Earlier this year, South Australia’s wheat growers in the Yorke Peninsula had one of the worst mouse plagues on record. Thousands of mice ate seeds that had been sown by farmers. The areas to the south and east of Australia are the worst places in the world for mouse plagues.
What’s wrong with mice?
Have you ever had a mouse in your house? Maybe you keep them as pets. They live in nests close to food, and can fit through a hole the size of a pencil by nibbling at the edges and squeezing their body through the small space.
Having lots of mice is a problem. They can spread diseases that cause food poisoning and they chew through furniture. On farms, they can cause big problems because they mainly eat seeds, such as wheat.
“They do massive damage throughout the farming year,” says Steve Henry from CSIRO. “If they are there when crops are sown in autumn, they eat the seeds out of the ground so there are no plants. If they are there at harvest time, they will actually climb up the stalks and eat the grain. They can also damage stored grain.”
A mouse plague is when more than 1000 mice are found in a hectare of land, that’s 10 000 square metres. If conditions are right, a few mice one year will multiply into a huge horde the next. Mice breed really fast, a mouse can have up to ten pups every three weeks!
Fighting mouse plagues
The best way to battle a plague is to stop it before it starts. For that, we need to notice when mice numbers first start rising.
Last month, a new website was launched to let farmers map mouse activity from their field with their mobile phone. MouseAlert combines the data from the local area and shares it with people across Australia, as well as researchers.
“The MouseAlert website provides us with data to better predict mouse plagues,” says Steve. “If we can predict plagues better, people can put mouse bait out before it gets bad.” Other ways to control mouse numbers are to store grain safely and keep the farm clean from spilled grain. As spring begins in Australia and mice start breeding, we need to keep an eye on their numbers. A few small mice might be the start of a big problem.
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