A Queensland farmer received approval to fly drones in New South Wales. dropping poisoned bait to deal with a worsening mouse infestation.
The end of the long drought has been good for the farmers, but brought with it mice that feed on the grain spilled and left during the harvest.
Steve Henry, a CSIRO research officer who specializes in the impact of mice on the grain industry, said the mice were thriving.
“I would describe it as a pest in parts of northern New South Wales and southern Queensland because farmers are losing their summer crops to mice,” he said.
“They start breeding earlier and because there is a lot of food and shelter in the system, they continue to breed from early spring to fall.”
Alan Brown, a Wagga Wagga farmer and a member of the NSW Farmers Association, said the problem was severe, particularly in the irrigated areas and summer crops. The mice were rendering some cultures “completely unusable,” he said.
Brown said it would be disastrous if the mice started eating seeds before they germinate, as farmers look to establish winter crops in the coming months.
“Farmers are forced to take steps to prevent mice from actually causing significant damage to crops,” he said.
Mouse infestations over the years have had devastating effects on crops, livestock, and agricultural equipment. Australia’s worst pest in 1993 caused $ 96 million worth of damage to farm animals, equipment and thousands of hectares of crops. Another pest in 2010-11 affected 3 million hectares of crops in New South Wales, 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 Environmental Protection Authority to operate in that state.
“I would call it a continuous low-level mouse infestation, and that’s what makes it really hardy,” Woods said. “Normally, when you have an infestation of mice, they reproduce a lot, and in tight spaces, the disease tends to transfer.”
He said he believed drones could help farmers combat the mouse problem because they could hover over a crop without having to drive through it.
“If you have to go over it to spread mouse bait, you lose $ 35 of grain per hectare if the wheels go over it,” he said. “Drones only cost $ 10 per hectare.”
Woods flew Black Hawk helicopters in the military for 20 years, arguing that the drones were “very accurate” and could be used at night, when mice were most active and birds were resting and were less likely to be accidentally poisoned.
Henry said the drones would not solve the problem on their own, but were “another tool that farmers will have at their disposal.”
“What we do want to see is that farmers get the best possible tools they have to deal with this, and if farmers can use drones and this helps get the job done, that’s fantastic,” he said.
Henry said drones could play a similar role to airplanes, which were often used to spread bait.
He said the rapid gestation rate of the mice was a major part of the problem. They were able to reproduce from six weeks of age and have litters every 19-21 days without needing a break between litters, he said.
Brown said he had seen far worse pests than the current outbreak, especially in 2012, but this time it had been more persistent – the number of mice had not crashed after reaching a certain level, as it had previously.
In drones, he believed they could be part of the solution, but stressed the importance of acting early and “dealing with the mouse population before seeding.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism