KEPALA BATAS (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Penang's padi fields are facing a growing and gnawing rat menace that began after the disastrous flooding of the mainland last November.
The ricefield rat (Rattus argentiventer), which can produce five to 10 offspring each month, has been ravaging padi fields in Kepala Batas.
To date, these rats have decimated crops in nearly 29ha in Paya Keladi belonging to 50 farmers, said Integrated Agriculture Development Area (IADA) Penang director Mohd Nazri Abu Seman.
Mohd Nazri said IADA agreed with the farmers' observations that the massive flooding last November triggered an exodus of ricefield rats living along rivers.
"They followed the floodwaters and ended up in the padi fields via irrigation canals," he said.
A tempest flayed Penang, Kedah and Perlis on Nov 4, lasting until the next morning and submerging parts of Seberang Prai in up to 3m of water.
Penang's Ayer Itam dam's rain gauge reading was 315mm of rainfall, the highest in its history.
It took three days after the storm for floodwaters on mainland Penang to subside because water gushing down from the mountains and rivers would not stop pouring into the land.
Muda Dam in Kedah was also 103 per cent full and tens of millions of litres of water raced out of its spillway and flowed into North Seberang Prai.
Mohd Nazri said the rats struck at the 29ha of padi fields first because these 50 farmers were the first group to start the planting season in April.
"Padi farmers don't start planting all at once. They go by turns based on areas," he explained.
He said ricefield rats had a nasty habit of eating the white pith inside young padi stalks, so the padi would not even have the chance to produce grain.
Mohd Nazri also said the destruction would continue because when the surviving padi produces grain, the rats then start feeding on that.
State Agriculture, Agro-based Industry and Rural Development Committee chairman Dr Afif Bahardin highlighted the farmers' plight at the recent state-level Farmer's Day celebration, when he launched a rat control campaign at Kompleks Pertanian in Bumbung Lima here.
Ricefield rats are recorded as among the most damaging pestilence to rice crops in the world. The rats' young leave their mother in just three weeks after birth, just before their mother produces the next litter. The offspring become sexually mature in three months and promptly multiply.
Dr Afif said the state Agriculture Department and IADA were working to control the rat population.
Measures, he said, included applying poisoned rice grains, laying traps and building nests to encourage the common barn owl to hunt the rice fields.
"The nests for barn owls are designed to attract the birds to live in the padi fields, or at least perch there at night in search of rats," he added.