In the year 1787, the First Fleet departed from England to land on the shores of the then penal colony of Australia. Many species prevalent in England had been added to the cargo to make Australia seem more like home to the settlers. One of the species was Oryctolagus cuniculus, commonly known as the European Rabbit or the Common Rabbit. Two types of these rabbits were introduced, the domesticated and the wild. The domesticated european rabbit was introduced and raised like other farm animals for meat.
The wild rabbits were introduced for sport hunting but were never released into the wild with no supervision or to propagate and reproduce freely. In 1827, Tasmania reported freely roaming and propagating rabbits. This was the first instance where the rabbits had been invasive since their arrival on the First Fleet. In 1859, however, a rabbit free Australia would become something for the history books. Thomas Austin was a wealthy landowner and landlord to many. Mr. Austin took up the sport of hunting, as did many other wealthy men at the time.
Mr. Austin had raised wild rabbits for his hunting but thought it even better if they would already be in the wild. This was how it was in England and it worked well there. Unfortunately, England had many predators that killed off the rabbits and kept the population in balance while Australia was missing most, if not all, of these population prevention factors. By 1886, the 24 rabbits that had been released in Winchelsea, Victoria by Thomas Austin had spread all throughout Victoria and New South Wales. In 1900, the rabbits had also populated the majority of Northern Territory and Western Australia.
The main reason for this rapid spread was not only lack of predation but also the reproduction rates of the female european rabbit. One female rabbit can have anywhere from 18 to 30 young in one year. To further the problem, Parliament had passed a bill which protected the rabbits from direct eradication. By the year 1920, an approximate one billion rabbits inhabited Australia’s wilderness. The protection law put in place by Parliament was in effect until 1867, 8 years after the introduction of rabbits to the wild.
Before the year 1867, it was illegal to hunt or kill rabbits out of hunting season, breaking this law would result in a fine of 5 australian dollars. After an outcry from the people to nullify the Parliamentary protection of the rabbits, the law was abolished in 1867. One of the main worries of the time was the effect of the rabbits on Australia and Australia’s economy as a whole. Voters would choose a candidate whose opinion of a plan for the rabbit eradication they agreed with.
Due to conflict of interest, many of the bills that would have funded rabbit eradication sooner were not passed because rich landowners would be taxed extra due to their larger land holdings. Many of the candidates were sponsored and funded by the rich landowners or the landowners were their landlords which meant that any action harmful to the wealthy would not be passed. In 1871, the representatives were finally able to pass a bill that would allow people to hunt and eradicate rabbits with government funds on any lands.
This bill also allowed eradication of rabbits on government lands which had never been allowed with any other invasive species eradication program or process in Australia. However, the money set aside for eradication got used by only the wealthy landowners, in particular, Mr. Dutton who was the landlord for most of the politicians and representatives in office at the time. Practically all of the government funding secured by the 1871 bill went to eradication efforts on solely Mr. Dutton’s land.
After the passing of the 1871 bill, county governments could reward any citizen who killed a certain amount of rabbits one shilling for their work. The monetary reward gave the people an even bigger reason to try to eradicate the pests but these efforts weren’t enough. In 1888, New South Wales created a commission which would discuss the rabbit problem and the best ways to go about eradicating the species. The commission discussed the use of viruses and diseases, fencing, fumigation, hunting parties, and habitat destruction to slow the spread and reduce the population of the rabbits.
Not only did the commission discuss eradication techniques, they also discussed how to fund these projects and what to do with all the dead rabbits. The commission proposed that people who didn’t have any rabbits on their land would not be taxed to help fund the eradication efforts. This taxation method would galvanize the landowners to quickly eradicate the rabbits from their lands. With all the eradication efforts, there were thousands of rabbit carcasses that the people had no use for.
There were discussions as to whether or not the rabbits should be used to create a profit from either the meat or the furs. The rabbits were seen as a menace to the public and especially farmers whose crops were destroyed by the pests; the commission saw it unfit to be making a profit from such a tormenter. The Rye Meat Preserving Company was the largest meat preserving company in Australia at the time and saw the opportunity to salvage the business, which had been faltering, by paying one penny per rabbit brought in by the public.
This was not a government-based profit as banned by the New South Wales rabbit commission and therefore was allowed. The Rye Meat Preserving Company found that this way of collecting meat worked so well that it opened an extension in Victoria called the Rabbit Preserving Company. The idea of using the slaughtered rabbits spread and soon wealthy landowners had erected rabbit treatment facilities on their estates to use the meat and furs as well.