1932 MOUSE PLAGUE
ONE NIGHT in July 1932, I was staying in a workman's hut
on a friend's plant nursery at Burramine, near Yarrawonga, along the river
Murray. The friend was Gordon Bruce, and I worked for him for five months on
the basis of one week on and one week off. The hut had an iron roof 10 feet
high measuring about 12 feet x 10 feet, and a stove against one wall for
cooking. There was a mouse plague in the district and people had to take what
measures they could.
Inside the hut Gordon had strung a wire across the room on which hung two bags
of wheat, intended for planting. Soon after retiring for the night, I was
confounded by a commotion of little squeaks. 'Squeak, squeak, squeak,' it went.
I fumbled for the light, and switched it on. Little brown rodents were
everywhere. They had climbed along the wire and chewed a hole in one of the
bags. The mice were scurrying in and out of the bag; about 100 of them
squeaking and fighting and battling to get a share of the wheat.
I took a piece of board and, as they emerged from the bag, I smacked them down.
Twenty or so bit the dust. They were champion climbers. When I examined them I
found cancer lesions on their ears, around the nose, on the tail and feet.
Secondary growths were on all parts of the body - not a pretty sight.
I had seen Gordon in May planting the same kind of wheat, a variety called
Olympic. He had used 40 bags stacked in the centre of a big open shed which had
a mouse fence built around it. The mice had got in there too and had a picnic.
Gordonís method was to sow with plenty of superphosphate. In May he had
ploughed up the ground with great facility - using a six-furrows plough drawn
by eight horses - and had a drill ready. I saw him put in 60 pounds of seed
wheat per acre and 84 pounds of super. He would fill two bins of the drill: one
with wheat and the other with super; the two would go into the ground together.
This would have given quite a boost of phosphorus to Gordon's soil. Not only
was he exceeding the generally accepted load of half a hundredweight (55lbs or
25kg) an acre, but he was using the more soluble manufactured superphosphate in
preference to the slow-release traditional rock phosphate fertiliser. So these
mice had been living on this wheat grown with phosphorus in superabundance.
The seed hanging up in the hut in July was the only wheat left. Gordon's
efforts of the previous year with favorable weather had produced a bumper
harvest. Grass seeds also were abundant, and in these conditions the mice had
bred up. So here they were, after several months of drought and with the cold
weather coming on, starving and looking for shelter. Gordon Bruce looked at the
mice and was astonished to see they were diseased.