Rabbits were a topic of conversation at almost every meal when I was growing up in the 1950s.
The farm had thousands of them and no matter how many we shot or trapped, there were just as many or more a week later.
In the late 1950s, I was trapping about 50 pairs every night, there would have been more but 100 rabbits in two corn bags over the horses back was all I could manage.
In those days, they were killed for their skins.
The bodies were thrown into a 44-gallon drum half full of water and were boiled over a log fire then tipped out for the chooks to eat.
My grandfather was forced to reduce sheep numbers due to the competition from rabbits and there seemed no answer. He had netted his boundary but the rabbits just burrowed under the fence even though the netting was buried well into the ground.
It wasn’t until myxomatosis (myxoma virus) (MV) arrived at home did there appear to be a ‘light at the end of the tunnel.’
‘Myxo’ as we called it, killed 99.8 percent of rabbits infected initially and it was thought this was an end to the problem however, some rabbits developed immunity and the numbers rapidly increased again
Research on bio-control methods have continued ever since.
A freezer box came into our district at some stage where we were able to take the whole body (minus the stomach) and be paid a reasonable amount.
In 1995, rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV1) was introduced and killed up to 98 percent of rabbits in arid areas. Again, built up immunity prevented the entire population being destroyed.
In 2014, rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus 2 (RHDV2) arrives in Australia and spread to all rabbit populations across Australia within two years. It reduced rabbit populations by 60 percent on average and up to 80 percent in some populations, including a proportion of rabbits with immunity to RHDV.
Rabbits are not native to Australia
Domesticated European rabbits arrived in Australia with the First Fleet in 1788. They were introduced for food.
A colony of feral rabbits was reported in Tasmania in 1827 and it was suggested they were escapees from some of the domesticated stock.
Who’s to blame?
Englishman Thomas Austin hoped to make his block of Australian wilderness more like his homeland when he released 12 breeding pairs of rabbits onto his sprawling estate near Geelong in 1859.
What he’d really unleashed was an ecological disaster.
Rabbits were so bad in places some farms were abandoned as early as 1881.
By 1910, rabbits were found in the Northern Territory and had spread right throughout their current populated area.
By 1920, it was suggested there were 10 billion wild rabbits in Australia.
Environmental damage is now the biggest problem caused by feral rabbits in Australia. They compete for feed and shelter with native animals but most environmental harm comes from how they graze and because they help maintain feral predators.
Rabbits have clearly contributed to the decline or loss of the greater bilby, yellow-footed rock-wallaby, southern and northern hairy-nosed wombats, the malleefowl and the plains-wanderer.
Feral rabbits can be an important part of the diet of cats and foxes, sustaining their populations – which in turn, leads to increased predation on small-to-medium sized native fauna.
By maintaining fox and feral cat numbers, rabbits have indirectly contributed to the loss of native species – and Australia has lost more native mammal species than any other country.
Rabbits don’t fell ancient, giant trees – but they do seek out and eat every seedling of preferred species within their grazing range before they can grow.
Once mature trees die, the species is lost as there are no younger plants to replace them. The immediate impact of rabbits may go un-noticed, but the lack of plant recruitment can change the whole structure of vegetation communities, with flow-on effects for the native birds, reptiles, invertebrates and other animals which live within.
Feral rabbits in Australia are just one example where we humans have interfered with God’s perfect world and we are paying the price.
John Skinner served as an infantry soldier in Vietnam then the Tasmanian Police before taking up the position of CEO of the Australian Rough Riders Association (professional rodeo based in Warwick Qld). Before retirement to his small farm, he was a photo-journalist for 25 years. He is married with 3 children and 7 grandchildren.