As 2023 approached, the hopes of sugarcane farmers in Ingham, North Queensland, soared, with experts predicting the year to be among the best on record for the valuable crop. Just as the crops reached their peak, however, optimism turned to despair as a plague of rats descended upon farms across the region, destroying countless tons of the precious sugarcane.
North Queensland is no stranger to rodents, but the current rat plague is unlike anything farmers have ever seen. In one year, a single rat can produce 460 offspring, and the once-glorious crops are nourishing the rodents, causing an even greater explosion in populations.
“It’s the worst rat year that I’ve seen in my working career in the industry,” lamented Lawrence Di Bella, manager of Herbert Cane Productivity Services. “You can see the paddock is alive. You can see little animals popping up and down everywhere in the fields.”
“We’re seeing significant damage,” Di Bella explained to ABC News. “Initially, it’ll be a little bit of munching or biting, and then we’re seeing within two weeks crops basically going from standing to nothing. Crops — they are disappearing in front of our eyes.”
Rats don’t have to devour the entire sugarcane plant to kill the crop, says cane grower Greg Erkilla. A few bites from rodents are enough to cause the plants to wither, as the damage causes the cane to rot from the inside. “The cane will start to go off,” Erkilla explained. “It will eventually go sour and it lowers the sugar content of the cane.”
What’s Making the 2023 Rat Plague So Severe?
According to farmers, the horrifying rat plague is the result of unusually dry weather. The wet season usually helps to rid farms and towns of the furry pests, making the dry weather “an ideal season [for rats],” Di Bella said.
“We haven’t had a wet season,” the farmer continued. “So they haven’t drowned in their burrows, and haven’t frozen out and in the cold rains.”
Additionally, the cane crop has been wetter and larger than in years past. The extra heaviness causes “lodging,” where the crop bends and eventually topples completely. The fallen crop then creates the ideal environment for rats, as they can hide and burrow underneath the plant.
Exacerbating the rat plague further, the lodged crop allows weeds to flourish, providing the rodents with even more food. “That’s the protein source for them to start coming into season and having young,” Di Bella said.
Unfortunately, it isn’t as easy as trapping or poisoning the rodents to end the rat plague. Because the attacking rats are native species, farmers must apply for a baiting permit before fighting back.
With this permit obtained, they can then set to work destroying the invaders. Ground-based poison is currently being applied throughout the region. “[The poison] lands onto the ground and the rats will come out and eat a little then that’s the end of them,” Erkilla said.