In 1859, Grazier Thomas Austin released 12 pairs of wild rabbits on his property at Winchelsea in Victoria’s Western District. A keen hunter, his aim was to provide sport. They bred prolifically and spread rapidly. By the 1920s there were more than 10 billion rabbits across Australia.
Domestic rabbits arrived with the First Fleet. There were populations established along Australia’s east coast and in Tasmania by the 1820s. However, the domestic species had not caused major problems.
The rabbits released by Thomas Austin reproduced rapidly. Australian Geographic quotes a 1997 Anti-Rabbit Research Foundation handbook, saying that population increases of eight to 10-fold in one breeding season are common. Austin also gave wild rabbits to others, including some from other Australian colonies, which may have facilitated the spread.
In 15 years wild rabbits were established in New South Wales and, 15 years later, in Queensland. By 1900 they had reached Western Australia and the Northern Territory. According to the Western Australian Department of Agriculture, it was the fastest spread of a colonising mammal anywhere in the world.
In an article written for Heritage Australia, biologist and freelance writer Mark Kellett raises some doubts about Thomas Austin’s culpability. He mentions many earlier attempts to introduce rabbits, some more successful than others. And while Austin almost certainly released the first European wild rabbits, there may well have been others who did the same. Kellett suggests that in South Australia, where rabbits thrived, it has been suggested that they were not descended from Austin’s population.
Wild rabbits devastated farming areas, competing with stock for food and water. Efforts at control – fencing, trapping and shooting – failed to halt the plague. However, during the depression years of the 1930s, rabbits provided a useful food source and were even processed and canned for export.
The release of the myxomatosis virus in the 1950s reduced rabbit populations dramatically. However, immunity developed and the numbers began to rise again. The calicivirus, introduced in the ’90s, again reduced wild rabbit numbers. It has, however, created problems for farmed rabbits as it is difficult to protect animals against the virus and immunisation is expensive.