“THE introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting,” said Thomas Austin, rather grandly, in 1859.
Upon arriving in Australia, Austin asked his nephew in England to send him “12 grey rabbits, five hares, 72 partridges and some sparrows” so he could continue his hobby of hunting.
As a result, and due to the prolificity of the rabbit and the ideal conditions in this country, this led to a rabbit population explosion that had a devastating effect on Australia’s ecology. They are suspected of being the most significant known factor in species and plant loss and erosion problems in Australia.
This month the oral history group, most of whom are country people, recalled their own experiences.
But first, I must warn the reader that these memories are not for the faint-hearted. People are far more affluent today and social mores have changed. The times we are recalling were not easy for many people and the struggle to maintain the environment and keep food on the table was constant. Children, in those days , were required to do their bit towards that goal and there was certainly no time for boredom!
“My father was very keen on ensuring that the boundary fences on our property were rabbit proof, so I spent a lot of my time checking fences, envying the boys next door who were out shooting and trapping,” John Bowler told us. “ When I joined them I found I could get about two shillings for a pound weight of skins. They were taken to Sydney by train and rabbitohs used to hawk them around with a horse and cart.”
For Russell Moor, school holidays at the property near Warialda proved to be anything but a restful time.
“Dad organised my bothers and me into mixing thistle roots and strychnine to lay baits. We used to set the traps in the evening and check them every morning. Sometimes we had so many rabbits in one night that we were skinning until five in the afternoon. Dad bought his first Holden car with rabbit skins!”
Mick Fitzpatrick did better than that on his uncle’s farm at Oberon when he poisoned and skinned a huge number of rabbits in one night (no doubt with a little help).
The rabbits were certainly there in their millions, as Kerrel Moor verified.
“Coming back from school the train blew its whistle near Cowra and the whole hill seemed to move,” she said.
The hills were honeycombed with rabbits and Max Hazelton was kept busy flying people out to fix the axels of Ferguson tractors that had broken trying to destroy the burrows on the rough rocky ground
Girls also played their part. Monica Knight and her siblings set traps before school to earn pocket money and food for the larder.
Lyn Sparkes would be woken up at 2am to take part in a rabbit hunt when the pests were rounded up into a corner of the paddock where the men would kill and skin them.
It was not only for the benefit of the land that rabbits were slaughtered, but for skins and food. In those difficult times when every penny had to be watched, it was often the staple diet and kept many families from starving.
“During the war it was almost the only meat available,” Mrs Moor said.
For town boys like Dick Page, Brian Phillips and Frank Higgins, rabbits made delicious meals.
Mr Phillips remembered the carcasses hanging outside shops in Sydney in the 1930s.
“It was a rite of passage for a boy to be given a skinning knife at seven and a pea rifle at 12,” Mr Moor said.
Mr Bowler agreed that everyone had a rifle behind the pantry door.
“My mate and I travelled to Campbelltown by train and then hitched rides to Burragorang Valley with our rifles to shoot rabbits,” he said. “Nobody seemed to worry about it.”
However, Bruce Martin came across someone who was indeed concerned.
“I was working in western Victoria where there was a large area of granulated lava stone near a creek and the rabbits were just crawling all through it,” he said. “The boss's son decided to go down there and pot a few rabbits with his pea rifle. He was firing away and the bullets were ricocheting off the stone country. Suddenly this ashen-faced bloke came out from behind a willow tree on the creek with his hands up yelling, ‘Don't shoot, I give up!”
He was fishing illegally.
The rabbit population was greatly reduced when the introduction of the myxomatosis virus in 1950 caused it to drop from an estimated 600 million to around 100 million, but by 1991 genetic resistance allowed it to recover to 200-300 million. To combat this trend the CSIRO released the calicvirus and by 1996 it was established in Victoria, NSW, the Northern Territory and WA.
This involvement of science in the destruction of rabbits has brought to an end a way of life that had been familiar to Australians for many years and has done a great deal to ease the lot of people on the land and stop the destruction of our ecology.
Tom Hogan’s father, who had a property out of Balranald in the 1920s and 30s, would have been surprised.
He summed up his situation in those days: “I am responsible for seven kids, 20 dogs, 500 hundred head of cattle, three thousand sheep and a million rabbits!”
Those were the days!
Next month: Epidemics