Anyone with children under five will probably be cognisant of the fact that while rabbits can be very nice, they can also be very bad –  Bunnytown’s “Little Bad Bunny” is undeniable evidence of this fact.

Also providing ample evidence that rabbits in the wrong place at the wrong time can have a devastating impact on the environment, the economy and peoples’ livelihoods is the rabbit’s history in New Zealand.  Its history here began in the 1830s; the first certain record of its introduction dating to 1838. Over the next two or more decades, the European gray rabbit was liberated at many locations around the country by both individuals and public bodies. But by the mid-1860s, the environmental impacts of these animals had become clear. In particular, the dry, grassland-dominated inland regions of the South Island proved ideal breeding grounds for the rabbit, where they proliferated to plague proportions before long. The problem became particularly acute in the south of the South Island; by the 1880s, tenants were abandoning farmland that had been devastated by rabbits – in 1887, on one Otago farm alone 164,000 rabbits were killed. By the same year, within the Otago Province, 1,350,000 acres has been abandoned due to destruction of pasture by rabbits. In many places, rabbits completely grazed out pasture, leading to significantly higher death-rates in sheep and serious drops in productivity (in terms of lambing rates and wool cut from the flock). In this sense, they became unlikely “killers”  – to sheep and farmers’ livelihoods (the understanding of their damaging effect on indigenous ecosystems would only develop much later).

Widespread public alarm about the “rabbit menace” led to the enactment of the Rabbit Nuisance Act in 1867, followed by a number of amendments which increased the coercive powers of the Act as the rabbit menace grew. The Department of Agriculture was set up in 1892, with rabbit control one of its major functions, accounting for a quarter of its budget in 1895. Meanwhile, however, it was landowners who bore the brunt of the assault of the rabbit, and many measures were employed in an attempt to control it. Early measures included the treating of bran or grain with phosphorus to be used as bait, plugging of burrows, fumigating warrens with carbon disulphide, distributing poisoned carrots, the use of dogs and cats, shooting, and the erection of rabbit-proof fences. These measures varied in effectiveness, but the introduction of mustelids (stoats, weasels and ferrets) from the 1870s was to prove both ineffective as a control measure and disastrous in terms of its effect on indigenous birdlife.

Despite exhaustive and often military-like efforts to control the pest, by the end of the 19th century, the rabbit had only been brought under control in the Wairarapa region of the southern North Island – and even then, this was in part due to the coincidental introduction of a bladder worm spread by dogs. For pastoral farmers, rabbit control became an accepted cost of production, with skin harvest and the revenue from meat being the only consolation.

But the situation was to become even more dire with the onset of the Great Depression and World War II. During this period of economic decline, private landholders and local government lacked the means to maintain rigorous control of the pest and during the war, they also lacked the manpower. The result was a serious outbreak of rabbits and the amendment of Rabbit Nuisance Act to establish a national Rabbit Destruction Board, the goal of which was the complete eradication of the rabbit. Measures included poisoning with 1080 (sodium monofluoroacetate), dropping of poisoned carrots from aircraft, and night shooting from off-road vehicles. This led to unprecedented killing rates, but not eradication, and by the late 1960s, the responsibility for rabbit control was returned to local bodies. From the 1980s, central government funding of rabbit control was progressively withdrawn and with the reforms of local government in 1989, the rabbit control responsibility was passed to the newly formed regional councils. Subsequently, a number of attempts have been made to control rabbits with biological control, including with myxomatosis and RHD (rabbit haemorrhagic disease) – both legally and illegally – but the rabbit continues to remain a pest in many regions.

Photo: Unidentified hunter with a brace of rabbits, on his horse, possibly during the 1890s. Location and photographer unidentified. Not to reproduced without permission from Alexander Turnbull Library, ref. 1/2-106869-F.

Sources: “Remaking the grasslands of the open country” by Peter Holland, Kevin O’Connor, and Alexander Wearing in Environmental Histories of New Zealand (2002), Eric Pawson and Tom Brooking (eds); “Pests and weeds”, by Thomas D. Isern, in Environmental Histories; Te Ara Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand.