European wild rabbitsIn 1859, Grazier Thomas Austin released 12 pairs of wild rabbits on his property Barwon Park 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, a scourge to farmers and graziers.

Just seven years after Austin introduced the rabbits at his property, he received a visit from Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, the second son of Queen Victoria. A report in the Illustrated Australian News recounted that the prince shote 416 rabbits in three and a half hours.  His guns became so hot that “they blister the hands of the loader, and he can only hold them by the stock”.

Prince Alfred shooting wild rabbits at Barwon Park
Prince Alfred shooting wild rabbits at Barwon Park

Austin’s were not the first rabbits in Australia. Domestic rabbits arrived with the First Fleet and there were populations established along Australia’s east coast and in Tasmania by the 1820s. However, the domestic species had not caused major problems.

A 1997 Anti-Rabbit Research Foundation handbook says that wild rabbit population increases of eight to 10-fold in one breeding season are common. So it’s no wonder that the rabbits released by Thomas Austin reproduced rapidly.  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, there may have been rabbits that 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. There were some compensations. Rabbits were processed and canned for export from the 1870s and provided a useful food source during the depression years of the 1890s and again in the Great Depression of the 1930s.

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 1990s, 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.