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Locusts Threaten to Inflict More Misery on Australian Farmers

Locusts are threatening to inflict more pain on some of the most drought-ravaged parts of eastern Australia. Hundreds of farmers have found beds of locust eggs and officials fear that many more have not been reported. Officials have said that recent wet weather has increased the risk of devastating locust activity. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

Australia's last major locust outbreak occurred in 2004, when billions of these voracious creatures were hatched. They formed a 1,000-kilometer front that devastated huge areas of farmland, mainly in central parts of New South Wales.

There are fears that the start of this year's locust season in late September could bring more grief to farmers, who have endured a long-standing drought.

The insects can inflict widespread and severe damage to pastures and cereal crops.

While recent rain has provided some relief from the drought - known as 'The Big Dry' - it has also created good conditions for breeding.

Chris Adriaansen, the director of the Australian Plague Locust Commission, says the insects are posing a real threat.

"We had some very significant numbers of locusts congregating in that southern New South Wales and northern Victoria region," he said. "Now, those adults will have laid a number of eggs. When you combine that with the fact that that area has had some reasonable rainfall and even in the past week has had somewhere in the region of between 10 and 50 millimeters of rainfall across most of that area, there will be vegetation there to be able to support those emerging nymphs. So, we're actually looking at the potential of having some reasonable populations in that area."

During the previous outbreak four years ago, farmers said that swarms of insects were so dense they blacked out the sun and even consumed clothes hanging on washing lines.

A special government team is working hard to prevent a repeat. Spraying a bio-pesticide on nests is part of a strategy that also includes aerial surveillance.

In an ironic twist, the dry conditions that have caused so many problems for Australian farmers could potentially ward off this airborne menace. Drought typically decreases the threat of locusts by reducing the amount of available food.

Australia's agricultural community is crying out for rain. But if decent rainfalls come in the next few months they could bring with them unwanted swarms of hungry locusts.