Farmers fear the horrifying mice plague could swell again across parts of NSW and Queensland this spring.
Cold weather and baiting has seen many rodent-ravaged-regions gain respite from marauding vermin which infested homes, devoured crops and chomped through grain stores for eight months.
Media reports which predicted hoards of mice in Australia’s capital cities never eventuated, but that doesn’t mean they've gone away warns NSW Farmers Vice President Xavier Martin.
While lower ground-level mouse numbers have given some farmers confidence to return to planting, Mr Martin said experience indicates many mice have likely “dug deeper underground” to stay warm.
“If they explode like some are saying they will now, holy moly it’s going to be on for young and old and we’ll be talking some pretty serious numbers,” Mr Martin said.
“They’re still all here and if they... start having 10 pups every 20 days, they’ll just wipe out crops come spring-time if we’re not prepared.”
Agriculture Minister speaks out after mouse 'napalming' plan rejected
Agriculture Minister Adam Marshall said that should there be a surge in mouse numbers, farmers will have the “tools needed” to combat them, including rebates of up to $10,000.
Adjusting the government’s response to the plague comes after many farmers said they faced weeks of uncertainty after Mr Marshall championed an unorthodox approach to killing the mice in May.
Rather than supplying immediate rebates to farmers who were shelling out thousands to bait their paddocks with zinc phosphide, Minister Marshall applied for an emergency exemption to use the highly toxic bromadiolone from the federal agricultural poisons regulator, the APVMA.
Minister Marshall told the ABC at the time he planned on “napalming” the mice.
Scientists, environmentalists and a number of agriculturalists, including NSW Farmers, warned that if approved, using bromadiolone in paddocks would lead to secondary poisoning, particularly in predatory birds like owls, hawks and eagles which eat mice.
There was even concern the poison could impact Indigenous communities who rely on a bush tucker diet, and cause local extinctions of wildlife. The NSW Department of Agriculture (DPI) and Minister Marshall are yet to respond Yahoo News Australia about these concerns.
Despite the emergency exemption being rejected by the APVMA on June 23 due to concerns about “environmental safety”, Minister Marshall says he stands by his decision to advocate for the bait.
“I won’t shy away from advocating for farmers to have all the tools they need and ask for to manage this mice plague, including the use of bromadiolone,” he told Yahoo News Australia in a statement.
“There is no single solution which is why the NSW Government has provided primary producers with a multi-pronged approach to knockdown numbers.”
He says he “respects” the APVMA’s decision and “always knew” the federal authority would be “diligent” in its consideration of the application.
Government refuses to reveal amount spent on blocked poison
Before the APVMA reached its decision, the government sourced at least 5000 litres of bromadiolone, 2000 litres of which came from a local company, Animal Control Technologies Australia (ACTA), which has housed significant stores since its broad-acre use was restricted a decade ago.
DPI refused to disclose how much of its $150 million response package to the mouse plague was spent on bromadiolone, but it is believed they now plan to repurpose it around buildings where an exemption is not required.
The plague escalated during what NSW Farmers describes as “peak hour” for planting, and landholders were struggling to get enough rodenticide due to intense demand coupled with Covid-19 related shipping delays out of India - the nation where significant quantities of the bait are manufactured.
The government and rodenticide manufacturers were under pressure from the farmers and media to do more to help.
ACTA say they were manufacturing as much zinc phosphide bait “as could humanly be done” and self-funded 10 air freight consignments of the chemical to the regions.
The company’s owner Linton Staples, who has worked in pest management for 24 years, believes the government “went wrong” with bromadiolone when it decided to advocate for its broad-acre use, because that could have been “potentially environmentally dangerous”.
“Had they gone ahead on a massive scale with thousands of litres of chemical, then that amount of bait would have probably caused environmental problems to my judgement, if it hadn't been controlled wisely,” Mr Staples told Yahoo News Australia.
“But I know the people who are involved at the government level, and they're pretty solid citizens, and they were going to be very cognisant of those risks and how we were going to monitor for them.”
“You can always pull back if things start to go wrong, and you start to seeing birds dying or other animals being affected.”
While he believes controlled use in paddocks could have worked, words like "napalming" were "inappropriate" when discussing how to use the poison scientifically.
“It caused the welfare people to start to become involved in things and in some ways rightly so,” he said.
"It was just a poorly chosen description of a chemical control method unfortunately.”
Farm gate losses could be less than $1 billion
Whether mice will return in numbers seen last month remains the “big question”, but there is still “quite a high risk potential” according to Mr Staples.
Mr Martin said he is hopeful the government now understands its broad-acre bromadiolone plan was “dysfunctional and impractical”, and that their revised strategy to offer rebates for zinc phosphide will better serve farmers.
With confidence returning to the agriculture sector and planting of some crops underway, the farm gate loss could fall short of NSW Farmers’ $1 billion prediction.
“That’s the optimist in me,” he said.
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