After the floods, Australian farms await plague of locusts

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The Independent Online

Heavy rains that brought to an end the worst Australian drought for a century have spawned a plague of locusts that are attacking crops in two states and threatening to spread further afield.

The rains, which have caused flooding in southern Queensland and northern New South Wales, have created ideal breeding conditions for the locusts. The "hoppers", or juveniles, are expected to grow wings in the next 10 days and move into Outback areas and heavily populated coastal regions. Authorities said it is the worst outbreak since 100 billion of the pests were spawned three years ago. Walter Spratt, the operations manager of the Australian Plague Locust Commission, said: "We're talking mega numbers here. You'd be speculating [on exact numbers]."

Hundreds of square miles have been sprayed in the two states to try to destroy the hoppers, but, so far, the commission and farmers are fighting a losing battle, with new swarms discovered in far-flung inland areas.

Mr Spratt said: "The more we look, the more we find. This is potentially a very serious outbreak. Once they reach the adult stage, they can become much more mobile." Adult locusts can travel more than 400 miles in a single night's flight, and there are fears that the plague could spread to Victoria and South Australia.

Swarms have been spotted as far west as Birdsville, a remote town in the Queensland Outback. Paul Keightley, of Birdsville police, said: "They're all over the place. Sometimes they fall like snow."

Farmers rejoiced when the drought ended in January, only to face severe floods and now the crop-devouring pests. The first generation hatched 10 days after the rains, and adult locusts have followed up with five layings of up to 50 eggs each.

Australia's wheat, barley and canola crops have just been harvested and are safe in silos around the country, but locusts are breeding near sorghum and cotton crops.

The infestation in New South Wales, centred on Coonamble, about 250 miles north-west of Sydney, is so fragmented that the commission is asking landowners for help.

The outbreak in south-west Queenland's Channel region is even worse, with hoppers spreading into flooded areas and places where they are difficult to spot. The commission said that locust populations had dropped to low levels because of the drought, but the insects are now breeding furiously following the deluge.

Australian authorities have battled locusts periodically over the years, and have sometimes been assisted by good fortune. In the past, large numbers have perished after landing in the ocean by mistake or, in an incident discovered by satellite sensors in 2000, in Lake Frome in remote South Australia.