Worst Plague in 30 Years: Field Mice Overrun Farms in Central Germany

Millions of field mice are overrunning the central German states of Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt, much to the concern of local farmers. The rodents are devastating food crops, cutting yields by up to 50 percent. Getting birds of prey to hunt the critters didn't help, and now farmers want to be allowed to use a banned rat poison.

They may look small, but the plague of field mice is having a devastating effect in central Germany. Zoom
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They may look small, but the plague of field mice is having a devastating effect in central Germany.

Under normal circumstances, you might think the 12-centimeter (5-inch) long field mouse looks innocent, or even cute. But farmers in the central German states of Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt wouldn't agree at the moment. The furry rodents are currently wreaking havoc in the states, which are suffering the worst field mouse plague in over 30 years.

Farmers in Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt are complaining that millions of field mice are devastating their food crops, including corn, barley and winter wheat. "They are eating everything," said Matthias Krieg, who manages an agricultural firm near the town of Zeitz in Saxony-Anhalt. "Not even the sugar beets are safe." Farmers estimate that they may have to write off an average of 10 percent of their crops as a result of mouse damage, and up to 50 percent in extreme cases.

Farmers already noticed an increase in the field mouse population in 2011 and began to take counter measures. According to Reinhard Kopp, a spokesman for the Thuringian Farmers' Association, agriculturalists set up hundreds of perches in their fields to lure birds of prey to kill the mice. But the operation was only moderately successful. "The birds got so fat from eating all the mice that they almost couldn't fly any more," Kopp said. "But they still couldn't keep up."

Farmers in Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt say that other measures used to control pests -- such as placing poisoned bait at the entrances to their underground nests -- will not be sufficient either: The crops are now too tall to allow farmers to locate the nests.

Time for Tough Measures

Instead, agriculturalists want drastic action. They have requested permission to deploy a rat poison called Ratron. Farmers in Germany have been banned from using the poison on large areas since 2008. Ironically, it was the indiscriminate use of Ratron by farmers in Saxony-Anhalt that led the agency to ban it in the first place, after the poison killed wild geese and endangered European hamsters.

Whether or not their request will be granted remains to be seen. "The farmers have done everything that they can within the law," said Kopp. "Now we need more effective measures."

Not everyone is unhappy about the mouse plague, however. Birdwatchers are enjoying the increased sightings of rare owls hunting the rodents. "Normally the owl population in this region is next to nothing," said ornithologist Ubbo Mammen. "This is absolutely anomalous."

nds -- with wire reports

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