Most people have heard of locust plagues, cane toad plagues or rabbit plagues. Rural Australia is sometimes overwhelmed with another sort of plague, little known, and rarely experienced first-hand by city folk.
One Easter time a few years ago we arrived late in the evening at a sheep and wheat property in the Central West of NSW. We were tired after a six-hour drive from Sydney. As soon as we had consumed a welcoming nightcap with our hosts, we went to bed. We placed several chocolate Easter eggs on the shelf behind the bed, intending to distribute them to our cousins the next morning.
Almost as soon as we had turned off the bedside lamp we heard a rustling noise behind us and the sound of multiple egg wrappers being torn simultaneously. On turning on the light we caught sight of several disappearing tails and inspected the damaged, nibbled and now written-off chocolate eggs.
We didn’t get lot of sleep that night.
Our arrival had coincided with the advance guard of a great Australian mouse plague.
Over the next couple of days we came to experience the full dimensions of the plague.
Mouse plagues break out in some of the grain growing areas of Australia every few years, usually after a bumper harvest. At the age of two months, a female mouse can give birth typically to five to seven young and go on doing so every three weeks; so in ideal conditions (for mice) their population grows exponentially.
The next morning mice seemed to be everywhere. Open the door of a room and they would scatter in all directions. I recalled that the previous evening, during the last few kms driving towards the property in the rain, I had noticed in the headlights an unusual number of small frogs jumping around in the puddles. I now realized these “frogs” were mice.
During the daytime the family gathered in the large lounge room where our numbers discouraged all but a few mice from seeking our company. It was a different story in the adjacent kitchen. The teenage boys in the family had set a number of traps out there and raced out every time they heard a click. The unfortunate mice were taken outside and fed directly to the waiting farm dogs.
Eventually the dogs lost interest in eating more mice, generally after consuming thirty or forty.
Dog before and after consuming a banquet of mice. Illustration: Eleni Sen
As to our food, there were only two places safe from the mice – the oven and fridge, fortunately a very large country one.
A couple of older teenage girls in our group had decided to sit on the hearth (it was a warm day and the fire was unlit). Suddenly they leapt up with screams. The boys, no longer able to feed the mice to the dogs, had climbed on the roof with handfuls of mice and dropped them down the chimney. Of course, they had no idea the girls were sitting on the hearth!
Ilustration: Eleni Sen
During the evening I walked up to the machinery shed. This was a large steel building housing tractors, headers, trucks and other machinery. Usually the big concrete floor is pretty clean with just a few bits of grass and the odd pile of waste grain lying about. On turning on the light I was amazed to see that it was carpeted throughout in grey — and that the carpet was moving. There must have been thousands of mice jostling for position and a chance to nibble some wheat grains. Looking at the amazing moving mass, one could almost imagine looking at the surface of the ocean on a dull day.
Having spent my childhood in an old part of south London, I thought I was used to mice……………..but Aussie mice in their batallions were another story.
In fact these plague mice were British immigrants just like bunnies, foxes, cats and people. Native marsupial mice look similar but don’t go rogue.
The first mice would have arrived in 1788 with the First Fleet and then continued to stream in with every ship. Plagues break out somewhere in the grain growing areas on average every four years or so. With up to three thousand mice plaguing a single hectare, they do colossal damage to crops, chew electric cables, wreck farm vehicles, cars and buildings.
While such plagues usually occur in the country, Melbourne is known to have had a mouse plague a few years back.
Eventually mouse plagues seem to work themselves out. Country people claim that the mice quite suddenly disappear. Most plagues end in winter when the weather turns cold with food increasingly scarce. Apparently as food runs short the mice start trying to eat one another, often successfully. This leads to lots of bites and infections, which spread rapidly through the massive populations. I like to imagine that the more successful predator mice grow fatter and fatter on a yummy diet of their fellows, until they die of obesity. More likely the mice die of disease and starvation in their nests under the ground.
Sometimes farmers plough the soil, just to destroy the nests. At other times, normal tilling has the same effect. Now for sound environmental and economic reasons, some farmers are switching to ‘no-till cropping’ , retaining the stubble from a previous crop and planting seeds in the untilled soil. This captures carbon, improves the soil and helps prevent soil loss through wind erosion. Perversely this allows the mice to remain undisturbed in their burrows. Grain growing areas of NSW are once again suffering from a mouse plague brought on by mild weather and an increase in no-till cropping.
According to Wikipedia- so it must be right- Australia and China are the only two places where mouse plagues are known. Maybe by stressing our common mousy heritage we could go some way to repairing the current frosty relations between our two countries. Just so long as we avoid limp jokes about Mao’s plagues.
Sydney, February 2021