Sat, Mar 20, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Australian locusts losing, but laying eggs for a rainy day

REUTERS , COONAMBLE, AUSTRALIA

Australia is winning the battle against billions of marauding locusts, but the insects are laying eggs in preparation to attack winter crops in six months' time, officials said yesterday.

"I think we're getting on top of it," said Laury McCulloch, director of the Australian Plague Locust Commission.

Helicopters at Coonamble, 400km northwest of Sydney, yesterday skimmed above the ground using satellite Global Positioning System technology to track locust swarms, which looked like a dark cloud rising five meters from the ground.

"They're smashing themselves to pieces on car windscreens," Reuters photographer Will Burgess said after driving through large swarms between Dubbo and Coonamble.

Aerial spraying led by commission officer John Nolan will start today at Coonamble as locust fighters attempt to knock out as many insects as possible before they lay eggs for the next generation.

McCulloch yesterday noted reports of "test drilling" by locusts around the town of Dubbo, near Coonamble, which was invaded by the locusts this week.

Eggs laid by the locusts in holes drilled into the dry, baked earth would need rain to survive, he said, but if they did they would hatch in October and be swarming by November.

So far the locusts have eaten into summer crops of oats and horticultural produce, less important than Australia's world-class winter crops of wheat, barley and canola which are harvested in the last three months of the calendar year.

"The potential is there for a pretty serious spring," commission operations manager Walter Spratt told the Land newspaper this week, describing the infestation as similar to the widespread plague of 2000, but closer to settled areas.

In 2000, up to 100 billion locusts traversed the outback in a long band running across three states from western Queensland to New South Wales and into South Australia.

"In the afternoon, the sky is just a silver haze," Narromine farmer and livestock agent Jason Hartin told the Land.

"When the sun is over them you'd swear you were looking at a shower of silver bullets," he said.

McCulloch is calling on farmers to be vigilant, note layings and hatchings and use free chemicals supplied by the Department of Agriculture. Fixed-wing commission aircraft and spotter helicopters will assist if farmers become overwhelmed.

"It becomes a process of attrition," McCulloch said. "You get a couple of hundred farmers treating four or five small bands, you begin to make a serious dent in the stuff."

Locust fighters said the biggest infestation, around Quilpie in southwest Queensland, had been brought under control with concentrated aerial spraying.

But the locusts have been flying 300km on some nights and can travel up to 700km in 24 hours.

"It's a matter of watching and waiting ... you'll never eradicate them all. It's just impossible," McCulloch said.

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