NRI’s Professor Steve Belmain recently featured in BBC One’s Panorama ‘Wild Weather’. The programme, which went out on BBC1 on Wednesday 3rd November, investigated a year of wild weather and showed how freak events are becoming increasingly commonplace.
Prof Belmain, who is one of the world’s leading scientists researching the ecology of rodents as pests in agriculture and as disease vectors, was interviewed as part of the investigation into the plagues of mice which have been making news in Australia. He explained how climate change could exacerbate such outbreaks there, and in other parts of the world.
The programme told the story of Australian crop farmers in New South Wales, who after experiencing the worst drought for 50 years, welcomed the rains when they finally came. However, the unusual combination of drought and floods, unbalanced the delicate ecosystem, bringing a plague of rodents who began feasting on the stored corn and maize.
Professor Belmain explained that mice are very good at responding to changes in weather in ways that other species are not, and as a single pair of mice can produce more than 500 offspring in a season, mice are basically “baby-factories”.
Panorama estimates that at its peak, the mice plague in Australia ran into the billions. When mice numbers increase that fast, their behaviour changes and they go into “swarm mode”. Professor Belmain explains: “they become aggressive with each other and towards other animals, and people observe that they don’t run off when we’re there, they can even run up your trousers! They’re not necessarily trying to attack you, but they’ve lost their fear.”
In this particular case, the NSW farmers ended up burning their entire harvest in order to rid themselves of the mice. They lost $45,000AUSD as a result, as their insurance wouldn’t cover them.
Professor Belmain says: “Rodent plagues occur in many parts of the world beyond Australia with similar devastating effects on people’s livelihoods. Climate change will very likely make such population outbreaks more common and unpredictable.”
This Panorama episode also featured the recent floods in Germany, the record-breaking high temperatures in Canada and the dust storms over China.
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