Will the mouse plague become the new drought?

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After three years of drought, NSW farmers didn’t expect their first bumper crop to feel so bittersweet.

Since last year’s successful harvest, the endless food supply has created perfect breeding conditions, and the mice plague has penetrated the lives of small communities in a way they could not have predicted.

While viral online videos have reduced the issue to the queasiness of the pitter-patter of feet across the floor, residents living through the plague are drowning in costs far greater than financials.

For many, the mice plague has brought with it an entire lifestyle change, with daily routines overtaken by the need to trap the intruders.

For Gulargambone farmer Darrel Jordison, the real impact was made clear when he was rushed to hospital in February.

“I could sense panic amongst the doctors,” Darrel said.

He was diagnosed with Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis (LCM), a rodent-borne viral meningitis carried by one in three mice. Darrel’s was the first recorded case in Australian history. Prior to this, the disease had lay dormant since an American case in the 1930s.

According to NSW Health, infection is the result of exposure to the virus being excreted in the faeces and urine of rodents.

To be considered a threatening form of meningitis, there is a bacteria cell count of 5-10 within the brain, as opposed to a healthy zero.

When Darrel was diagnosed after a week in hospital on seven different medications, his cell count was 200.

The disease manifests as fatigue, fever and nausea, and without treatment causes inflammation in the brain, to the point where the skull can expand no more.

Survivors of an infection of this intensity are susceptible to brain damage, blindness and strokes.

His survival up to that point had been a miracle.

“That’s when they really shit themselves,” he said.

The life-threatening disease was the cost of months of living amongst mice, from the paddock to the house, and for some, even in the car.

“We had dead mice in the strainer of the water tank we drink from,” Darrel said.

While videos of people emptying buckets of mice with their bare hands have become commonplace on the internet, to contract the LCM only takes a mere second of contact with trace of a mouse.

For Coonamble farmers James and Emma Nalder, who baited on a large scale, learning to live with the stench of hundreds and thousands of rotting bodies has become a gross fact of life.

“It was like a minefield. One step wrong and a mouse explodes up your legs,” James said.

If it’s not exploding bodies, it’s mice running across the bed in the middle of the night, sometimes even daring to take a nibble, or dogs dying from ingesting baits, a problem that has kept vets at the operating table all summer.

Despite the harrowing financial, physical and emotional toll of the drought, the Nalders have found the plague to be riddled with a familiar sense of hopelessness.

“At least I can’t catch a disease off of dust…I’ve found these mice to be soul-destroying,” says Emma, who has had to turn away visitors and keep her niece from playing outside.

“All it takes is one slip up and you’ll pay for it.”

The plague has brought with it a sense of isolation that resembles the lockdowns of COVID-19, with the stench of the mice lingering throughout communities.

“You go out to get away from home but can see them running around the pub, half-eaten packets in the supermarket, and the scent of death in the air conditioning vents of the bowling club,” James said.

Though recent rainfall has offered a reprieve, forcing the mice into refuge, there is no suggestion as to when the plague will end.

Despite myriad solutions such as baiting and trapping being tested, containing the issue has proven impossible.

To further fuel the flame, mice can produce offspring up to 10 times per year, creating a seemingly unbeatable opponent.

For both the Nalders and the Jordisons, their way of life is unrecognisable. Still, they are hopeful that their stories can be useful insight.

Since Darrel recovered from his near-death experience, he’s made it his mission to spread the word about the dangers of dealing with mice – something that has been significantly trivialised – and to stop the blasé approach to mouse trapping that has grown through complacency.

“You’re the best person to decide if something isn’t right,” Darrel says, after almost a month of disregarding his pain as fatigue from a big harvest.

Despite his case of LCM being the first in Australian history, the conditions to contract it are far too commonplace for him to remain the only one.

Already since sharing his story, Darrel has been on the receiving end of various phone-calls from people showing similar symptoms.

However, the Nalders are desperate for visitors to know that while it may take some time for things to get back to normal, visiting rural NSW should remain on everyone’s calendar.

“It’s still a wonderful part of the world to live, everybody should come and visit,” Emma said.