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‘They all ran wild’

1859: Rabbits introduced into Australia

National Archives of Australia A1200, L44186
1800 1900

Use the following additional activities and discussion questions to encourage students (in small groups or as a whole class) to think more deeply about this defining moment.

Questions for discussion

1. Many animals have been introduced to Australia, including dingoes, sheep, cattle, cats and cane toads (just to name a few). Overall, do you think that introduced species have had a positive or negative impact on Australia?

2. Do you agree with the National Museum of Australia that the introduction of rabbits to Australia is a defining moment in Australian history? Explain your answer.

Image activities

1. Look carefully at all the images for this defining moment. Tell this story in pictures by placing them in whatever order you think works best. Write a short caption under each image.

2. Which three images do you think are the most important for telling this story? Why?

3. If you could pick only one image to represent this story, which one would you choose? Why?

Finding out more

1. What else would you like to know about this defining moment? Write a list of questions and then share these with your classmates. As a group create a final list of three questions and conduct some research to find the answers.

<p>Lorry load of rabbits, Braidwood, NSW, photographed by Paul C. Nomchong</p>
National Museum of Australia

In a snapshot

European wild rabbits were introduced into Australia in 1859 so they could be hunted for sport. Within 50 years rabbits had spread across almost the whole of Australia. Rabbits have had a devastating effect on Australia’s environment, and people have tried different ways to reduce their numbers. Today at least 150 million wild rabbits live in Australia.

Lorry load of rabbits, Braidwood, NSW, photographed by Paul C. Nomchong

Findout icon Can you find out?

1. Why were rabbits introduced into Australia in 1859 and how long did it take rabbits to spread throughout most of Australia?

2. What damage did rabbits do to the environment? Does this surprise you? Explain your answer.

3. Describe one method that people used to control rabbit numbers. How successful was it?

How did rabbits arrive in Australia?

The first rabbits arrived in Australia in 1788 with the First Fleet but they were not released into the wild.

On Christmas Day 1859 Thomas Austin released 13 wild rabbits on his farm at Barwon Park in Victoria. Austin was born in England where rabbit hunting was a popular sport. He released the rabbits so that he and his friends could hunt them. Seven years later hunters caught 14,000 rabbits at Barwon Park.

The rabbits quickly spread beyond Barwon Park. In 1880 they had crossed the Murray River into New South Wales. They reached Queensland in 1886 and Western Australia in 1894. Rabbits spread across Australia more quickly than any other introduced species in the world.

Research task 

 

Create a list of ways that Australians used rabbits in the 1930s and 1940s. Hint: read this letter by Ken Roberts on the National Museum of Australia’s website for some clues. 

National Museum of Australia

Why did people try to control the numbers of rabbits?

The large, spreading rabbit population quickly began to damage farms and the Australian environment. Rabbits ate native vegetation, grasses and the crops planted by white settlers. This often caused soil erosion. During the 1800s and 1900s people tried different methods to control the number of rabbits in Australia.

Syringe used in myxomatosis trials at Lake Urana, New South Wales in 1954.

In the late 1800s people built long rabbit-proof fences to try to stop rabbits moving into new parts of the country. The most famous rabbit-proof fence was built between 1901 and 1907. It was 3256 kilometres long and ran from north to south across Western Australia. But rabbit-proof fences did not stop the spread of rabbits. The fences were sometimes built too late, after rabbits had already crossed into the country that people were trying to protect. Also rabbits often got through holes in the fences.

People also tried to reduce the number of rabbits by trapping and killing them and by poisoning them. During the Depression in the 1930s many people killed rabbits to eat the meat.

These methods did not reduce the numbers of rabbits. In fact by the 1940s there were 600 million rabbits in Australia.

Will disease help to control rabbits?

Myxomatosis is a disease that affects rabbits. The myxomatosis virus is most often spread by mosquito bites. When rabbits are infected with the virus they usually die.

In 1950 scientists at the CSIRO released the myxomatosis virus into Australia’s wild rabbit population. The disease spread very quickly and killed around 500 million rabbits. This was the most successful attempt to control rabbit numbers in Australia’s history. But over time rabbits began to develop a resistance to myxomatosis and the numbers began to rise again.

In 1995 scientists released a new disease called calicivirus. But rabbits are now developing a resistance to that too. Rabbits continue to have a devastating impact on Australia’s native environment.

Research task 

 

Look at these objects, images and documents relating to rabbits. Choose one, describe what it is, and explain both how and why it is important to the story of rabbits in Australia.

National Museum of Australia

‘…for scale and speed [the myxomatosis epidemic] must be without parallel in the history of infections.’

Frank Fenner, the microbiologist who helped introduce myxomatosis

Findout icon What did you learn?

1. Why were rabbits introduced into Australia in 1859 and how long did it take rabbits to spread throughout most of Australia?

2. What damage did rabbits do to the environment? Does this surprise you? Explain your answer.

3. Describe one method that people used to control rabbit numbers. How successful was it?