Today rabbits are a pest across Australia, causing untold environmental damage. Although they were first introduced to Australia in 1788, it took over 70 years for them to achieve the status of pest.
Rabbits arrived to Sydney with the First Fleet in January 1788. They were part of a cargo of animals that included goats, horses, sheep, cows, fowls and pigs. At least five rabbits survived the voyage, and by May 1788, three of those were reportedly kept by the Governor.
In 1827, Peter Cunningham noted that ‘rabbits are bred around houses, but we have yet no wild ones in enclosures, although there is a good scope of sandy country on the sea-coast between Port Jackson and Botany Bay fit for little else than goat pasture and rabbit warrens; in which ways it may be profitably made use of, while at present it yields absolutely nothing’. (Peter Cunningham, Two Years in NSW, 1827, p. 304).
In May 1831, the Sydney Gazette reported that Alexander McLeay had built a ‘preserve, or rabbit-warren, surrounded by a substantial stone wall, and well stocked with that choice game’ on his land grant at Elizabeth Bay. He kept rabbits here for hunting, and it was said to be ‘the first, if not the only attempt of the kind in New South Wales.’
Likewise, between 1857 and 1864, Thomas Holt built ‘The Warren’ at Marrickville, on the banks of the Cooks River, over 100 acres on which he bred wild rabbits for hunting. Eugene Delange also had a rabbit-warren on his land at Putney in the 1850s. There is some debate as to whether rabbits that escaped from the warrens at Marrickville and Putney led to the later rabbit plague.
From the 1850s through to the 1870s, rabbits were regularly exhibited at the Royal Agricultural Show in Sydney. But this stopped in the 1880s, when rabbits started to populate in plague proportions. The increase in numbers was largely because their natural predators, carnivorous mammals such as quolls, had been hunted by humans and other predators or killed off during land clearance . In turn, clearing the land for agriculture likewise created an ideal habitat for rabbits to feed and breed, as were the mild winters in Sydney and NSW.
In response, the NSW Government passed the 1883 Rabbit Nuisance Act and set up a Rabbit Branch as part of the Department of Mines.
But rabbits were not only a rural problem in NSW and around Australia – for the remainder of the 19th century and into the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of rabbits entered Sydney every year. But sadly for the rabbits, most of them were dead by the time they arrived – they tended to used as a cheap food supply, or their pelts used to make hats and other textiles.
Techniques to eradicate rabbits included trapping, shooting and poisoning. By the early 20th century, research was carried out on the biological control of rabbits on Milson Island on the Hawkesbury River. During the lean times of the economic Depression of the 1930s and the Second World War, the ‘common and for so long despised rabbit’ played an important part in ‘feeding the nation’.
It was not until the introduction of myxomatosis in the 1950s that the population numbers of rabbits began to drop drastically.