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After Years Of Drought, Australia Faces A New Natural Disaster: Multiplying Mice

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Australia is facing its worst ever plague of mice. That's right, mice. It started on farms. A long drought had finally ended, rain finally came, and farmers were relieved to find their fields ripe with crops. That is the good news. The bad news? All that food also meant more food for mice. They feasted. They multiplied. They have eaten through the food on farms in places like the state of New South Wales. So now, they are hopping on trucks and cars and hitching rides into cities such as Sydney. Well, Sybilla Gross covers agriculture at Bloomberg News in Sydney. She's on the line from there now.

Hi there, Sybilla.

SYBILLA GROSS: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Sounds like you are braced for an influx here. How bad is it? Are the mice just - are they everywhere in Australia?

GROSS: The situation out in regional, rural Australia is looking pretty dire at the moment. There's been no improvement for the last few months or so.

KELLY: In areas with the worst outbreaks, what can you tell us?

GROSS: Well, I mean, the images of raining mice and carpets of mice and barn floors literally pulsating with these moving rodents is pretty gruesome. It's...

KELLY: Ugh. Yes.

GROSS: The dead mice have become a part of the daily routine for people in these communities, sort of you wake up first thing in the morning, and you're throwing out buckets of dead, smelling mice. And I think that's probably one of the biggest complaints out in these communities. The putrid smell - like, the smell of death and mice urine everywhere.

These mice are making their way into people's homes, into people's beds, and biting them while they're sleeping. People are having to sleep in their cars. People are throwing out furniture. They're scouring through schools and hospitals even. It's really unrelenting for them. It's hard to sort of underestimate...

KELLY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...How bad this all is for them.

KELLY: Well, I mean, it's horrifying. I don't even know what word to put to it. But let's start with that, with horrifying.

GROSS: Yeah.

KELLY: From an economic point of view, how much damage is this causing in terms of lost crops, for starters?

GROSS: Yeah. I mean, every day I look at the numbers, they seem to be going up. At the moment, we seem to be in the billions according to some of the farming industry groups. It's kind of damaging to our image. Australia's quite well-known for exporting such clean, high-quality produce. And of course, there is zero toleration for mouse poo in food that will ultimately be consumed by humans. And that's not going off to export. It's just being rejected at the ports.

KELLY: Yeah.

GROSS: But it means that farmers are having to throw out buckets of grain.

KELLY: Where are all the cats in Australia? I mean, where are the natural predators that would usually keep this population in check?

GROSS: The native predators don't really play a huge role, typically. We don't have, you know, equal-sized populations of cats to take care of the mice.

KELLY: Well, so what are the efforts underway to fight the mice? I was reading about fires. I was reading about poison. What's the strategy here?

GROSS: The New South Wales state government has approved - sought approval for a highly toxic chemical. But that's not been approved yet. And there are a lot of question marks hanging over whether it is safe to use. And the other thing is there's mixed reviews from farmers themselves as to whether they want to go ahead and use this poison. Because export markets, again, don't really like the idea of having such a poisonous chemical on food that humans will eat.

KELLY: That is Sybilla Gross. She covers agriculture at Bloomberg News in Sydney, talking about the plague of mice.

Sybilla Gross, thank you.

GROSS: Not a problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.