SURROUNDED

Living at the farm, I’m often reminded that we are surrounded by other life that insists we make way for them.  Hundreds of cockatoos have been screeching at the bottom of the garden for weeks, while they strip the walnut and olive trees. 

Moths beat at the windows at night, flies do the same by day. 

And currently, there are mice. 

Mice under the floors, mice in the shed, mice on the road at night.  Mice getting into the kitchen, running around under the sink and on the kitchen counters and the laundry storage cupboard.   Mice eating the fruit from the bowl, hiding in the bread box, crawling into the toaster and getting barbecued.  When we put out a camera trap on the ridge behind the house, rats and mice appeared for candid photos along with the wombat, kangaroos, possum and magpies. 

Every year, they build up in numbers during summer and make a move on the house as the weather begins to cool off in autumn.  Every year I try a new tactic to try and keep them out. 

Of course, for them it’s life or death, and for me it’s only irritation, smells and filth to be cleaned up. 

My grandmother lived through a mouse plague in Yarrawonga, when she was a child. She could still describe with horror the sensation of mice scuttling over the sheets she’d pulled over her head to keep them away from her face. I experimented with sleeping with a sheet over my head, and it’s pretty stuffy. “The only good thing about the mouse plague” she told me ” was they got into a big trunk of papers from a legal case about family land in Scotland.” Her family had come to Australia to recoup their fortunes after losing everything in the litigation. I was always curious about what those papers would have said, but she was firm “The mice did us a favour. We couldn’t waste any more time or money on it.”

I don’t have any papers I want the mice to eat. I’d prefer to keep them out.

It doesn’t help that when the floors were replaced in the old part of this house in the 1970s, they were redone with decking boards, with mouse-spaced gaps between each one.  It was definitely better when we got new floors placed over most of the old decking ones, flush to the walls.  We also used metal panels and expanding foam behind the stove, behind the dishwasher, and under the sink.

However, the mice still find a way in through a new gap every time we fill an old one. 

Before we arrived, Les the handyman put out baits each year, in the ceiling space and under the house.  The predictable results were horrible smells of rotting rats in inaccessible places that made certain rooms uninhabitable for about six weeks. 

After one of the dogs took a bait and had to have expensive Vitamin K injections and plasma infusions, I decided to switch to trapping instead. 

I had hopes that without the baits, predators would begin to take up the slack – snakes, owls and bigger native rakali (water rats).   They’re the ones I worry about taking multiple baits and dying off.   The owls are definitely feasting at the moment, with a pair of them patrolling the road near Adnamira every night for the last few weeks. 

Boobook owl waiting for mice on the road

Anyway, I feel that if I’m killing something, I should take responsibility for it, not just pretend it isn’t happening, invisibly, around me.   Seems like cheating. 

I also had hopes that one day, with my tree planting, I would start to see native yellow-footed antechinus taking the place of house mice.  They have pouches like kangaroos. Their males kill themselves with sex. They have a much pointier nose than house mice, without the two cheeks.  Actually, that might not be a great exchange, because antechinus are very determined and feisty, and love chocolate.  I don’t need competition for my chocolate supplies.

Antechinus flavipes image by Kent Warner iNaturalist

First I got one of those plug in repellers, but every mouse I saw seemed to make the effort to detour past it, so it seemed not to be a solution for our mice.

Then I got a live trap where you can look through a window on top to see what you’ve got.  It could also potentially trap several at once, though a spring door. 

It worked somewhat at trapping the house mice, but the problem was what to do with them afterwards.  The trap was awkwardly shaped for releasing the mice into a bag for euthanising.  The dog looked confused when I released them in front of it, hoping to pass the responsibility onto her.  She sniffed vaguely while the mice scampered into the bushes, and then back into the kitchen.

I took to putting bait into the window-trap, which was truly horrible.  After watching them writhe and die, it also confirmed to me that I didn’t want to use poison any more. 

Meanwhile, despite that resolution, a lot of rats were busy chewing their way into the plastic bucket of leftover poison bait in the garage and dying secretly and stinkily. 

snap traps waiting for bait

The next step was picking up some snap traps, the traditional mouse trap of choice.  These worked well for a couple of years, with the victims tossed over the fence for the feral cats and foxes.  

But apparently I’ve evolved smart mice, because now, no matter how many snap traps I have, the mice eat the baits without triggering them.  In case the springs were gone, I got new ones.  I lined them up side by side hoping they’d step on one while stealing bait from another.  I only get one or two a year that way. 

glue trap gone wrong

I had to move onto glue traps, which are extremely effective at stopping mice in their tracks, literally.  I knew about them because Craig had used them for trapping lizards in the tropics.  You can release an animal by putting oil on it, but of course all we got were house mice, and a few spiders.  Oh, and the dog, who got one attached to her tail and wandered the house spreading glue everywhere.   I threw away the laundry door mat, after trying to get the glue off for half an hour or so.

The issue with glue traps is you still have to do your own killing.  They’re not reusable, so you run out quite quickly.  At the moment they’re in such demand, because of the mouse plague north and west of us, that they sell out within hours of someone putting a message that they’re in stock onto the local Facebook notice board. 

Because the mouse suffers, you have to make sure you watch a glue trap, and don’t leave them in place when you go away.  Mostly the mice squeak and the dog hears them immediately.   My termination method of choice is a blindfold for the prisoner (a paper towel) and a brick.  It’s quick. You still have to look them in the eye before you do it. 

With glue traps currently unavailable, I got a recommendation to use tip-traps from the family who actually have antechinus sneaking chocolate chips from their pantry.  These traps have the bait at the very end, and the entry door closes when the mouse reaches the peanut butter.  Again, they’re alive, but with no window to see in, so you have to open the top very carefully and hope it doesn’t jump out, leaping off your shoulder to freedom, which a few have done. 

Finally, now, I have managed to train the dog to catch them, which she does about eighty percent of the time.  I’ve found I have to leave them in the trap overnight, because she never catches them when it’s dark, despite the supposed great night vision dogs have.    She is finally fulfilling her rat terrier destiny, rather than merely terrifying the meter reader. 

Kalbi as expert mouse catcher

Meanwhile, I was searching for a longer-term solution, in the way of sealing up the house underneath so mice can’t get in.  I’m happy to have the mice outside in the hills, just not in my kitchen.   Filling all the gaps has advantages to heat retention in the winter, too.  I talked to some pest control companies, but it turns out all they do around here is “chuck a couple of bait packets in the ceiling space.” I can’t believe they charge money for that. 

I asked them about mouse-proofing, and the response was “You have to do that at the time of construction”.  Not helpful, when the time of construction was a hundred years ago.  I really don’t want to crawl around under our house stuffing cement into every crack, but it looks like that might be needed.   Our main walls are constructed from rammed earth (pise).  Another Landcare member told me horror stories about rats tunnelling through such walls to get to their goals.  

Meanwhile, rats ate the wiring in the Annexe ceiling (constructed in 1979), also pooping all over the insulation that was replaced after the roof leaked and the old insulation got wet.  Somehow I’d been thinking that the roof was sealed against small animals, but when I went up to look, there was daylight showing all around in the open gaps between the corrugated iron and the top of the walls.  That’s a bushfire risk as well, since sparks can come in such air gaps. 

I installed two electrocution traps up there – battery powered.  We caught one rat and the others seem to have gone away for a while.

I also bought one of those walk-the-plank bucket traps, in case the real mouse plague reaches us, but that’s mostly a phenomenon of grain-growing areas. I’m hoping I’ll never have to set it up.

The anti-rodent campaign continues…

(House mouse image from Wikipedia)

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  1. Oh goodness, and we thought we had a problem. Set the traditional snap trap and caught six within a few days. Seemed to have done the trick, until we found more poo pellets in the pantry and heard scuttling in the ceiling again. Re-set the snap trap…nothing, nix, nada. We’re convinced they have PhDs. Similar incredulous “how the heck are they getting in” to our relatively new 12 year old concrete and brick veneer place. Good luck.

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