Are poison-packed drones the answer to eastern Australia’s mouse plague?
A Queensland farmer has been given approval to fly drones in New South Wales that drop poisoned bait to deal with a worsening mice plague.
The end of the long-running drought has been good for farmers, but brought with it mice that feed on grain spilled and left behind during harvesting.
Steve Henry, a CSIRO research officer specialising in the impact of mice on the grain industry, said the mice were thriving.
“You would describe it as a plague in parts of northern NSW and southern Queensland because farmers are losing their summer crops to mice,” he said.
“They start breeding earlier and because there’s lots of food and shelter in the system, they continue to breed from early spring right through into the autumn.”
Alan Brown, a farmer in Wagga Wagga and member of the NSW Farmers Association, said the problem was severe, particularly in irrigation and summer crop areas. Mice were making some crops “completely unusable”, he said.
Brown said it would become disastrous if mice began eating seeds before they germinated as farmers look to establish winter crops in the coming months.
“Farmers are being forced to take action to prevent the mice really doing significant damage to crops,” he said.
Mouse plagues have over the years had devastating impacts on crops, livestock and farming equipment. Australia’s worst plague in 1993 caused an estimated $96m worth of damage to farm animals, equipment and thousands of hectares of crops. Another plague in 2010-11 affected 3m hectares of crops across NSW, Victoria and South Australia.
Roger Woods, a Queensland farmer and founder of Drone Commander Australia, which offers drones for agricultural purposes, has just received approval from the NSW Environment Protection Authority to operate in that state.
“I would call it an ongoing low-level mouse plague, and that’s what’s making it really resilient,” Woods said. “Normally when you have a mouse plague they breed so much, and in confined spaces, disease tends to transfer.”
He said he believed drones could help farmers combat the mouse problem because they could get over the top of a crop without having to drive through it.
“If you need to drive over it to spread mouse bait, you lose $35 of grain per hectare with wheels running over it,” he said. “Drones only cost $10 per hectare.”
Woods flew Black Hawk helicopters in the army for 20 years, argued drones were “very accurate” and could be used at night, when mice were most active and birds were roosting and less likely to be accidentally poisoned.
Henry said drones would not solve the problem on their own but were “another tool that farmers are going to have available to them”.
“What we do want to see is farmers given the best possible tools they have to deal with this, and if farmers can use drones and it helps get the job done that’s terrific,” he said.
Henry said drones could perform a similar role to planes, which were often used to spread bait.
He said the rapid pace of mouse gestation was a significant part of the problem. They were able to breed from as young as six weeks of age and have litters every 19-21 days without needing a break between litters, he said.
Brown said he had seen much worse plagues than the current outbreak, notably in 2012, but it had been more persistent this time – mice numbers had not crashed after reaching a certain level, as they had previously.
On drones, he believed they may be part of the solution but emphasised the importance of acting early and “dealing with the mouse population before you sow”.