That’s all you can do.”