Plagued by mice and climate change deniers


How do they run so fast on such short legs? Actually, 'run' is not the word. It's not a matter of all four legs pumping in rhythm. Mice, when the mood or the necessity rules, go from A to B with a sort of flicker so that you're not sure if you actually saw anything at all.

Such was the movement I caught out of the corner of my eye on the back verandah as I bent to collect some kindling for the early morning fire. Soon, a second sighting moved me to deploy a hefty chunk of bait.

Checking this strategy a couple of hours later and expecting to see evidence of nibbling, I was astonished to find that the entire lump had been removed without trace. Either this mouse was, as the footy coaches say, a big unit or, more likely, some kind of rodent cooperation had managed the removal. The same teamwork, I hoped, was being employed in devouring the deadly prize.

My rather obsessive interest in the affairs of mus musculus — the common house mouse — is prompted not only by its rustlings, dartings and nibblings around the house but also and more spectacularly by the worst mouse plague in 20 years in South Australia's west.

I remember some time in the late 1980s heading to Streaky Bay on a fishing trip along roads slippery with crushed mice.

The mudflaps on the old Nissan Patrol were caked thick with skin, innards and blood and our traditional camping sites around Sceale Bay were 'alive' with thousands of mice: they trapezed in the branches of trees, cartwheeled and scrambled on the ground, congregated on and under rocks. They would run across your boots and hold conventions in any container, such as a tackle box, carelessly left open and accessible. And food, of course, needed Armaguard-like protection.

If our flailing arms, sudden movements and profanity ever scared them, they showed no sign of it. Shooting them with an air rifle was fair ground fun for a while, but the game palled when the targets leapt up on the barrel of the rifle and did their Band-of-Brothers imitation in and around the box of pellets till it tipped over. We retreated in disorder to the mouse-free zone of the Streaky Bay pub.

The present plague massing in the west is worse than that. Mice in their millions cover the paddocks and ravage any attempt to begin seeding. Sheds and hay barns are crawling with them and the farmers remove ute-loads of carcasses daily but without any noticeable diminution of numbers. Stocks of zinc phosphide — the central ingredient of mouse baits — are under enormous pressure and for many farmers the cost is crippling.

In the biblical narrative, plagues and aberrant natural events — floods, drought, mice, rats, locusts, blights — occur as punishments. There is still the odd zealot who insists on seeing the hand of a vengeful God in the various natural catastrophes that seem to have become so common recently.

And when you consider that the present mice infestation has followed quickly upon wave after wave of locusts — many cars, including mine, still bear traces of their journey through a thick, battering fog of wings and bodies pulping on the windscreen — then you can be forgiven for feeling positively biblical.

That's because an occult explanation covers our actual inability to understand these phenomena. It's clear why mice plagues begin after a good season, but no one quite knows why they end so suddenly. It's called a 'crash' and the population pretty well disappears within days.

Likewise, the precise trigger that sets squadrons of locusts on the move is not fully understood. In less enlightened times this gap in our knowledge and understanding allowed outlandish explanations to enter the discussion like a virus and alter its direction and credibility.

In the 14th century, people did not make the connection between bubonic plague and the fleas on rats. As a result, the deadly and phenomenal spread of the disease was attributed to a wild array of divine, demonic and diabolical causes.

In our more civilised and rational age, we can accept plagues of mice and locusts as part of a natural world which we still don't fully understand but cannot deny. It's hard to deny the existence of an intervention which, before your very eyes, destroys your crops, buildings, and electric wiring and coats your car with smashed insect corpses.

Why the moods and variations of another potent part of the natural world — climate — should be different is difficult to fathom. But different it is: it seems many Australians, some of them in 'high places', need climate change to demonstrate its presence with the murderous, repeated efficiency of the mice and the locusts. That would certainly be proof positive. Vindication among the ruins.

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple Down the Road. He was awarded the 2010 National Biography Award for Manning Clark — A Life

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, mouse plague, locusts, climate change, bubonic plague



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Where are Australia's feral cats when they are needed? Rise, O Masterful Moggies, and Swipe Thy Mighty Paws...
Barry G | 10 June 2011

Only those in the bush can retain a sense of humour such as Brian has displayed .It prods the memory of such a plague in 70's in western NSW .We had all sorts of devices to trap mice ,including one which tipped them to a watery end in 4 gallon drums with an audible splash .It was also the days of family rosaries & our great friend ,Ebernezer Hayden ,dryly remarked that they averaged 6 mice / decade of the Rosary the previous evening .

I am sure the likes of Brian already knows the dying words of the grasshopper who hit the windscreen "If I had the guts I would do it again "
John Kersh | 10 June 2011

Thank you for such a great article. Wonder if an invention seen on "Inventors" last week would work? It was a contraption for getting rid of grasshoppers/locusts etc by sucking them up at the front of the machine, chomping them up then expelling them through the back to 'manure' the soil! Brilliant I thought. Wonder if something similar would work for pesky plagues of mice. Too messy perhaps?
Mary Maraz | 10 June 2011

Ahh yes, I remember those wonderful days before we began pumping CO2 into the air. Then there was never any floods or droughts. No one ever died because of any 'murderous' weather events. We had those wonderful days of the Goldilocks type weather. It was never too hot, never to cold, but just right. Never too wet, never too dry, just right.

The climate always changes, Brian. The deniers are people who think that CO2 is like the thermostat in your loungeroom. Adjust it and you will make a difference. Nonsense.

The climate is far more complex than that. I am always amazed how people are willing to believe that by making miniscule changes to but one factor in a vastly complex system is the answer.
John Ryan | 10 June 2011

The use of that once neutral word 'intervention' really stopped me in my tracks! Of course there were no mouse (mus musculus, what a wonderful name) plagues in Australia until recent times as this type of mouse wasn't here. Just another wonderful import! Like cane toads and rats.

I wonder if the native animals ever reached plague levels like this?
Penelope Cottier | 11 June 2011

The Earth's atmosphere is made up of a plethoric multiplicity of interacting variables - one of which is CO2
Certain factors have arisen since the Industrial Revolution, eg petrol-fuelled machinery, rapid population growth, which increased the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

An increase in CO2, for various chemical and meteorological reasons, which space precludes me from enumerating, causes an increase in the Earth's atmospheric temperature. This rise in temperature unless abated can cause serious changes to the behaviour of water on the Earth's surface.

It is possible that there may be other ways of reducing the possibility of the Earth's atmospheric temperature rising. I just don't know. But surely if reputable scientists can show that there is a direct correlation between an increase in CO2 and a rise in the Earth's atmospheric temperatue and we want to avoid the adverse consequences of this rise in temperature it would be sensible and prudent to try to cut back, where we can, on the amount of CO2 being injected into the atmosphere as a result of the way we live our daily lives? Why can't climate deniers see this? Are they like the three blind mice gleefully running of to decapitation?
Uncle Dan | 11 June 2011

Uncle Dan, there are reputable scientists that contest the AGW view. If you can stomach reading from Quadrant, four scientists have written a two part audit of The Critical Decade. Despite what some would have you believe, the debate is simply not over. Feel free to argue the toss with these men but they are not right wing fascist shock-jocks or cranks.
John Ryan | 12 June 2011

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