Ihug co-founder Tim Wood now avoids some parts of his 10-acre rural Wakatipu idyll because it’s too depressing to see his plantings and landscaping trashed by rabbits yet again.

“It looks beautiful from a distance, but when you get up close, it’s an absolute ecological disaster. It’s out of control. We’re back at the late eighties and early nineties sort of stage of how bad it is.”

Recently planted natives collapse into the stream as rabbits undermine their root systems and some mornings up to 30 rabbits have their breakfast on the lawn as Wood eats his metres away in his kitchen. An attractive bank slowly turns into a swiss-cheese dustbowl and costly native trees get planted, ring-barked and eventually thrown on the compost heap.

Wood believes a coordinated approach is the only way to go – one where every landowner and government department is held accountable and works together. Until that happens the damage and frustration continues.

Tim Wood at his Queenstown property. Photo: George Murahidy

“I do get angry. You spend all this time because you want to make things look nice. I’m trying to plant some Beech forest and regenerate some of the way it used to be but I’m having to bolster all the bases of the Beech trees because they’re eating them. They’re just stripping all the bark. I think it’s actually quite stressful for a lot of people, especially people down Cromwell way and people in the agricultural areas. I’ve got friends in the wine industry and it’s a constant, constant headache.”

Kill that rabbit

Once a property is purchased newcomers soon require the services of a pest controller, and one who is seeing the lifestylers vs rabbits scenario play out with regular monotony all over Central Otago is Stephen Dickson.

The name of his business, these days almost solely focused on rabbit control, is as blunt as he is.

Kill That Rabbit has been operating in Central Otago for 12 years and has seen many a newcomer to the region grow disheartened by the never ending struggle to control the persistent pest.

“They arrive and see the cute little bunnies, several months to a year or two later you would be amazed at the language they use to describe how they want them killed. This goes for both men and women, hell they even make me blush and that takes some doing.”

Stephen Dickson with his dogs that hunt rabbits. Photo: George Murahidy

Lifestylers, Dickson says, quickly lost motivation when they had to keep throwing money at a problem which didn’t go away unless the neighbours were doing the same.

He reckons the relentless march of the rabbit pest was often very much underestimated.

“They run out of money and motivation fast. There’s no comprehension on just how persistent rabbits are. You take your foot off their throat for a moment and they have got away again.”

If Dickson had his way, the words ‘Rabbit Prone’ would be loudly emblazoned on real estate ‘for sale’ signs. Or at the very least people would have to be pre-warned about the costs and work involved.

“Everyone contemplating buying land in Central Otago should be informed they will have yearly costs for rabbit control. These can vary a lot depending on where they are buying and what the neighbours do for control. Where we do groups of properties the costs drop dramatically after a while. Simple reason, re-population doesn’t happen anywhere near as quick.”

For now, people were finding out the hard way that their rabbit problem was going to cost them a lot more each year than their rates bill.

“We’ve got wee places in town that we do twice a year, they might spend $600 or $800 a year but we’ve got other places where there’s ten acres, it might be $10k a year because they’re surrounded by rabbits.”

Erecting a rabbit-proof fence was the essential but costly one-off exercise that most stunned rural buyers.

“You might be looking at $25 per metre to put in a full rabbit fence, if you’ve got 1000 metres…do the maths, it adds up. Then you’ve got to kill the rabbits inside the fence and actually get the kids to shut the gate.”

Rabbits of the rich and famous

With houses in the $8-$18 million-dollar bracket quite the norm, Bendemeer’s rural estate near Arrowtown represents some of this country’s most expensive real estate. But there’s been trouble in paradise.

Its manicured sweeps of lawn, picturesque ponds, tennis court, and enormous residences overlook beautiful Lake Hayes with a serene grandiosity most of us will only ever dream of waking up to.

Until recently, however, all was not quite well in this 110 hectare paradise.

When the sheep and the farmer moved out 15 years ago, some undesirables moved in and set up camp in their hundreds. They trashed the tennis court, ate the lawns and wrecked the landscaping, starting a battle that has only in recent years started to tip in favour of their opponents.

Tens of thousands of dollars have been thrown at the rabbit issue at Bendemeer – and it’s not over yet, estate manager Karen Ramsay says.

A long-time local, she tells Newsroom the rabbit problem was nothing new for the area – the Arrow Junction had always been notoriously bad for rabbits.

The issue lay with the pests being as attracted to the new environment as the wealthy lifestylers buying up the plots.

Karen Ramsay at Bendemeer Estate, near Queenstown  Photo: George Murahidy

With more than a square kilometre of land and neighbours who didn’t control their own growing numbers of pests, the issue escalated.

Expert advice was sought and investing in rabbit-netted fencing right around the boundary deemed essential. While this stemmed the tide of invaders, it required constant vigilance to ensure pressure from outside infestations did not permeate the barriers.

The pests constantly dug underpasses to gain access to Bendemeer’s tasty lawns and exotic plantings and they were forced in some areas to erect a second rabbit-proof fence inside the existing one.

With thousands of metres to cover, the costs are significant. Ramsay says this year’s fencing bill alone could be $20,000.

“Bendemeer spends approximately $30,000 on rabbit control per annum, excluding the fencing. These costs include shooting, magtoxin and pindone pellets. It is very labour intensive.”

Keeping them out, whatever the cost, continues to be the main priority and it’s this investment that has allowed them to gradually reduce numbers and repair damage.

The Modified McLean Scale

Rabbit control is a management issue at Bendemeer, rather than something individual property owners can tackle, Ramsay says.

The 42 sections are generally not fenced as this helped retain the feel of a rural estate. Property owners helped, some fairly enthusiastically, by blocking holes and marking fresh burrows with white sticks for the caretaker to fumigate.

Two years ago the standard tally the residents would report seeing, from driving through the estate gates to reaching their houses, was around 30 rabbits. Now Ramsay is pleased to report it had dropped to half a dozen.

The tennis court, which had become something of a social hub for hundreds of rabbits in the evenings – despite the turf being artificial – has been given a netting barrier. It can again be used by its rightful owners without them treading on a rabbit-dropping carpet.

A tennis court in the grounds of Bendemeer.  Photo: George Murahidy

The company is fortunate it has the resources to fight the rabbit here and on their nearby Threepwood subdivision but some help from authorities to get the neighbours to do the same would be most welcome, Ramsay says.

“The control of rabbits within residential developments relies very much on the neighbours also controlling their rabbit population and this is not happening – there doesn’t appear to be any enforcement of MMS (Modified McLean Scale) 3 rule.”

The Otago Regional Council is responsible for ensuring pest control work is done by landowners.

MMS measures infestation levels and the council is required to act if these are breached.

Council staff inspected 180 properties throughout Otago during the past year to check landowners were keeping rabbits under the levels required for compliance. Only 57 percent were found to be compliant and none of seven inspected in Wanaka and Alexandra passed the test.

No inspections were done in Cromwell or the Wakatipu areas, although public information sessions on rabbit control have been planned for Lake Hayes and Albert Town in early May.

‘Layer of rabbit shit’

Pedro Allison, a fencing contractor in the region for 20 years, will be pleased to see people in the Wakatipu Basin gaining knowledge on the rabbit issue.

“I’ve seen lawns that are just a layer of rabbit shit. They’re completely bald and in the evening there’d be like 50 or 60 rabbits jumping around playing out there like big party.”

Where landowners have rabbit-netted as well as worked continuously to maintain their defences, the pests have been pushed out to other areas where the going is easier. Patches of broom or gorse, unkempt gardens and damaged netting provide opportunity for numbers to quickly build up.

“All you need is two rabbits to get in and get established. In a matter of weeks you’ve got thirty.”

Rabbits outside a house near Wanaka. Photo: George Murahidy

He said it was difficult for inexperienced landowners to keep them out and cost was a factor but even those who were vigilant were seeing unprecedented damage.

“I had a lady there at Christmas time, she had put plastic sleeves around trees that were established, about a year old probably and the rabbits had climbed up and ringbarked them above the sleeve.”

The occasional “rogue” rabbit was growing bigger and stronger and if there was anything at ground level to get a bit of a leg-up, perhaps a wooden board across the bottom of a gate, they would climb up and over the netting fence.

The solution? Allison says he’s no scientist, but he doesn’t believe viruses are working and finding a way to sterilise the pests to stop them breeding would be a cruelty-free godsend.

Changing land use

In a statement the Otago Regional Council said the changing land use and a backdrop of increasingly diverse views amongst residents and wider society regarding acceptable methods of rabbit control, had resulted in further complexity of an already difficult problem.

Biosecurity manager Andrea Howard said compliance work was now being stepped up.

“Our compliance programme matches the level of resources we have available so requires areas to be prioritised, although we are progressing undertaking inspections outside of the key areas.”

External assistance had also been bought in to establish community, landowner-led rabbit programmes in peri-urban areas and two staff had been employed to further support wallaby and rabbit programmes and monitoring.

Part of a rabbit infestation on the shores of Lake Hayes at Queenstown. Photo: George Murahidy

Biosecurity team leader Richard Lord told Newsroom the focus historically had been on farms but the council was aware of the advent of the ‘lifestyle rabbit’. The authority had adopted a new regional pest plan in November 2019 and simpler enforcement compliance procedures.

“If people are going to take the regional council seriously on the compliance front into the future, we need to be seen out there enforcing our rules”.

*Made with the support of NZ on Air*

Melanie Reid is Newsroom's lead investigations editor.

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