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Rabbits

History

Domesticated rabbits were common in Australia with the first settler fleet, but did not become feral until 1859.  Europeans wanted the luxury of rabbit hunting that they had in their homeland.  Thomas Austin, a resident of southern Victoria, released twenty-four wild English rabbits on his property for this purpose.  By 1869, rabbits were rampant across Victoria and were gaining interest across civilized parts of the continent.  Hunters enjoyed the ease with which they took rabbits, sometimes thousands in a matter of hours, but the population was soon to be out of control. 

            Numbers of rabbits were so great that “Rabbiters” were hired to exterminate them.  Farmers complained of crop damage and the degradation of pastureland due to the enormous number of rabbits.  Millions of rabbits were killed in this way, but their numbers were unharmed.  The rabbiters made sure of that.  If rabbiters killed their entire quarry, they would be out of a job, so most released rabbits in previously uncolonized territories for the purpose of job security.

With Austin’s release and other release points in Victoria and South Australia, rabbits were beginning their spread to the entire continent.  It took only 40 years for the rabbit to spread from Victoria to Western Australia.

Problems

Sixteen rabbits are equal to the consumption rate of one sheep, so their impact on the environment is obvious.  Populations of rabbits in a given year are close to one billion and the equivalent of 16 million sheep.  Economic damage of the rabbit is about 90 million dollars and 20 million spent on control. 

Rabbits severely impact the environment as well.  As they migrate across the terra, pastureland is lost, trees are killed due to ring-barking, and native animals are forced out of their burrows.  The burrowing bettong and the rufous hare-wallaby are the main native mammals impacted by the rabbit.  Non-target species are also killed by poisons and traps set out for rabbits.

Improving the Situation

There are many plans for control of the rabbit, few of which could be deemed as successful.  They are:
        -Myxomatosis
        -Rabbit Calcivirus Disease (RCD)
        -Biological control
        -Traditional methods

Myxomatosis was first introduced into the rabbit population in the 1930’s and had less than desirable effect on the population.  Many rabbits were immune and soon replenished the rabbits that were affected by the virus.  Today, many rabbits are still affected, but the vectors of the disease, fleas and mosquitoes, are less abundant in many areas. 

Rabbit Calcivirus Disease (RCD) is a projected plan for the control of rabbits in Australia.  This disease is endemic in rabbit populations in other parts of the world and is spread by contact and by insects.

As with many other types of wildlife, biological control or contraception is also a means of controlling the population.  The plan with rabbits is to insert genes that make the rabbits’ antibodies attack proteins contained in the egg and sperm cells in their bodies.

Traditional, not to mention hardly effective, methods to control rabbits are still used.  Fences have been stretched for miles to block the migration of rabbits.  When rabbits got to the fences, pressured by predators or natural occurrences, they pile up and act as stepping-stones for other rabbits to cross.  Poisons and traps have little effect and often harm non-target species.  Rabbit-proof fences have been constructed, but these are more expensive and are often built when the general migration of rabbits has passed the area.

Status

Today, rabbits are just as much of a pest as they were soon after their introduction in 1859.  Populations have stabilized, estimated at around one billion.  Australia exhibits the fastest growth of any mammal introduced into an environment, the rabbit taking only 40 years to spread to most of mid- to southern Australia.

Written By:  Ryan Pelhank

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