Last Tuesday, a schoolgirl in Trundle, NSW, was busy filling out her NAPLAN test when a mouse ran across her desk.
The eight-year-old didn’t even bat an eye.
“I asked her, what did you do?” recalled her principal John Southon at Trundle Central School.
“I just went on to the next question,” the girl replied.
She and her schoolmates have become so used to the mouse infestation tormenting their town they barely react anymore, Mr Southon said.
Trundle, just like many other towns in Australia’s east, is several months into a plague of mice that has had disastrous consequences for farmers and rural residents alike.
There have been reports of high numbers of mice in a growing area that stretches from southern Queensland, through central NSW to northern Victoria, as well as an outbreak in South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula.
The same summer rains that ended the drought and made the fields bloom again have introduced ample food for the rodents that keep multiplying at a dizzying pace.
The pests can become pregnant when they’re just six weeks old, and will have a litter of up to 10 newborns every 20 days.
That means the population can rapidly get out of control, as many regional residents have experienced in recent months.
Some farmers lost their entire summer crops to the rodents and others have spent as much as $150,000 on bait to kill the mice.
And it’s not just a financial strain for rural residents – it’s taxing in other ways as well.
“It’s one thing to have them destroy your crop,” Inverell farmer Martin Murray said.
“But it’s another to just deal with the smell.”
Speak to seemingly anyone impacted by the mouse plague and they’ll tell you the smell is among the worst parts of it.
“The smell is just atrocious,” said Lisa Minogue, 48, who lives on a rural property near Barmedman, NSW.
“Mice have two smells: when they’re still alive, it’s a strange, dirty smell. But then you have the smell when they’re dead and decaying which is even worse.”
Ms Minogue said dealing with the mice in her house had been draining and revolting.
She’s had to throw out many ruined household items, including a set of cut lace pillow cases that was a wedding present from her late aunt and uncle.
“It makes you a bit sentimental,” she said.
“If you weren’t a tough person it would break you.”
In a recent three-day stretch, Ms Minogue did 38 loads of washing to get the mouse droppings out of her linen after the pests got into her cupboards.
She’s resorted to putting anything the mice can chew – fabrics, clothes and food – into plastic tubs.
In Trundle, shopkeepers have had to do the same, storing bread and pastries in tubs to keep the mice out, said Mr Southon, the local principal.
One shop in town had even placed oiled-up aluminium foil on the shelf legs so the mice would slip when they tried to reach the food.
At Trundle Central School, dealing with the mouse problem has become a central task for groundskeeper John Grady.
In a video posted to the school’s Facebook page, Mr Grady is seen lifting a lid from the ground under a school shed, at which point a thick mass of mice scurries in all directions.
“The mice are everywhere, they fall from the ceiling, the children can see them walk around outside on the veranda,” Mr Southon said.
“They have clear lights in the classroom and you can see the mice running around inside the lights.”
CSIRO mouse expert Steve Henry said the mice appeared to have spread in patches across much southeastern country Australia.
“I was driving around NSW last week, and you see all these little dots all over the road, which are squashed mice,” he said.
“You go through these patches of lots and lots of squashed mice on the road, then there’ll be areas where there are none.
He said this year’s mouse plague was “a bad one”.
“About every 10 years, you’ll get a bad one. This has just been an exceptional year, with the right climatic conditions, lots of food, lots of shelter and lots of moisture.
“All of those add up to lots of mice.”
Mr Henry has researched mice on behalf of the government science agency for 12 years and has been tasked with delivering a series of workshops to educate farmers on how to mitigate the rodent numbers.
The workshops are part of the NSW government’s response to the plague, along with a $50 million financial aid package announced earlier this week, which will give rebates to households and free grain treatment for farmers.
Since shortly before Easter, Mr Henry has logged nearly 4000 kilometres on the road and expects to traverse 6000 kilometres more over the next two weeks.
He’s heard many horror stories from farmers, including from a sweet corn farmer south of Dubbo, who calculated that the mice had cost his business $300,000 in eight months.
Another farmer, west of Coonamble, had discovered a 300 bale haystack was so ruined by the rodents that he gave up on it and burnt it.
“That’s a $120,000 loss based on today’s value,” Mr Henry said.
“Another farmer was telling us the other day that his wife and kids went to town for the weekend, to get away from the mice. They were sick of living with the mice.
“So he set about removing as many mice as he possibly could and set traps.
“Between 6pm and 2am he had removed over 400 mice.”
He said the crisscross drives across the rural east were physically demanding, but that fatigue wasn’t the worst part of it.
“It’s mentally draining, because there’s not much you can do for some of these guys,” he said.