Those Wild Rabbits
How they shaped Australia
by Bruce Munday
The impact of wild rabbits on Australia and most of its landscape has been documented before but never like this treatise by Dr Munday. His definite account is backed up with detailed research, referenced and at the same time highly readable. It highlights the enormous damage and Australia’s missed opportunities for its rabbit control. It also clearly shows that the plagues of the past, when billions of these lovely bunnies were running over most of Australia, can and will happen again if we don’t learn from its history and do something about it. There is still the risk that by forgetting the past we will repeat it.
To paraphrase Victor Scheffer – Throughout history, men have played God by moving rabbits, goats, sparrows, camels, pigs, donkeys, cane toads, foxes, thistle and a hundred other species, to Australia and later wished to God they hadn’t. Thomas Austin usually gets the blame for importing them in 1859, and he most certainly did. However the very first rabbits came with the First Fleet in 1788 as did some convicts sent to transportation for poaching rabbits in England.
Within 10 years of Austin’s action the rabbit had become a severe problem as thousands of acres of the richest pasturage in Victoria were eaten as bare as an overstocked sheep run in the north, rendering properties utterly valueless. Rabbits were now causing untold damage, eating out the best land, necessitating rabbit-proof fencing and other expensive methods. One farmer destroyed two million of them at a cost of £10,000.
Not all was bad news though. It created also new work and new industries. In 1871 the Western Meat Processing Company was up and running, specialising in rabbit. In Tasmania, which was the first to introduce legislation for its control, its nuisance had become one of extreme importance. Some areas were already overrun by rabbits but no agreement could be reached as what to do about it. After all, rabbits provided safe food, skins and fur. In 1872, 656,000 skins were exported. Processing employed many people but its impact on rabbit numbers was minimal. Freezing was a much better proposition and in 1875 frozen meat was exported to London.
Rabbits were also imported to South Australia in 1840. As in other colonies they were valued for both sport and food. For a time it was even illegal to destroy them, even on one’s own land. Within 30 years they were a problem in the Mid North and Yorke Peninsula. In the Adelaide Hills it was a matter of ‘where there is sport, there will be no cabbages, carrots, turnips or celery’. In 1876 Dutton of Anlaby Station near Kapunda was paying £340 a year in wages, expressly for the destruction of rabbits on his property, resulting in the killing of 146,000 rabbits in the first nine months.
At Eudunda there was the Northern Rabbit Meat Preserving Company but as early as 1878, 20,000 cans of rabbit meat on the Acconcague from South Australia exploded due to the equatorial heat. In 1879 George Goyder reported that the government had 22 rabbit destroying parties employed across the colony with great success.
The South Australian Commissioner of Lands stated in 1882 ‘What might be done to exterminate the pest now for thousands will cost millions ten years hence’. By 1884 rabbits had reached Naracoorte in the south and Eyre Peninsula in the west. In 1886 he favoured a netting fence from the River Murray to Bordertown which would keep out rabbits and wild dogs. When completed he was appalled. The work had been done so badly as being almost useless. Ten years later rabbits could be seen at Eucla, taking only a short time to make their home in Western Australia.
In 1890 Goyder evaluated Sharp’s Exterminator at a field trial at Yunta and was impressed. Poisoning of any kind was tried but many other animals were killed in the process, in particular the local wildlife. In the end it was government legislation which would try to stop the introduction of rabbits and its control, forcing landowners to do something about it. However this was easier said than done. Laws were introduced to regulate trapping, poisoning, snaring, digging, fumigating warrens, fencing, which resulted in the longest rabbit proof fence in the world, pine stubb fencing and a bounty system. Dry-stone fencing proved to be one of the cheapest and longer lasting methods to control the bunnies.
Having tried anything and everything the New South Wales Government in 1887 announced an international competition to find a solution with prize money of £25,000 to find an effective solution, the brainchild of John Mildred Creed. Creed anticipated that the solution would be found in veterinary science. It attracted 1500 entries. None were considered to do the job.
Action to do something was taken right through Australia. In 1902 Alfred Canning surveyed an 1834 km barrier fence in Western Australia with a second fence added 200 km west of it. After canning rabbit meat, frozen meat became the preferred commodity. They had the added advantage of creating jobs for the numerous unemployed men. NSW exported 12 million carcasses in 1906 compared to ½ a million five years earlier. The Border Preserving Works at Mount Gambier supplied the Royal Navy with 33,000 kg rabbit food a week.
Regardless of all the damage done by the rabbits, there were still many people and organizations that were against their destruction. The main reason being that they made very good money from them, one way or another. A well-known product that evolved from it was the Akubra hat. Rabbit trappers who could earn up to £18 a week formed a Union to protect and improve their jobs and earnings.
Those Wild Rabbits reveals the immense damage inflicted by rabbits on Australia’s environment, biodiversity, agriculture and social cohesion. Both drought and rabbits contributed to soil erosion and the eventual degradation of much farmland and pastoral properties. Both have been well documented by Munday, who has made excellent use of rare photographs and the memories of old-timers who have lived through these events and experienced the devastating results at first hand.
By the 1940s when dams and reservoirs at Pekina and many other places around Australia, had silted up there were still many people who believed that rabbit farming was an honourable occupation. Those four-legged furry creatures, often mistakenly loved by children, are exposed for their true impact on nature in Bruce Munday’s excellent book. (Barbara Hardy, AO)
By the early 1930s, when every method had proven useless or at best only kept rabbit numbers steady, it was generally agreed that the only practicable method and solution would be a communicable disease such as rabbit myxoma. During 1937 trials were conducted on Wardang Island. There was no agreement between the states and South Australia was seriously promoting the rabbit trade in the USA and Canada.
As late as the 1950s methods for extermination were still those used half a century earlier. In the end it took a woman, Dame Jean Macnamara, to get the CSIRO moving in the right direction. By 1952 a decrease in the numbers of rabbits could be seen. The effect of Myxo was profound but it was not the end of it as rabbits soon became immune to the disease. Francis Redcliffe predicted that myxo would be useless within five years. It was not, it was still doing its job of sorts twenty years later.
In 1986 Joan Kirner and Heather Mitchell launched the highly successful Landcare program on a national scale. This resulted in renewed attempts to improve the environment and at the same time solve the rabbit problem. Almost ten years later the calicivirus and its testing on Wardang Island made the headlines and even more so when it had escaped from the island, showing its ability to kill the rabbit as far away as Yunta and Blinman. Finally in October 1996 all states approved the release of RHDV. This form of chemical warfare, according to David Williamson, AO, struck a body blow but not the knockout punch.
Munday rightly states that ‘The tale of Australia and the rabbit is really a tale of its people and their relationship with it. The people who brought it here had fun shooting it, wept over its devastation of everything they valued, lived off trapping, dreamt of controlling, searched for cures and rejoiced when it finally got sick. Rabbits exhausted our emotions, our wits, our natural garden and our bank accounts’.
Review by Nic Klaassen
Those Wild Rabbits, PB 273 pp, with BW photographs, index, and references is available at $39.95, from
Telephone 08 8352 4455
This is Munday's second book following his highly successful and popular debut,
those dry-stone walls:
Stories from South Australia's Stone Age.
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