Millions of mice have invaded Bulgaria's northeastern wheat belt region of Dobrudzha and are threatening to turn it into a desert by devastating next year's grain crops, now sprouting in the fields.
Farmers say mice hordes were reproducing and spreading quickly because of the unusually mild weather conditions in Bulgaria in mid-winter.
"I have done farming for over 35 years and I had never before seen such a disaster," says Dimitar Kantardzhiev, chairman of the union of grain producers in Dobrich.
Almost 90 percent of the 112,000 hectares of wheat and barley crops in the region of Dobrich are criss-crossed by mice tunnels and perforated by their holes.
Experts have seen the concentration of mice spiral upwards, especially during the last two months.
Grain stocks, however, have not been threatened by the hordes of hungry rodents yet. In 2004 Bulgaria exported 624,000 tonnes of wheat out of 3.59 million tonnes of produce, and 281,000 tonnes of barley out of 1.07 million tonnes of crops, Agriculture Ministry data show.
"If we can treat the fields with chemicals, what is to be done about the forests and the road ditches where the mice multiply before invading the fields," complains Kantardzhiev who has sown 1,600 hectares of wheat.
Spring-like temperatures in Dobrich, where thermometers this week soared to 19 degrees Celsius, throw farmers into despair.
"If nature does not help us, we will be lost. Rain and cold can do away with part of the mice," says Stoyan Kovachev, a farmer from the Black Sea town of Kavarna to the east, who works 5,000 hectares of wheat.
"The unusually mild and dry weather during the winter months is stimulating this terrible boom in mice reproduction: a mouse of 20 days can bear a population of dozens. If the problem is not solved until April, wheat and barley sprouts will all be chomped up and the yields will be destroyed," he adds.
Around 500,000 hectares or a half of all wheat and barley crops sown last fall in Bulgaria are hit by the disaster.
Irreparable damage has been done to 25,000 hectares of grain where crops would have to be sown again next spring. Agriculture Minister Mehmed Dikme has promised government subsidies for farmers to buy pesticides.
"He has to be quick because we are being ruined," says Velika Slavova, president of a farmers' cooperative in Ichirkovo, in the Silistra region to the northeast.
"The mice, ten times more numerous than usual, invaded at first some badly worked fields in our cooperative. The remains of plants and weeds left in the fields, which have not been ploughed deep enough, have attracted the mice," she adds.
"The fertile lands are divided into small fields, whose owners rent them out for short periods, and this does not permit the farmers to devise a long-term strategy," explains Ivan Ganev, president of the cooperative union of Silistra.
The lands, nationalized during communism, were returned after its fall in 1989 to their owners, who did not have the means and machinery to work their fields. In the region of Silistra, 20 percent of all arable land belongs to small farmers who have neither joined a cooperative, nor rented their land out.
"The lands worked in a primitive manner are centers for the spread of disease. The crops are not in jeopardy yet we are facing a hard battle. Poison has to be placed by hand in every mouse hole, in order not to kill any wild life," Ivan Ganev says.