Oz Wheat Farmers Brace
For Huge Locust Plague
By Michael Byrnes
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's wheat farmers, fresh from battling the country's worst drought in a century, are now threatened by a plague of locusts which have already begun to hatch from a sprawling "nursery" in the country's outback.
Early locust hatchings are the precursor of an expected full-scale outbreak in a few weeks' time, which should rival the one in 2000 that spawned up to 100 billion insects, officials said.
The new onslaught is taking place in the heart of Australia's wheat belt and on the fringe of populated areas, making it more threatening this time for farmers in the sparsely populated outback.
"It's quite a huge area," Heath McRae, an official with the Australian Plague Locust Commission, told Reuters on Wednesday. "It's been 20 years in some of those areas since people have seen locusts. There are reports of some early hatchings."
First hatchings are in northern New South Wales (NSW), in the Lightening Ridge opal mining district near Walgett, a major wheat center.
"A serious locust situation is expected to develop in New South Wales in the spring," the locust commission warned in its latest bulletin.
Graeme Eggleston, the New South Wales Plague Locust Commissioner, said last month the situation was "quite frightening."
The densest locust egg beds ran through the center of NSW, a state bigger than Texas. The main concentration was in a 155-mile wide band from Forbes through to the Queensland border, 264 miles to the north.
Swarms of the bugs which laid the eggs early this year were estimated to have extended across a 745-mile front from central NSW into southwest Queensland, an area twice the size of England.
McRae said they have begun to map the early season hatchings in northern NSW and southern Queensland, ahead of peak hatchings in early September, McRae said.
In the south around the border with Victoria state, the hopping, flying insects will not begin to form until early October, as locust hatchings, like ripening wheat, follow the spring sun south.
NSW Agriculture has laid in emergency supplies of 12,000 litres of chemicals for ground control and 24,000 litres for aerial spraying, while the locust commission has also ordered extra chemicals for aerial spraying.
Australia's locust plague was brought on earlier this year by drought-breaking rains. The return of the drought then helped bring that plague under control, but not before the next generation of insects had been laid in six-inch holes in the ground.
The drought also reduced the population of birds and parasites, which normally help to keep locust numbers down.
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