It’s Easter. Which means chocolate eggs, baby chicks, and of course the Easter Bunny. Very cute these bunnies, but Australians think otherwise. The rabbit is on top of the list of Australia’s ‘most wanted’ pests.
The first rabbits travelled to Australia on board of the English fleet and hopped ashore in 1788. The English kept the rabbits in cages and bred them for meat and fur. Everything was fine until 1859 when a British settler, Thomas Austin, decided to release some rabbits on his estate in Vitoria. Declaring that “The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting”, Austin had his nephew, William Mack, import 24 rabbits to Australia.
You can probably guess where this is going. Indeed, the rabbits were breeding like, well, rabbits and within no time there were millions. After destroying about two million acres of land in Victoria the bunnies crossed the border and spread to the other states. It was a disaster; the rabbits ate most of the native vegetation leaving the land bare and vulnerable to erosion. Cattle farmers struggled to find enough green pastures for their herds. The rabbits also competed with native species like the Australian Bilby for food and habitat.
Battle with the Bunny
The situation got so dire that the government of New South Wales offered a reward of 25.000 pounds (a small fortune in those days) to for whoever could come up with an effective method of controlling the Rabbit Menace. Out of 1500 submission no winner was elected.
For the larger part of the 19th century trapping and shooting were the main methods to control the rabbit population. This was reasonably successful in small populations but failed on a large scale. Poison, ferrets, gas and even dynamite were used as weapons in this Battle with the Bunnies. To no avail
Fence or Folly?
In 1901 the government decided to take more drastic measures by building three “Rabbit Proof Fences” to protect the rural areas of Western Australia. When the three fences, aptly named fence nr. 1, 2 and 3, were linked together in 1907 they stretched over more than 3000 km. Despite this large-scaled approach the Fence proved to be unsuccessful since the rabbits had already crossed over into Western Australia before the fence was completed. Too bad, but at least it turned out to be inspiration for an excellent movie.
In the 50’s some decades after the failed fence project the government came up with a new strategy: introducing myxoma virus. This virus causes a deadly disease called Myxomatosis and only rabbits are sensitive to infection. Initially, Myxomatosis caused enormous reductions in rabbit numbers. In some areas 99 per cent of the rabbits were killed. However the virus is being spread by mosquitoes and in arid areas, where mosquitoes cannot survive, the disease did not spread well
To combat the reduced effectiveness of myxoma virus, calicivirus, or rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD), was released in Australia in 1995. As it is spread by flies, the virus spread well in the arid areas but had very little impact in cooler, high rainfall regions in coastal south eastern Australia where flies are less abundant.
Present-day there is still no clear solution for the problem and as a result the Australian Government is spending millions of dollars each year fighting the rabbit plague.
Friend or Foe?
When I think of rabbits I think of my pet ‘Floppy’ or cute cartoon characters like Bugs and Peter. But most Australians have a hard time summoning the same affection when they see their crops being destroyed or when they learn that because of the rabbit native species like the Bilby are threatened with extinction. The urge to protect the land and native wildlife is rooted deep into the culture and so the war continues. Over here they would rather see Bugs nibble on a poisoned carrot and that fly on Little Peter’s nose is probably carrying RHD. The ubiquitous aversion towards the rabbit has also found it’s way into the supermarkets and that’s why around Easter you don’t find Easter Bunnies but Easter Bilbies on the shelf. Happy Easter!