Monday, 23 July 2018

"Bunny is Getting it in the Neck" - Tackling The Rabbit Plague in Southland

Sign at Rabbiter's Residence, Otahuti, April 1964
Photograph taken by William Dykes
[From my own collection]

Having been innocently introduced as a source of fur and meat it would now be hard to comprehend the wholesale destruction, financial ruin, and complete utter despair that the rabbit plague has caused in Southland. Unfortunately for many, including those in Central Otago, the rabbit problem is ongoing.

Rabbits appear to have been introduced into Southland by whalers as early as 1843. Historian and early landowner Mr WHS Roberts observed in 1857 that they were then well established from Riverton (a former whaling base) and along the sand dunes of the Oreti Beach but had not yet crossed the Jacobs [Aparima] or Oreti Rivers or spread inland. Rabbits were, at this time still "regarded as a novelty which would in time provide sport for the gun".

By the 1860's rabbits were now well established in Southland and rapidly spreading inland. By the mid 1870's they had become an invasion, having "taken complete charge of the land, and were destroying it". Up till now the only real problems had been wild pigs and marauding wild dogs but these were nothing in comparison to the rabbit plague.

In May 1877 the Wallace County Council passed a resolution; "calling the serious attention of the Government to the incredible rapidity with which the rabbit nuisance was increasing in that county and in adjoining portions of the Southland County, more especially in pastoral districts." The Council had found, with some considerable alarm, that the annual value of the pastoral districts were, due to being overrun with rabbits, now diminishing thus affecting Council income.

The Council stressed; "that unless energetic means were immediately adopted towards exterminating the pest, large portions of Crown lands or public estate in the colony would be absolutely valueless before the expiry of the existing [land] leases, while the balance would be seriously deteriorated in value." Unoccupied Crown land, including reserves, bush and other unsold land had now become; "gigantic nurseries for the propagation of this scourge throughout the district."

Pet Ferrets kept by my Father for Rabbiting.
Taken early 1920's
[From my own collection]

Brothers Richard and David Spence, being the lessees from 1870 to 1880 of the large Heddon Bush Station, Run No 153 in Central Southland, encountered the full devastating effects of the rabbit plague which greatly reduced stock carrying capacity and thus their income. The "Old Man Flood" of 1878 coinciding with an economic slump led to them being forced to put the property up for auction in 1880. Having made their money as retail merchants they lost it all on the land. The new Station owner, Mr John Tennant, appears to have had slightly better success at rabbit control;  "The rabbits were very bad on the river flat but with trapping and poison they were got almost completely under control." Closer settlement of the newly surveyed and settled blocks on the "Hundreds" will also have aided control with small holding farmers naturally keen on minimizing damage to their precious holdings, their livelihood depending on it. But "control" would never equate to complete extermination.

By the 1880’s, the rabbit infestation was now endemic throughout Southland. “Te Ara”, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, states that the carrying capacity of one Southland station had fallen from 50,000 to 20,000 sheep. While rabbit numbers subsided through the 1890’s this respite would be short-lived. The serious matter of rabbit control again came to the fore at the Farmer’s Union Conference held at Invercargill on the 20th December 1901, being attended by my Gt. Gt. Uncle, a large landowner in Central Southland. A remit was passed calling on the Government to “... enact legislation for the systematic poisoning of rabbits as trapping had proved unsuccessful

Trapping did however prove lucrative. Two trappers working in the Drummond district during 1916 had been trapping and killing up to 200 rabbits per night, averaging an income of £7 per week for the sale of skins, rabbit furs being a sought after commodity. In January 1916 Otago and Southland exported a total of 659,155 skins with a commercial value of £9,092 [NZD$1, 273,379.00 in today's values]. 

Naturally more than a few rabbits that had been trapped or shot ended up in the stew pot. In 1981 the late George Catto of Heddon Bush in Central Southland (whom I well remember) reminisced of his schooldays prior to 1907 that after the departure of their long-serving Teacher Mr George Hassing and being succeeded by Miss Minnie Hanning, "a strong disciplinarian", that; "no longer were the big boys able to extend their lunch hour to two hours while they went rabbiting, knowing full well that the presentation of a rabbit to the teacher would serve to avert the wrath for which might have been called down on them for their misdemeanours."

As my two Uncles were then classmates of George they would also have been complicit in this activity. I am assuming that the boys, and being of primary school age, may have had unsupervised access to a rifle, something that would certainly not happen today, let alone having a two hour lunch break! George Catto also notes that, "In common with other farmers' sons, I got no wages for my work on the farm in those early days and any money which I earned came from catching rabbits for their skins, from a little shearing, and from working on the threshing mill."

"St. George" Brand "Rabbit in Jelly", Dunedin
[From my own collection]

Particularly heavily hit by the rabbit plague, Central Otago Councils had by 1921 resorted to forming “Rabbit Boards” to co-ordinate “the destruction of the rabbit pest”. The “Dunstan Times” emphasized the benefits of co-ordinated, systematic and scientific means of eradication and control. The cost of the Rabbit Board would be a levy on Council rates of up to 1d in the pound with the power to borrow money for the purchase of rabbit-proof netting, the employment of men to carry out the work, and the State would additionally pay a subsidy of £1 for £1.   

This concept appears to have been slow to come to fruition in the south. The Wallace County Council had by at least 1921 employed a “Rabbit Inspector” with the power to request landowners – and the Council itself - to undertake eradication work. But if extermination around the district was not consistent “the bunny” simply returned.

Rabbiting and the sale of fur skins continued to provide a good income. Common methods of extermination and eradication included spring-loaded rabbit traps, shooting, rabbit-proof netting, portable cynogas rabbit exterminator machines operated by means of fumigation, poison (phosphorized pollard, phosphorized oats, strychnine, and carbon bisulphide) and the use of dogs. Ferrets could also be employed to force the rabbits out of their burrows which were often particularly bad along the banks of streams and rivers, in gorse hedges, around trees, and on uncultivated land. 

"St. George" Brand "Rabbit in Jelly", Dunedin
[From my own collection]

My Father's family in Central Southland, and owning 459 acres of flat arable land, employed various methods of rabbit extermination including phosphorised pollard (poisoned wheat bran), poisoned oats, shooting, trapping (I recall the fierce looking traps), smoking out [fumigating], and my Father also kept pet ferrets that would fearlessly go down rabbit holes. A bottle of strychnine was found after my Uncle's death and this method of poisoning was also made use of. Occasionally they also used a commercial rabbitter, mostly using poisoned oats. This is my Uncle's recipe for phosphorised pollard from 1926, noting in his diary, "Results good” :

4 cups pollard (fine bran and flour)
3 cups sugar
2 cups water
Boil then add –
4” phosphorus & 15 to 20 drops essence of aniseed

By the 1920's rabbit skins were also becoming an increasingly  valuable commodity. In 1926 the “Otautau Standard and Wallace County Chronicle" reported that “Bunny is getting it in the neck” with skins worth from £5 to £6 per hundred, and with not a few townsfolk earning a few extra pounds “by spending their half-holidays and every possible spare hour in pursuit of ‘Brer Rabbit’”.

By 1931, and in the depths of the depression, “The Unemployment Board” encouraged “…every unemployed man to make every endeavour to secure other work as days worked outside the scheme are all to the good. With the rise in the value of rabbit-skins there is every opportunity to make a living by catching Brer Rabbit…” It was no accident that rabbit skin furs were then a popular fashion accessory with a ready demand. Furs would be made into coats, stoles and hats.

Although not unemployed, my own Father resorted to earning 'pocket money' from the sale of rabbit skins for their fur as the family farm at Heddon Bush was not in a sufficiently financial position to be able to pay him an actual wage. My Great Uncle on another farm in the district made good use of a .22 calibre “Winchester Repeater” rifle with a mounted sight which was later in my possession. Rabbits were, over these years until the establishment of the Rabbit Boards, apparently "the bane of his life".

To put the problem into perspective, after laying poison in July 1932 my Uncle notes a kill of 306 rabbits from an area of 259 acres. But this would be ineffective if neighbours did not undertake similar extermination measures. During 1932 to 1933 a home built rabbit smoker also proved "highly successful" with a kill tally of 100 on the first day but on the second day the “smoker backfired & burst bellows”. But it would be repaired and be successfully used over a number of days. Incidentally, this smoker would also prove effective on rats, smoking out 161 rats from their warrens over a two day period.

Cargill Brand "Canned Rabbit Bone In",
Invercargill, circa 1940's
[Source : National Library of New Zealand]

In 1932 the Secretary of the “Southland League” wrote to the Wallace County Council in regards to the scheme for “Rabbit Control” whereby the Council would contribute on a pro-rata basis with three representatives on the proposed Board. The “extermination of rabbits” would be organised under the No 11 Scheme for the Unemployed, single men being paid 30/- per week and married men £1 per week. But to succeed it would need to be a combined and co-ordinated effort with each Riding adopting the proposal. But Councils could later administer the scheme within their own Riding. While some in the Wallace Council were opposed to the cost as an additional burden on all farmers, some of whom did not require the service, the vote was carried 5 to 4 in favour of supporting the scheme.

Although apparently not as heavily hit as other provinces, the rabbit infestation reached another peak throughout Southland in the 1940’s, perhaps due to the lack of available manpower during the war.  In April 1941 my Uncle purchased strychnine from the Inspector of Stock at Otautau, assumedly for rabbit control, but in June 1941 would again bring in a commercial rabbitter who laid poisoned oats. The rabbits were then skinned as the furs still had a commercial value. While my Uncle purchased a quantity of "rabbit netting" at this time, this fine mesh fence netting ordinarily being placed along the bottom of fence lines and also dug into the ground to deter burrowing, it appears to have been used for other purposes. But such netting would be much used in the high country and in Central Otago.

My Uncle also notes that he voted at a "Rabbit Board Election" at South Hillend in October 1941. This would appear to be the forerunner of the later Rabbit Boards, of which there would be one hundred throughout New Zealand by 1946. South Hillend Rabbit Board Rates levied for the year 1944 to 1945 were £7.13.1 [NZD$606.00 in today's values] based on 459 acres while the Wallace County Council annual rates were £23.4.7 so the cost to farmers to eradicate the rabbit nuisance came at a heavy cost.

But this further 'infestation' would prompt new moves to permanently eradicate the problem. In 1947 the Government enacted “The Rabbit Nuisance Amendment Act 1947” which empowered the Rabbit Boards to kill all rabbits almost regardless of cost, to co-ordinate staff and resources as required, and to "de-commercialize the rabbit industry". Central Government would pay a subsidy on a pound for pound basis. Maximising post war food production both for New Zealand and Britain (which was still heavily reliant on food produced by its Dominions) was no doubt the driving force.

Thereafter the local Rabbit Boards were funded either by direct County Council levies on rates or, as in the case of the Wallace County area, a separate Rabbit Board rate. This system continued successfully for many years thereafter. I can myself only recall isolated and occasional pockets of rabbits or evidence of rabbits on our own farm at Heddon Bush in the early to mid 1960’s, particularly tell-tale burrows along stream banks and under macrocarpa trees. Any evidence of recent activity or sight of "Brer Rabbit" would be promptly reported with the Rabbit Board man appearing within the next day or so to eradicate the new infestation.

The now very dead rabbits would usually then be handed over to us to skin and cook up for rabbit stew, something that would later be frowned upon due to the risk of them being diseased or having possibly ingested toxic poisons. This really is a shame as rabbit meat is very tender and quite delicious. Rabbit meat is however available from strictly controlled and licensed sources such as "Fare Game" in Invercargill, the product being sourced from the Central Otago district [Link HERE] where rabbits numbers are again out of control.

Of all the old family cookery books I hold only the tried and trusted New Zealand Women's Division of Federated Farmers (WDFF) Cookery Book for 1965 lists a number of recipes, one being shown below. There are however plenty of recipes for rabbit stew on Internet.

Recipe for Baked Rabbit taken from the
Women's Division of Federated Farmers of New Zealand
Cookery Book published 1965

While local Rabbit Boards have now disappeared into history, the furry menace now able to be be at least adequately controlled in Southland, the Southland Regional Council have strict regulations which places a personal responsibility on landowners to control rabbit numbers; 

"Land occupiers within Southland shall control rabbits on the land they occupy to reasonable levels at their own expense to reasonable levels. No person shall possess, sell, breed, transport or release live rabbits on or to Stewart Island/Rakiura, any offshore island, any island or area enclosed by a predator proof fence. No person shall release any rabbit into the wild within Southland."

Suggested methods of control and extermination today include shooting, poisoning, fumigants, commercial pest controllers, and any means of prevention  or exclusion. In areas of New Zealand the rabbit virus has been introduced as a means of control but as the Council themselves state, this is not the "silver bullet" to totally eradicate the problem.

It was only just over a week ago that national publicity was given to Jane Avery, a Dunedin Designer who is hiring a rabbiter to catch rabbits in the Central Otago area with the fur being made into luxury rabbit fur coats under the "Lapin" brand and the meat used as pet food. Avery calls rabbit fur an "eco-conscious and environmentally friendly" product which avoids the use of non-degradable synthetic faux fur while making productive use of what is otherwise considered a pest (and a now rapidly increasing one in this area). Each coat takes up to six weeks to manufacture and uses between sixteen and fifty-five rabbit skins.

Whatever your views on animal welfare and the various methods of rabbit control, we would not wish to go back to the earlier days of rabbit plagues virtually devouring all that the land produced and bringing despairing landowners to the brink of financial ruin. According to one contractor quoted in "The Otago Daily Times" this month, some large Central Otago landowners are already having to spend up to $100,000 annually on rabbit control including reverting to the highly contentious 1080 poison (sodium fluoroacetate).

That invasive and destructive species such as the rabbit, opossum or red deer could have been so innocently introduced into this country and to have caused such ongoing problems and expense reaffirms the unique but fragile environment that is New Zealand.

All Rights Reserved

Sources :

- Papers Past / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
- Te Ara Cyclopedia of New Zealand
- Personal family papers
- William Dykes Photographic Collection (held by the writer)
- “West to the Fiords”, By FWG Miller, 1954 (from my own collection)
- “Historical Southland” by FG Hall-Jones, 1945 (from my own collection)
- "Looking Back 100 Years - Heddon Bush School 1881-1981" (from my own collection)
- Southland District Council

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