Plague of locusts takes to the sky

The fight against the biggest plague locust infestation in decades is about to step up a notch.

The New South Wales Government is preparing to spray hundreds of square kilometres of locusts in what will be one of the biggest aerial spraying efforts in the state’s history.

The campaign on the ground will be even bigger.

Farmers and rangers will be using their own vehicle spray rigs to kill the locusts before they take flight and threaten billion of dollars of crops.

Governments, rural authorities and farmers have been preparing for the onslaught of plague locust for months.

Chemicals have been stockpiled, reporting programs are in place and surveillance is underway.

Lisa Thomas is the senior ranger with the Livestock Health and Pest Authority in central New South Wales and is on the frontline of controlling the locusts.

Ms Thomas says as the weather warms up hatchings are escalating.

“When they come out of the ground it’s during the heat of the day,” she said.

“They start to hatch down in the soil and push each other up out of the ground so it is almost like they’re boiling out of the ground.

“They just sort of rise up and fall out on the ground and sit there and sun themselves and others just sort of stream out past them.”

Ms Thomas says the numbers they are dealing with are immense.

“Through our area we’re estimating the locusts to be hatching at about 5,000 to the square metre, but we’re probably pretty good off compared to the southern half of the state where they’re estimating that they’re hatching at about 22,000 to the square metre,” she said.

The New South Wales Government has 50 planes on standby for surveillance and spraying.

Less than a week ago it launched an aerial surveillance program and hundreds of bands of locusts have been now been found ranging from 50 metres to more than two kilometres long.

NSW Primary Industries Minister Steve Whan says authorities are doing their best to control the pests.

“Well we’re certainly seeing the predictions of the worst plague in 30 years born out by the hatchings that we’ve seen so far,” he said.

“We’ve seen a number of hatchings right across – in excess of 560 bands of locusts have been detected already since last Wednesday and in amongst those is north-west New South Wales where the infestation covers some 265 square kilometres.”

As part of the control effort, Mr Whan says farmers around Walgett will spray from vehicles and aerial spraying is also set to begin.

“This big area that we’ve got in the north-west I’m being told will take three or four days to spray by air,” he said.

“So that just gives you an indication I think of the scale of the problem and we can’t hope to eliminate the locusts but we can certainly hope to reduce them significantly so that what we’ve got in prospect at the moment – a record crop – is actually comes to fruition without the locusts destroying it.”

But Mr Whan says despite the mammoth effort to quell the plague, they will not be able to eliminate all the locusts.

“Locusts have been around forever and plagues have been around forever – but we can certainly reduce it very significantly and we’ve got the arsenal out there to do it, we’ve got the people on the ground to do it,” he said.

“We’re seeing these super-sized bands which are up in the north of the state but we’ll be right on them this week and hoping to knock over as many of them as we can.”

He says the locusts will cause damage to crops.

“I mean there are already aerial shots of the bands moving across fields and you can actually see from those aerial shots these black waves of locusts which are actually rolling across these areas,” he said.

“We can’t stop them from damaging – what we can do is minimise the damage.”

Australian Plague Locust Commission director Chris Adriaansen says the New South Wales efforts are part of a wider national strategy which is critical to the success of the control program.

“Well the whole strategy nationwide is built on early intervention, which basically means getting on top of the locusts while they’re still in the banding stage,” he said.

And while progress is being made, there are still many anxious weeks ahead for those on the ground.

Ranger Lisa Thomas says there are worries that the plague could blow out to be a bad experience for lots of farmers.

“We haven’t witnessed the laying of egg beds across half the state before at any one time,” she said.

“So farmers are feeling very vulnerable in loss of crops and pasture, particularly after having a good few months, no-one wants to have everything eaten off at the last minute by a raging swarm of locusts or bands of locusts on the ground.”

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