1890s Frozen rabbit industry takes off

Rabbit freezing works

The introduction of refrigerated railway cars made it viable to ship frozen meat, including frozen rabbit, to major cities and ports. Over the next three decades, rabbit trapping and freezing became a valuable industry.

In their paper The Rabbit Industry in South-East Australia, 1870-1970, Warwick Eather and Drew Cottle discuss the importance of the industry to rural Australia. While the lack of refrigerated transport initially put limits on the availability of rabbits in both the local market and for export, improvements in meat preservation eventually made the trade a profitable one. Eather and Cottle write that by 1929 the rabbit industry was reported to be the largest employer of labour in Australia.

Rabbit preserving factories were established from the 1870s, the first being in Colac, Victoria, where some 6,650,000 rabbits were canned over the 15 years of its operations. Many other canneries operated in south-eastern Australia, with supplies to the military in Australia and overseas helping to support the industry through the early decades of the 20th century.

However, from the 1890s, frozen rabbit began to replace the canned product, particularly for the export trade. In 1891, the New South Wales Fresh Food and Ice Company was the first to export frozen carcases to England, where there was a ready market. The export trade in frozen rabbits and hares was later supported by the governments of New South Wales and Victoria. In New South Wales, special rabbit trains transported the frozen carcases to Darling Habour, Sydney, from small freezing works around the state. According to Eather and Cottle, the advances in freezing and transport pushed exports from 570,736 rabbits in 1901 to 11,877,036 in 1906.

The industry was a boon to small towns. For example, in Bungendore, NSW, a rabbit-freezing plant opened in 1906 and in the year ending July 31, 1909, handled more than 1.5 million rabbits. The plant employed 14 workers and over 250 trappers. The skins were also valued to make felt for the hat trade.

The trade in frozen rabbit continued through the first half of the 20th century but slowed after the introduction of myxomatosis, a virus released by the CSIRO in 1951 to control rabbit populations.

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