In the 1880s, the greatest threat to Australia’s political and economic future was the rabbit, and our desperate struggle with the bunny resembled a Looney Tunes plot, involving biological warfare, a scientific genius, a world famous actress and a $10 million reward. Lorena Allam reports.
Rabbits arrived in Australia with the First Fleet but didn’t thrive initially. The great bunny plague is commonly blamed on Thomas Austin of Barwon Park near Geelong, who decided in 1859 to organise a ’spot of hunting’ by releasing two dozen rabbits into the wild.
’Those two dozen rabbits went on to multiply, as rabbits do, to be a plague of a billion rabbits by the 1880s,’ says historian and author Stephen Dando-Collins.
The speed of the invasion was astonishing.
Some of the strong contenders were people who thought, “Well, let’s bring in something that will eat the rabbits.” In fact, some animals were brought in ... mongooses, cats.
Brian Coman, author and research scientist
’In the west of NSW in particular, properties were quite marginal to begin with,’ says Dando-Collins. ’Once the rabbits arrived and stripped them of all the crops and stock feed, these places became dustbowls and totally useless to farmers.’
Next the rabbits invaded politics.
’At that time there was no income tax, no company tax and the colonial government’s single biggest source of income was from the lease of crown lands,’ says Dando-Collins. ’By the late 1880s a lot of these leases were coming up for renewal, and farmers said to the government, “If you don’t sort out this rabbit problem, we’ll just walk away. We will not renew our leases.”’
Under the Rabbit Nuisance Act, the NSW government paid a rebate for rabbit scalps. The act spawned an entire industry.
’In just 12 months near Wilcannia 782,510 rabbits were caught, and they were still saying the property was useless,’ Dando-Collins says.
’Near Menindee 342,295 were scalped over three months. Word came back to the government in Sydney: “It’s just not working!”’
In 1887, the premier of NSW, Sir Henry Parkes, appointed an Inter-Colonial Rabbit Commission made up of prominent graziers, men of science and government administrators. The commission’s task was to find a biological solution to the rabbit problem. It sent out a global call for entries, with prize money of £25,000 ($10 million in today’s terms) for ’any method or process not previously known in the colony for the effectual extermination of rabbits’.
Rabbit plague Image: Plague proportions: farmers with one evening’s cull in central Victoria, 1949. (State Library of Victoria’s Pictures Collection/ Accession no H19019)
The Rabbit Commission received more than 1,500 suggestions, most of them ’pretty insane’ according to author and research scientist Brian Coman.
Coman worked for the Victorian Department of the Environment for 23 years, battling rabbits for much of that time.
’Some of the strong contenders were people who thought, “Well, let’s bring in something that will eat the rabbits.” In fact, some animals were brought in ... mongooses, cats. There was a whole trainload of cats dispatched into outback Australia and let loose at various points along the line,’ he says.
The NSW government and pastoralists sought a ’magic bullet’ because keeping rabbit numbers down was (and still is) expensive, backbreaking and unrelenting work. Coman, who grew up in the Western Districts of Victoria, can relate.
’Back then the first sort of crude methods—other than trapping and bounties, which were totally ineffectual—were broad-spectrum poisons like arsenic and phosphorous. These were terrible poisons to use in the bush because they were non-specific. A lot of other animals got killed as well,’ he says.
’They were also very dangerous. My father has a recollection, as a little boy, of coming home at night after he’d been with his uncle poisoning on a farm up near Euroa, and rubbing his hands and they glowed in the dark. That was the phosphorous all over his hands.’
The Rabbit Commission did receive a few useful suggestions, including one from a great man of science: Louis Pasteur.
Pasteur claimed he could eradicate rabbits with chicken cholera—something he’d trialled with some success in France. Pasteur dispatched his nephew, the scientist Adrien Loir, on a steamer from Paris to Australia with vials of chicken cholera in his luggage.
The Rabbit Commission agreed to allow Loir’s team to conduct experiments and built them a laboratory and accommodation on tiny Rodd Island, which sits in a quiet bend of the Parramatta River, a safe distance from civilisation.
Loir’s plan was to ’inject nine rabbits with food containing microbes of chicken cholera, placed in equal numbers in wooden hutches, wire-bottomed cages, and artificial burrows with healthy rabbits, and to place two healthy rabbits in a hutch with the excrement of diseased rabbits.’
They would also ’feed sheep, cattle, calves, lambs, horses, pigs, goats, dogs, cats, rats and mice once a day for six days with cholera-tainted food. Various birds, including nearly all kinds of poultry and the principal native birds, are also to be fed and inoculated.’
It soon became clear that chicken cholera killed the rabbits, but only those who ate the tainted food. It was not contagious for them but—and perhaps the clue was in the name—chicken cholera killed all the birds.
The Rabbit Commission retired to consider its decision, and Adrien Loir was left to wait. Over the next few months he used the lab on Rodd Island to research the mysterious Cumberland disease which at the time was devastating Australia’s sheep and cattle. Loir established that Cumberland disease was actually anthrax and—better still—he had a vaccine.
The Rabbit Commission eventually decided against ’recommending any further expenditure by government on testing the efficacy of this disease’. Nobody won the £25,000 prize. Instead, Loir and The Pasteur Institute made a healthy profit manufacturing anthrax vaccine on Rodd Island for the next four years.
In 1891 Loir’s island life took a dramatic turn, thanks to a visiting actress and her two dogs.
Sarah Bernhardt Image: The greatest actress of her age, Sarah Bernhardt (Photographed by Felix Nadar, 1864; Licensed under Public Domain via Commons)
’Sarah Bernhardt was the superstar of her age, and she brought her entire acting troupe to Australia for a tour,’ Stephen Dando-Collins explains. ’She arrived with her two dogs, and just as Johnny Depp ran afoul of quarantine regulations, she had her dogs taken off her, and she too was threatening to leave the country.
’Young Loir had bought tickets to all her shows, he was such a huge fan, and he approached her and said, “I think I can convince the NSW government to declare Rodd Island a quarantine facility and I’ll look after your dogs while you’re in Australia.”’
Dando-Collins says the pair dined in her hotel each evening and Bernhard spent her weekends on Rodd Island ’visiting her dogs’. After one particularly boisterous party, Bernhard and her entourage were ’found on the laboratory roof’ drinking champagne.
Loir eventually returned to France and Rodd Island is now a public recreation space.
Rodd island Image: The view from Loir’s balcony on Rodd Island on a sunny winter’s day (Lorena Allam)
So, what about that pesky plague of a billion rabbits?
Australia had to wait another 60 years before the magic bullet was found.
In 1950, after years of research, scientists released myxomatosis—and it was devastating. The rabbit population dropped from 600 million to 100 million in the first two years. The change was immediate.
Brian Coman remembers walking in a field with his father as a boy and looking at a hill, part of which was covered with bracken fern.
’He clapped his hands, and it was almost as if the whole surface of the ground got up and ran into the bracken fern. There were hundreds upon hundreds, perhaps thousands of rabbits. It was a sight I’ll never forget.’
But after myxomatosis ’the grey blanket’ disappeared.
’You could walk all day and not see a rabbit,’ says Coman.
Even scientists were shocked by the cruel effectiveness of the disease.
’I had a friend, Bunny Fennessy, who was of course fortuitously named,’ says Coman.
’He remembers walking to the crest of this hill. There was a fence line there and a gate. He leaned over the gate and looked down. In front of him was this mass of dead and dying rabbits, blind rabbits moping around, birds of prey flying in the air, flies everywhere, a stench in the air—he was simply overawed. He had never seen sick rabbits before.’
Genetic resistance to myxomatosis has been increasing since the 1970s and even after the release of the virulent rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD, or calicivirus) in 1991, the search for a biological solution continues.
In the meantime, the ’traditional’ means of keeping rabbits under control—poisoning, and warren destruction—are still necessary. Coman says it’s a war that doesn’t end.
’You’ve got a situation here where an animal is causing immense ecological damage, not to mention economic damage, and you simply cannot let that go on. You have to act.
’We simply can’t allow them to gain a foothold again; the cost environmentally and economically would be enormous.’