In the early days of settlement, rabbits were imported and deliberately spread in the northern areas for the pleasure of the English migrants of shooting something. It was a sorry day for Australia when these innocent looking rabbits were released. During the good times of the 1860s and early 1870s they spread alarmingly. They now became a big problem which even after 150 years has not been solved. By the turn of the century they had done untold damage to the farmers and the natural environment in particular. In many cases the damage has been beyond repair.
The 1860s proved to be a turning point in the fortunes of most pastoralists. In the north of South Australia, as a result of a crippling drought in some places lasting from 1863 until 1866, the 1860s were a crushing experience with many pastoralists loosing up to ninety per cent of their stock. Many were ruined and gave up their holdings. The drought did however result in improved management of station holdings. With the introduction of fencing, by Peter Waite, reduced stocking rates, the sinking of wells, scooping out dams and the control of dingoes and rabbits, profitability eventually returned.
Rabbits had become a big problem in the Mid North and the South East during these years. In December 1876 fine weather was reported all around and famers looked forward to a decent harvest for once, provided the rabbits would not get it first. Several farmers complained that the government should enforce the Land Act more stringently. Some farmers kept sheep but did little to combat the rabbits, which was a serious loss to the bona fide selector.
The problem was highlighted by the reporter from the Register when the Minister, and other members of parliament, visited the Eudunda area in January 1877. He reported that 'They saw for themselves the depredations which the rabbits were making upon cultivated property in the Hundreds of English, Neales, Julia Creek, and the surrounding country.
The rapid strides made by the nuisance during the past year, in spite of the persevering efforts which have been made to arrest its progress, coupled with the complete failure which has befallen attempts to legislate on the subject during the past session, has given rise to some very warm feeling on the subject on the part of the farming community.
The members representing the district are openly accused of timidity, and Parliament generally falls in for a very large share of abuse whenever the subject is discussed. Deputation after deputation has been organized, and harrowing accounts of the sore straits to which the unfortunate farmers have been reduced have been dinned into the ears of successive Governments, and still the nuisance remains.
The statements of the actual loss of property produced by the nuisance which have been made on the occasion of the farmers' deputations and when the subject has been debated in the House of Assembly have secured very scanty attention. Indeed there seems to be a disposition to treat the rumours as exaggerated statements.
In the course of a journey to Eudunda, however, one meets with very convincing testimony of the nuisance in its most glaring form. As a rule, people in Adelaide have a very small conception of the wholesale devastation which the rabbits leave in their train year by year; it has to be seen to be conceived.
On the road to Eudunda on Wednesday paddock after paddock was pointed out to me in which tolerably good corn crops had been converted into hay, and in some instances the unfortunate farmer had been able to save nothing at all, so rapid had been the spread of the pest with its destructive methods which the agriculturists had adopted to avert the ruination of their property.
Fences were wired, walls of stone and earth from one to two feet in height were erected, and obstacles of every conceivable description were thrown in the way of the rabbits. Even the stacks in the yards need protection, and in many instances I saw stacks surrounded with good solid walls of stone, running up to a height of four feet. The evidences of destruction are as numerous as they are palpable.
There are several selections in which the nuisance has prevailed to such an extent that the unfortunate selector has given up all hope of exterminating it, and has migrated to pastures new, leaving his house and his ruined soil the very picture of desolation. Notwithstanding the warmth of the atmosphere on Wednesday morning the rabbits were well employed at their work of destruction.
I saw quite sufficient on the Anlaby Run to give me an idea of the nature of the nuisance, independently of the ruined crops and deserted property which met the eye in every direction. One of the suffering many informed me that it has been during the past few months a by no means rare occurrence for himself and his wife and children to keep a look-out for the rabbits at outposts on his property, and frighten the offenders away with the free use of firearms and tambourines.
During my stay at Eudunda I had conversations with a great many farmers relative to the means which should be adopted to eradicate the rabbits. That the number of rabbits increases year by year everyone agrees, and every farmer who interviewed the Commissioner of Public Works on the subject is of opinion that the only effectual means of destroying them is to introduce a system of compulsion whereby each man will be obliged, with the alternative of a very severe penalty, to destroy the whole of the rabbits on his property, let its size be ever so large.
The unanimity of opinion as to the remedy was quite surprising. The difficulty which presents itself to this remedy, in the owner of the Anlaby Run having to clear the whole of that estate, does not seem to be an obstacle to the smaller holders of land, who very reasonably argue that good worldly circumstance should not absolve Mr Dutton from a duty which is rendered obligatory on the poorest man alike with the richest in the district.
Relief may to some extent be afforded by the operation of the Rabbit Meat Preserving Company, but it is absurd to suppose that the Company can totally remove the nuisance. The Company, which was floated about three weeks ago, has established its headquarters at Mitchell's Springs, at the juncture of the Hundred of Neales with the Hundred of Julia Creek.
Its promoters have gone to work in a very energetic manner, and if expectations are realized there is nothing to prevent the Company being in working order not later than six weeks hence. The Company's building, which will be 100 feet by 40 feet in extent, is to be built of light Mallee and plaster, this style of structure being adopted both on account of its cheapness and its suitability to meat -preserving operations.
An experienced manager has been engaged in the person of Mr Alexander Forbes, of the Rye Meat-Preserving Works in Victoria, who has received instructions to procure the necessary appliances for making the tins and potting. The Company intend to offer one penny per head for rabbits, and this bonus it is to be hoped will revive the work of destruction by those who were such ready slaughterers before the collapse of the local fund, out of which one penny was paid for every rabbit scalp.
The Company, however, will be entirely independent of this source of supply, as five or six men will be constantly employed in snaring. Some are of opinion that the Company, when it is in full operation, should clear 6,000 rabbits a week without any difficulty but this, bearing in mind the size of the establishment, is looking at the matter through couleur de rose spectacles. When the supply of rabbits in the vicinity of the first tinning-house becomes exhausted a move will be made to a more densely-infested spot, and in this way the Company cannot fail to achieve a great deal of good.
The matter was not formally brought under the notice of the Commissioner of Public Works at Eudunda, but while addressing the deputation which waited upon him in that township, he said the Government was fully sensible of the fact that the farmers were not exaggerating the evil, and that it would be very glad —to say the least of it — to receive any suggestions other than those already given for the remedy of the nuisance.
There were several dissentients to this view of the case, and more than one suggestion for a compulsory measure, such as had already been recommended, was forthcoming instanter. Mr Colton, however, paid no heed to interruption, and wound up his remarks with a panegyric upon the enterprise of the promoters of the new Meat Preserving Company, and the promise that if the Company would prosecute its work with vigour and extend its operations it should ultimately receive Government support in the shape of a bonus. If, concluded Mr Colton, 'you all do something towards putting a stop to the nuisance the Government will be bound to do something with its reserves.' The loud applause which greeted this last remark was ample testimony of the good faith in which it was accepted'.
The nearby township of Mount Mary later provided an excellent example of destruction caused by rabbits. G.W. Goyder, Surveyor General soon became involved with the problem when he received many letters from concerned people, including his son and G.A. Gebhardt. Many suggested the destruction of rabbits by chemical means. He set his son, George Arthur, to work on it at Moonta where he was employed as an assayer.
One farmer lost seven acres of wheat during one night in 1878. Farmers had to go around their wheat paddocks and even through it to kill the rabbits. Thousands of them were destroyed each night. Another farmer killed 256 in a four hour period. John Dunstan, Mr Best, Mr Roberts and some of their neighbours lost half their crop to the rabbits. Rabbits have also caused the denudation of land resulting in severe wind erosion.
During the late 1870s Gebhardt, at Burra, like most residents of the mid north, suffered substantial losses from rabbits. Many of them, and the government in Adelaide, talked a lot about how to solve this problem but did very little. Gebhardt advertised in the local paper for rabbit catchers, paying good wages. He had a number of them employed night and day. In a period of four weeks they killed 60,000 rabbits. The effects were minimal as he said because 'as fast as he killed them, others came upon his property from surrounding Crown Land'. A few weeks later he advertised for twelve dogs and a working overseer to take charge of the rabbit catchers.
When in 1882 the government proposed to spend a large amount of money on controlling the rabbits one reader suggested that
During the 1870s and early 1880s rabbits had been a big problem to farmers on newly opened land on Eyre Peninsula. They were digging and eating crops at Colton, Streaky Bay and Denial Bay in the west to Iron Knob, Wudinna and Koppio in the east and everywhere in between. By 1889 the rabbits were still as big a problem as ever. The Hallett District Council asked for tenders to clear the area of this vermin. Specifications could be seen at the Mount Bryan East Post Office.
All kind of methods were tried, including the importation of wild foxes, to get rid of them but to no avail. The problem was at its worst on the Yorke and Eyre Peninsulas and along the Murray and the mid and far north. The recurrent drought made the problems still worse and sometimes most of the crops just disappeared, eaten by the vermin. To make matters worse the poison used to kill the rabbits often resulted in the loss of wildlife and was one of the principal causes of death among marsupials and native birds.
In September 1888 a number of District Councils from the South East approached the government about the nuissance caused by rabbits and wild dogs in the Ninety Mile Desert. They would like to see a rabbit proof fence erected along the side of the railway line from Bordertown to the Murray. They were told that it wouldn't work and was too costly anyway.
Still there were some advantages in the ready supply of rabbits. Government legislation, initiated by the Kingston Ministry and passed in 1893, provided for associations of twenty or more settlers to be formed to hold and work land as a community. This resulted in the establishment of Village Settlements. Land was set aside where soils were supposed to be fertile and timber, water and food, like rabbits and fish, would be readily available. Most families lived on rations of fish and rabbits until vegetable gardens had been established, although some stores were bought from trading vessels on the Murray.
The rabbit fur was greatly sought after and in the decade ending in 1924 nearly 160 million frozen rabbits were exported and more than 700 million skins. William Levi Turner was not all that impressed with the surroundings of his early childhood. In later years he used to say that Farina was the last place on earth the Lord built and where rabbits were so thick that one had to knock them out of the way to be able to walk about.
Life remained hard in the north which RM Williams recalled as 'a land of great dust storms where his family greatly suffered from the sand and dust'. During that time they lived mainly on rabbit meat, cooked in many different ways. Sometimes it was mixed with kangaroo and made excellent potted meat. Luckily, his wife could cope. She was content to sleep on the ground, cook on the open fire, nurse the children, eat rabbits, carry water and wash clothes in a four gallon tin. Even so, his children suffered from sandy blight and his son Ian became blind with trachoma and had to be taken to Adelaide by his wife.
Rabbits became an even more serious problem and from 1890 a start was made with rabbit-proof fencing around individual properties. Like so many of the northern towns Gordon had its problems with the rabbits, lack of water, locusts and the Bathurst burr. Droughts in particular were frequent and farmers were soon to learn that Goyder and his line were correct. The rabbit problem also created employment. In 1895 as many as 130 people were employed in and around Birdsville as rabbit fence builders.
At the turn of the century, it was realised that rabbits competed which livestock for scarce resources, killed young trees and shrubs and thus threatened the survival of native mammals, such as the wombat and bilby, birds and insects. G.H. Dunn of Bendleby stated that at least 50% of all vegetation in the north was destroyed by rabbits. If it wasn't for bunny, he said, 100% more stock could be kept and people would have double the income. In his view the destruction of rabbits by land owners and occupiers should be made compulsory. Manufacturers soon came up with a new way of eradicating the rabbit and stop soil erosion caused by the warrens. They now advertised the Bunny Buster.
Rabbit Ripper displayed at Paech Farm Wistow.
On 2 May 1916 George Aiston had to travel north to Mount Gason, named after an early policeman, to examine the body of Thomas Neaylon, who had died there. Later he reported the flooding of the Diamantina which resulted in an abundance of food for the Aborigines such as fish, birds' eggs, rabbits, herbs and roots.
During the 1930s Depression large numbers of people survived by eating these prolific pests. Even today several commercial rabbit farms supply the growing restaurant and domestic market. Near Murray Bridge an abattoir processes an average of 200 rabbits a week.
J and W Ritchie delivering about 1200 rabbits each week
Sir Charles Martin had become greatly impressed at the seriousness of the rabbit problem and in 1933 accepted the request of the CSIRO to undertake experiments with myxomatosis. An experiment carried out at Point Pearce resulted in a 95% success rate. However when the same method was tried in the north it resulted in a dismal failure. An attempt to eradicate the rabbits along the Murray in the early 1950s was highly successful. Myxomatosis has resulted in an Australian wide reduction in the rabbit population of about 90%. Since then the effect of myxomatosis have been declining as rabbits became immune to the disease.
Not everyone was impressed with this kind of killing. One reader of The Willochran wrote in April 1952 that ‘it involves a painful disease and lingering death which we have no right to inflict on any animal. Men who pride themselves on being good sportsmen should devise a means of dealing with the rabbit which will not be an offence to our compassionate instincts’.
In 1990 the Foundation for Rabbit-Free Australia was established to support research and increase community awareness. It points out that 'Whether rabbits are controlled by disease, poisoning, warren destruction, exclusion or a combination of these methods, the point is not how many rabbits are killed, but how many are left behind. An 80% level of control sounds great, but given an average year, the remaining 20% of rabbits only need one year to build up to their previous levels. A level of at least 90 to 95% control is needed to have any long-term effect'.
As rabbits are responsible for the decrease in plant biodiversity, by removing seedlings and preventing the regeneration of native vegetation, a highly successful program was started in the Flinders Ranges of poisoning and the ripping up of warrens. This has resulted in both regeneration and an increased income by farmers.
Rabbits were declared an established pest animal under the Catchment and Land Protection Act 1994. The introduction of Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease or Rabbit Calicivirus in 1996 has been the latest method used to control populations, especially in arid areas, but again, rapid resistance to the virus has left rabbits as one of Australia's most formidable pests. They still require hundreds of millions of dollars each year to control.