Fri, Aug 10, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Spain fighting freak plague of millions of ravenous rodents


It's been a messy summer in Spain: raging forest fires in the Canary Islands, a blanket blackout in Barcelona, giant schools of jellyfish lurking off beaches packed with vacationers.

Now comes another woe, this one as icky as a biblical plague: millions of mouse-like rodents called voles feasting on everything from beets to potatoes in an infestation that has prompted a desperate, scorched-earth policy in one of Spain's agricultural heartlands.

Farmers unions say the Castille-Leon region in north-central Spain is crawling with an estimated 7.5 million voles and the local government is baffled. It doesn't know the cause or the solution. The invasion began gently 10 months ago but has snowballed to stunning proportions.

Spanish television aired footage of scores of voles darting in and out of holes in what would normally be rich, healthy farmland, or quivering in the throes of death brought on by pesticide. Some of the critters have even made it into gardens of homes in the region's main city, Valladolid, news reports said.

"There has never been a plague like the one we have now," Castille-Leon regional agriculture minister Silvia Clemente said.

Officials have asked agronomists, veterinarians and biologists what on earth is happening and nobody really knows, she told Cadena Ser radio.

"There are no measures that have been proven to work against a plague of these characteristics," Clemente said.

For now, crews are fighting with fire. They started igniting controlled blazes on Wednesday on previously harvested farmland to try to kill off the pests, acting with utmost care to keep the flames from spreading.

The extermination bid began in Valladolid, the province hardest hit, and will gradually spread to others in coming days.

Jose Antonio del Brio, head of the local farmers' association in the town of Fresno el Viejo, where the first fires were set, said literally every farm in the area is being eaten by voles.

First it was the grain crops -- 40 percent lost to the critters -- and now beets, potatoes and corn are on the menu.

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