Visiting on a speaking tour around Aotearoa in 1895, Mark Twain wrote of the rabbit plague in the South Island: “The man who introduced the rabbit there was banqueted and lauded; but they would hang him now, if they could get him.”

The imports had taken to the Otago landscape like maggots on a carcass after the English variety was introduced in the 1860s, ravaging farmland and native flora.

Within a mere five years an act was brought in to control them, and in the 1880s, ferrets, stoats and weasels were released in the hopes they would get the rabbit population under control. They decimated our endemic wildlife instead.

More than 125 years after Twain’s remark, and the picture is still bleak. Rabbits, it seems, are winning the war.

The history of rabbits in NZ

· 1838 – the first introduced ‘fancy breed’ rabbits are carried off a boat arriving from Australia, to be released at an unknown location in New Zealand.

· 1862 – the hardier English rabbit is introduced, likely near Bluff and Ocean Beach in Southland, and the pests quickly take hold. A 5 pound fine is initially imposed on anyone caught shooting them.

· Only two years later, with rabbits already inhabiting large areas of Otago and Southland, introductions continue, to provide sport, food and new industry. The dry climate and arid environment is perfect for breeding and numbers escalate.

· In 1867, the Rabbit Nuisance Act is introduced but despite barren wastelands now being created by the pests, more rabbits are released in 1868 by the Southland Acclimatisation Society.

· By 1870 rabbits are overrunning Central Otago and in 1884, rabbiters kill a quarter of a million rabbits near Cromwell – and even more the following year.

Rabbit skins drying in Central Otago 1946
After a rabbit hunt.  Photo: Hocken Collections – Uare Taoka o Hākena, University of Otago

· In the Waiarapa, North Island, a runholder observes the seven pairs of rabbits he released in 1857 have, over 25 years, expanded to a population covering 20,000ha (45,000 acres).

· Stoats, weasels and ferrets are released in the mid-late 1880s in an attempt to control the rabbit population, but they instead decimate native birds.

· Sheep and cattle starve in their thousands and by 1887 over half a million hectares of farmland is abandoned due to rabbit damage.

· Fifty years on the plague is continuing. During the 1930s Depression, rabbits are providing food and income for families and at various times three factories near Alexandra are processing thousands of rabbits a day.

· In 1947, landowners start paying rates for pest control. The Rabbit Nuisance Amendment Act is introduced banning the skin and meat trade to disincentivise breeding.

· The Rabbit Destruction Council as well as Rabbit Boards around the country are tasked with attempting to “kill the last rabbit.”

· Myxomatosis is introduced in the early 1950s as a form of control, but it’s a failure.

· Sodium monofluoroacetate poison, also known as 1080, begins to be used in the 1950s to control the rabbit population, much more successfully.

· 1984 – User pays is introduced with landowners, including the Crown, responsible for controlling rabbits on their own land.

· The flip-flop of policies continues in 1989 with regional councils taking over role of rabbit boards and employing pest workers, then 4 years later landowners taking back responsibility for the work, and rates being removed.

· Rabbit haemorragic disease (RHD), also known as the calicivirus, is introduced illegally in 1997 by frustrated farmers in the Mackenzie Basin. This has an enormous impact on rabbit numbers.

An image that made history in 1997. A farmer using a blender to mix the rabbit calicivirus.  Photo: Brian High

· Evidence shows RHD begins losing its potency and the government approves the importation of another form of RHD – RHDV1 K5. Released in 2018 many say they have not seen any dead rabbits as a result and scientists are unable to explain patchy geographic results.

· 2020: Rabbits are starting to be seen near national parks, including Fiordland, and voraciously invading urban areas.

Last word goes to a W.H Howard who in 1958 wrote:

“The biggest problems facing eradication are human ones; lack of cooperation, misunderstanding, fear of the unknown, unwillingness to spend money … too little research, objections to killing, inadequate incentives to improve control measures.”

For a comprehensive history on rabbits in Aotearoa, read Rachael Egerton’s thesis here

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

Melanie Reid is Newsroom's lead investigations editor.

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