Chapter Eight — Living with embarrassment: the rabbit
Living with embarrassment: the rabbit
The man who introduced the rabbit to New Zealand was banqueted and lauded but they would hang him now, if they could get him . . . in England they fine a poacher, whereas he ought to be banished to New Zealand. New Zealand would pay his way and give him wages.
The early difficulties in getting the rabbit acclimatised to New Zealand conditions, the amazing success that suddenly crowned all these efforts, the totally unlooked-for ruin and devastation that the rabbits wreaked, and the subsequent history of their control, make the introduction of this animal one of the most interesting episodes in the history of acclimatisation in New Zealand.
According to Thompson, the first rabbits arrived in New Zealand from New South Wales before 1838: du Petit-Thouars wrote in his Journal of the voyage of the Venus, 'There are still to be found some rabbits imported from New South Wales.' The early settlers at Port Molyneaux sent to Sydney for some rabbits in the early forties, but there is no record of whether they arrived or not, except for a mention in the diary of a Mr T. Tuckett, who wrote that with a beagle their party managed to catch six rabbits, all alive and uninjured, on 10th May 1844. After taking great trouble to breed and acclimatise them in hutches Mr Telford liberated some of these, in Clifton in the early 1860s but they died out in a very short time. A nobleman, Baron Ortsdorff, had more success, breeding and selling rabbits in the Hutt in 1842.
Rabbits were certainly introduced to Otago and Southland very early on; Donne states that rabbits had secured a stronghold in Southland in the forties. Twelve silver-grey rabbits were introduced to the Nelson area in the late fifties by a page 151 gentleman with the picturesque name of Captain Ruck Keene, RN. White rabbits were also brought to Nelson at that time, as pets, and when some of these escaped (or were liberated) they did well for a while, until a big snowstorm wiped them out in a cold winter in the early sixties. In the annual report of the Canterbury Acclimatisation Society for 1866 it was stated that six silver-grey rabbits, which had been presented to the Society by Sir George Grey, had thrived in the Domain gardens; their progeny had been distributed to members far and near. The Otago Society liberated rabbits in 1866, 67 and 68.
The records of the introduction of rabbits are unclear, mostly because, as with the sparrow, once the introduction became an embarrassing topic no-one was anxious to claim responsibility. The Canterbury Society, in its Report for 1889, declared virtuously, 'The introduction... cannot be laid to the charge of this Society,' while in 1897 a Dunedin member wrote that it was to the Provincial Government of Southland 'that we are indebted for the presence of the rabbit.'
confusion of records is also due to the frequency of private liberations; the animal did not seem to be acclimatising at all well so liberations kept being repeated. As late as the 1870s passengers on incoming ships were bringing rabbits with them in the expectation of a profit, as they could be sold to settlers at high prices. Gold prospectors carried them into Otago, releasing them in large numbers around the goldfields. This gives the clue to the motives behind the persistent attempts to acclimatise the rabbit: for hundreds of years man has been partial to a rabbit in the pot. Rabbit stew is so well founded in English recipe books that it could be rated a national dish. A favourite recipe of pioneer housewives was to bake a rabbit slowly in a buttered brown paper bag. The pelt was valuable as well, although its quality varied according to the time of the year when the skin was taken.
By the 1870s the full enormity of the increase of the rabbit population was beginning to dawn on the farmers. Captain Ruck Keene declared that his liberation of rabbits had cost him £70 000, saying that the hillsides on his run at Kaikoura were honeycombed with burrows and alive with rabbits while his flocks were starving as the land was being eaten bare. When the rabbits were first liberated he had sacked two of his employees for shooting at them; Captain Keene admitted freely that he should have rewarded the men, and, indeed, trained them to be better shots. In the end the rabbits overran his property to the extent that he could not carry sheep and he was a ruined man. By 1876 the whole of Southland was infested and north and central Otago were fast approaching the same state. In 1887 rabbits were swarming on the Canterbury plains, joining the hordes that were descending south from Marlborough.
In the North Island the spread of rabbits came later. Mr C. R. Carter is said to have brought rabbits with him when he arrived in New Zealand in 1857. He liberated seven pairs at Carter's Hill, near Carterton, and within twelve years their progeny had covered a nineteen kilometre square area; twelve years later they had taken over an area of twenty thousand hectares. This incredible rate of reproduction led to what farmers called 'rabbit arithmetic'—that two times three equals nine million (the progeny of two rabbits in three years).
Rabbits were first described as a nuisance in the Wairarapa about 1863. In 1890 a settler called Hawkins gave evidence to a New South Wales Royal Commission page 153 which was investigating the question of the rabbit problem in Australasia. He said he lived in 4 800 hectares of rabbit-infested country in North Wairarapa and he was 'surrounded on all sides by rabbit-infested country'.
Some of the South Island runholders conceived the idea of doing something about the rabbit problem by liberating cats on their properties. Donne relates with relish a story about an Otago pastoralist who placed an order for a hundred cats with a well-known dealer in Dunedin. The dealer did not have access to a cat supply so took the easy way out and let it be known that he would pay five shillings for any cat that might be brought to him. From all accounts the small boys of Dunedin had a heyday and the cats arrived in short order. These were sold to the pastoralist, taken out onto the run and released—just as the police were being bombarded with complaints from a hundred pet owners that their beloved moggies were missing. The dealer was not prosecuted, as by the time the police got out to the run, the evidence had dispersed far and wide, presumably—and hopefully—hunting rabbits.
Where there is a need there will always be enterprising folk to fill it; this was especially true inthe late years of the century when jobs were hard to find and hopes of a bonanza of gold were fading from the most optimistic of hearts. The occupation of full-time rabbiter was born. Full-time rabbiting first started in central Otago and soon became so profitable that rabbiters were paying property-owners for the privilege of cleaning out their properties. The rabbiters made their money from the sale of skins, which, by 1919, netted up to four shillings for a good winter pelt. The carcasses were also sold, and the total value of rabbit exports rose from £196 545 in 1900 to nearly one million pounds in 1919, and in 1946 approached one and a half million pounds. Gangs of rabbiters could take 60 000 rabbits off one block in a season of six months. The skins were pressed into bales on wool presses, 220 kilograms to a bale.
Wodzicki makes an interesting comparison between the North and South Islands in rabbit skin production. Of the four thousand bales of skins handled at the Dunedin sales in 1946 only fifteen percent of the skins came from the North Island. Fifty-five percent came from the South Island south of the Waitaki River and the rest from the South Island north of the river, showing the relative infestations and utilisation of rabbits. The animal has never thrived in the North Island as it has in the South, probably because of the damper climate. The South Island skins were of better quality, too, attaining at that time some of the best prices in the world.
'When looking at the economic value of the skins and meat, it can be hard to appreciate the devastating extent of the damage that rabbits wrought in the areas where they reached epidemic numbers. During droughts rabbits, which do best on dry country, survived by baring the ground of pasture, while sheep and cattle died off
The rabbit in Australia
Australia's first rabbits arrived in New South Wales with the first fleet. Andrew Miller, Commissary, listed five rabbits in his 'Account of Livestock in the Settlement' in 1788. Three belonged to Governor Phillip and two to the officers and men of the Military Corps. More rabbits arrived in 1791; in 1806 the Rev. Samuel Marsden was trying to establish a warren at Parramatta. By 1822 rabbits were abundant in Tasmania. From the 1830s on rabbits were proliferating along the eastern and southern coasts of the mainland: sailors used to go ashore and set traps for them. In the 1840s rabbits were taken to inland areas by squatters eager for a readily available food supply. All these rabbits were domestic varieties.
In 1859 Thomas Austin imported 24 wild rabbits for sport. Some of these were released at once, and the rest escaped into the arable lands of Victoria within a year or two. These rabbits increased to countless thousands in the space of three years; other settlers imitated Austin's example and were equally pleased at how well their rabbits were adapting to the new country. By 1868 reports of disaster began to filter into town. The rabbits were breeding in thousands and moving onto rich grazing land. In the 1850s a run-holder called Robertson had charged a man with shooting one rabbit (the man was fined £10); ten years later Robertson's own son was eaten out—in one operation he took 4 000 rabbits, and he estimated that he was feeding rabbits at the rate of 29 000 to 130 hectares. The Times of London reported in December 1868 that 'our correspondent from Melbourne tells us the rabbits threaten to starve the sheep out of their runs.'
The game of calculating the increase from one pair of rabbits in a given number of years became as popular in Australia then as in New Zealand later. By 1878 the progeny of four pairs of rabbits, liberated at Donald north of the Murray River, had infested 1.8 million hectares of the interior of Victoria. The big runs were entirely eaten out and, as in New Zealand, enormous plantations of thistles sprang up.
As the food ran out the rabbits migrated in their millions, covering the ground with a pulsating grey carpet. At Lake Alexandrina at the mouth of the Murray River four men killed 10 000 rabbits in one operation. The swarms even crossed huge rivers in flood. In the winter of 1879 a run-holder on the Wimmera River mustered his sheep and found 670 alive—the previous year he had mustered 12 000. Almost a million hectares of Victorian land became useless for any sort of farming at all. Then, in 1887, ten million rabbits were destroyed in New South Wales, and the north-eastern part of South Australia was an empty desert. Rabbits even climbed trees to eat the leaves; in plantations the trees were ring-barked white, up to half a metre above the ground. Some farmers fenced in their land with rabbit-netting, and later enormous rabbit fences were erected by the State Governments. The rabbits starved to death in such numbers at the foot of the fences that their live cousins were able to clamber over the fence via the heaps of corpses.
The Australians tried to make a profit out of the rabbits by tinning the carcasses. In 1878 a ship steaming north through the Red Sea suddenly assailed its passengers with a dreadful and inescapable smell. The cargo of cans of rabbit meat had expanded and burst open in the heat. Skins, taken from rabbits living in a warm climate, were not ever of the quality of New Zealand-bred skins, so few people made a fortune out of Australian rabbit fur. However rabbiters did become wealthy out of the bounties paid for rabbits killed. The Australian governments had no real wish to involve themselves seriously in wholesale pest destruction, and the one Commissioner who advised decommercialisation of the rabbit by levies on skins was treated with contempt. Various Rabbit Nuisance Laws had been passed over the years, but these were feeble and without teeth. The Pastures Protection Boards were formed in 1902, and could demand that property owners make 'earnest attempts' to get rid of rabbits on their land, but without greater legal powers these requests had little effect.
Some farmers imported cats. Others brought in mongooses, which failed to thrive. Foxes were already in the country. In the 1890s experiments were made with various poisons. On some stations 200 000 rabbits were poisoned in one night. But it took myxomatosis to wipe out the rabbit.
Trials of this disease began in Victoria in 1950, and the results were most discouraging until the end of the year, when increasing numbers of reports of sick and dying rabbits began to come in. By the beginning of 1953 most of Australia was free of rabbits. Since then, however, disturbing signs of recovery have been noticed. If a myxomatosis-immune breed of rabbit has evolved, then the Australian pastoralist may be in for another round of trouble from this most unwelcome intruder.
in their hundreds of thousands. The removal of grass by the rabbits helped the spread of thistles, which grew up to 2.5 metres high and 1.25 metres broad at the base. The rabbits lived very well in the cover of the thistles, while stock and horses could not force a way through the rampant bristly growth.
The economic waste caused by rabbits was impossible to estimate; it certainly bankrupted many runholders, hastening the breaking up of the South Island runs into smaller properties. The rabbits did not just take the food that was meant to feed sheep and cattle: they destroyed huge areas, creating deserts where lush tussock country had flourished before.
The creation of the deserts of central Otago was, to give the rabbit its fair due, not caused by rabbits alone. Every spring the runholders had set fire to their properties in order to stimulate a growth of tender new grass. Lady Barker, in 1867, wrote with page 156 enthusiasm about her favourite occupation of 'burning the run', saying, 'We begin to light our line of fire, setting one large tussock blazing, lighting our impromptu torches at it, and then starting from this head centre, one to the right and the other to the left, dragging the blazing sticks along the grass. It is a very exciting amusement, I assure you, and the effect is beautiful, especially as it grows dusk ... The immediate results,' she added, 'are vast tracts of perfectly black and barren country, looking desolate and hideous to a degree hardly to be imagined; but after the first spring showers a beautiful tender green tint steals over the bare hillsides, and, by and by, they are a mass of delicious young grass.' Delicious they may have been, but unfortunately the burning did not only destroy the tussocks, it wiped out the plants that grew in their shelter, the bottom grasses that provided the main fodder for the sheep and which anchored the soil. Even before the rabbits arrived, the tussock country was beginning to show signs of weariness—bare earth showing through the gradually balding growth, and fissures of erosion appearing on the slopes of hills and valleys. By 1865 many of the runs needed up to 3.2 hectares to feed just one sheep. When the rabbits arrived the land deteriorated precipitously, in a simple reaction to what was in effect a situation of over-stocking— the rabbits were, in that ecosystem, in the same niche as the sheep, so when they arrived it was just as if the runholder had suddenly tripled or quadrupled his stock numbers.
The owners of some stations began paying their men for rabbit tokens. Some managers paid for pairs of ears, and the men thought nothing of reaching into burrows, snipping off the ears and then putting the rabbits back—still alive, of course. For a while the sight of earless rabbits in traps or on poison lines was quite common. Some managers paid for tails. If a tail-collecting station was next door to an ear-collecting station, the men used to meet in secret at the boundaries, swapping ears for tails, so that each rabbit provided two tokens, and two sets of pocket money.
Full-time rabbiters arrived in force in the 1880s, after refrigerated ships made the taking of rabbit meat a profitable business. An export trade in skins had already been established in the 1870s, only ten years after the confirmed establishment of the animal in the wild. In 1893 over 17 million skins were exported, and this figure was maintained by the activities of rabbiters, until in 1919 over 20 million were sent overseas. In 1900 exports of frozen carcasses, in skin, had reached six-and-a-half million, so this gives some idea of the immense scale of the rabbit-killing activities going on. When station managers accepted the fact that rabbiters' methods could control the situation better than the makeshift schemes devised by themselves, the control of the rabbit became somewhat better regulated, especially if the rabbiters could be persuaded to poison the rabbits and be satisfied with the profit from the skins alone.
Sheep were cleared out of the area to be gone over, and the rabbiters went in in small gangs, with provisions for some weeks and a tent. Poisoning material—carrots and strychnine—was provided by the station. The rabbiter and his mates arrived with a wagon, often drawn by bullocks, and were left on the site with their supplies and two or three tonnes of carrots. The carrots then had to be washed, as rabbits will not touch dirty bait. A plough line was dug—by hand with a mattock if the ground was too hard or too steep—because rabbits are attracted to freshly turned dirt. This line was seeded with unpoisoned carrots for three days, so that they became used to the tidbits, and then a day was missed, to allow them to get hungry. Then the line was sowed with poisoned carrots.
The rabbits succumbed in their thousands. The length of the plough line had to be nicely judged: if the dead rabbits were too numerous the rabbiters had too many pelts to process in the time at their disposal, and the skins rotted and became flyblown. The rabbit carcasses were not edible, because the strychnine impregnated the whole carcass, so the rabbiters did not have dogs. Anyone foolish enough to bring a dog into an area where rabbiters were working lost it within an hour or so. Donne rather acidly relates how a young friend shot fifteen rabbits one morning, much surprised that the rabbits had been so slow and sleepy, and had intended to send the carcasses to various friends, Donne included, as gifts for the table. Luckily a farmer forestalled what could have been manslaughter on a not insignificant scale by informing the young man that poison had recently been laid on the ground where he had hunted. The rabbits were not asleep at all—merely stupefied with poison.
The poison was a mixture of strychnine, icing sugar and baking powder. The sugar made the bait palatable, and the baking powder made the mixture set hard on the damp carrot. Large carrots were cut lengthwise, and the cut edge smeared with the poison. The carrot was then chopped and strewn along the poison line. When the rabbits became suspicious of carrots, the bait was changed to chopped-up scotch thistle roots, a snack to which they were extremely partial.
Some rabbiters had a great deal of success using jam as a bait. The story goes that a rabbiter heard a noise outside his tent one night, and when he investigated he found rabbits licking out the jam tins he had left outside. W. H. McLean, who became the supervisor of the Wairarapa Rabbit Board in 1959, conducted an informal experiment with various jams in his young days as a rabbiter. He found that quince and apple-and-raspberry jams were favoured, while the rabbits were rather fussy page 158 about melon or plum jams. They wouldn't touch apricot jam at all. Baiting with jam was much easier than cutting up carrots and digging out scotch thistle roots; the jam was laid out on the plough line in spots about the size of a five cent piece, as unpoisoned bait for three nights, and then 28 grams of strychnine was mixed in with a 5.5 kilogram can of jam. This was laid out, and presto, the rabbits lapped it up and died like flies.
It is hard to realise now just how thick the rabbits were on the ground then. In dry hilly country, if one took a torch out at night, the paddocks were a mass of shining eyes. The rabbits ate the pasture right down to the coast and lived among the seaweed if they had to. They were fat and healthy, but the cattle and sheep were so weak that they had trouble standing up, and often fell over from sheer weariness.
Thomson was interested in the development of colour variation in rabbits in New Zealand. Travellers in central Otago commented frequently on the number of coloured rabbits they saw. Grey and white combinations were often seen, also tan and white, all black, and yellow. However it turned out that only five percent of the rabbits had a colour variation; it was just that the coloured ones were more apparent because of their impact on the eye in the dun-coloured landscape. The only reason they survived at all in New Zealand was the lack of natural enemies, as predators pick out brightly coloured animals first. Rabbiters noticed that there was, on average, one black rabbit in each hundred, so, when estimating the size of the infestation on a property, they travelled through the block counting the black rabbits, and then they multiplied the result by a hundred to arrive at a figure for the total population.
The other early methods of killing rabbits included hunting with dogs, digging out warrens, trapping and shooting. Many young farm hands made as much money as in the whole day's work by going out in the early morning with a dog and a rifle. Trapping led to an export trade in whole frozen rabbits. This 'frozen in skins' trade was once so profitable that in 1900 it amounted to fifty percent of the total value of rabbit exports; but after that date there was a trend towards exporting the skins and frozen meat separately.
The rabbit boards favoured the use of gas for killing rabbits in warrens. A popular gas was cyanogas, a poisonous vapour formed when powdered calcium cyanide reacted with water vapour in the air. The openings of the burrows were blocked up with soil and a small tin of the powder was poked in the last hole before filling it in. If the ground was wet the gas worked very well. However rabbits prefer to dig their warrens in sandy soil, which does not hold the gas because of its grainy, airy nature. Often when warrens were dug out after gassing there were dead rabbits in all the tunnels, but a mass of unaffected rabbits would be found sheltering in the heart of the complex.
Carbon bisulphide was also used. Pieces of sacking were soaked in the liquid and then poked into the warren and lit. This resulted in white fumes which were sufffocating and poisonous, along with rather satisfying sound effects of muffled booms deep in the warren. As in many other wars, the main problem with these methods of killing rabbits was the sheer logistics of getting the ammunition to where the battle was being fought. The rabbits and the warrens were so thick that it would have taken gallons of carbon bisulphide to work over any property in a thorough manner.
A much more static and less exciting method of controlling rabbits was to build rabbit-proof fences. The first fence was about 64 kilometres long, and was erected between Hawkes Bay and northern Wairarapa. It was started in 1882 and finished three years later. Designed to prevent rabbits from getting into Hawkes Bay, it was completely unsuccessful. In the South Island the Government built a 120 kilometre fence in South Canterbury. This was another failure. Those fences failed to do their job because of two major faults. One was that any gate in the fence was a weak spot: it was too easily left open. It was recorded that at one gate the rabits were strolling up the neatly positioned strainer that held the gatepost up, and jumping down the other side. The other failing was that the fence had to extend underground to be effective, and the metal under the ground rusted away very rapidly. At one stage it was page 160 proposed that a two hundred and seventy kilometre fence be built to protect Canterbury, but the Government, observing the poor record of fences up to that time, refused to build it. Rabbit-proof fences were really succesful only when surrounding relatively small areas with a vigorous rabbit-extermination programme going on inside. An early settler in South Canterbury, Edgar Jones, wrote, 'Rabbits began to get numerous on the south side of the Waiau River, so a rabbit-proof fence was erected all the way up . .. The packing of the wire and standards,' he remarked, 'was an undertaking on the high hills—over 6 000 feet high (1850 metres) high. The horses were very sure-footed, but once one slipped with his load on and rolled about ten chains (200 metres) down a hill. . . Although there were a few rabbits inside the fence,' he went on, 'the landowners realised that it was necessary not to let them increase, and they did all they could to kill them off.' After Mr Jones sold his run this precaution was neglected, and soon rabbits were as thick on one side of the fence as they were on the other.
In some badly infested districts in the South Island, rabbit drives were organised. Some of these drives were responsible for killing more than five thousand rabbits at a time. Many farms had rabbit netting around the best paddocks, to keep out the rabbits that swarmed in the hills. When the farmer felt that he could use the bit of extra income that a good harvest of rabbits would produce, he cut holes in his netting at regular intervals and let the rabbits into his pastures. The rabbits would arrive in battalions in the next few days, with the message going around that a good feed was available down in the valley. Then a pen with a wing fence leading up to it would be erected in one corner, and quietly, in the middle of the night, the holes in the netting would be blocked up. Next day the farmer would play host to all his friends, neighbours and family, who would be pleased to come to such an exciting event; and they would go through the paddocks with a great noise of whistles, gongs and hoots, driving the rabbits into the pen. By all accounts the pen would before long be deep in a mass of heaving furry bodies. The animals would be killed, skinned and gutted, and the bodies sent to the nearest freezing works. Then the farmer would provide food and drink, and everyone would have a great party.
The price obtained for the skins varied according to the season. Summer skins were fit only for hatters and glovers, while the winter skins were prized by furriers. Consequently these drives took place in the early winter, when the pelts were heavy and undamaged by wear. During the summer very little hunting went on at all. In fact, the farmers in central Otago deliberately let the rabbit alone in the summer, in order to let the animal breed up ready for the winter hunting. In that area in the 1930s rabbits were big business: rabbiters had to pay for the right to work certain blocks, and in many cases the farmers worked them themselves. It was not unusual for shopkeepers and clerks to take their annual leave in the winter, to supplement their incomes by rabbit hunting. Trapping and drives were the popular methods of getting the 'buns', so that both the carcass and fur were saleable. It was even usual to see farmers carefully going over their land with a shovel before spring ploughing, to get any rabbits that the plough might ruin. In country that was so depleted that it was almost useless for any other animal, this seemed the sensible thing to do; indeed, many a South Island farmer bought his land with the money he made rabbiting.
It was an impossible situation. If the rabbit was not to be controlled more thoroughly, then it was only a matter of time before the whole of New Zealand was taken over.
In 1876 the 'Rabbit Nuisance Act' had been passed, giving the Government inspectors powers to instruct landowners to destroy all rabbits, but they had multiplied nevertheless. The Act was revised year after year, giving rabbit inspectors greater powers, but despite all the rules and regulations the rabbit nuisance was not diminishing. In 1883 Mr Bayly, the Superintending Inspector, was invited to present his Annual Report to both Houses of the General Assembly. He commented on the various ways of killing rabbits. 'Although great improvements have been effected in the preparation of poisoned grain,' he said, 'yet no means of destruction have been devised or adopted that deals comprehensively with the pest, or as yet leaves any other outlook but that, unless other than present known means are obtainable, the annual destruction of rabbits must be a continuous tax on the country.' After going on in this lugubrious vein for some time, he made out a case for public ingenuity. 'If a page 162 large reward, say, of several thousand pounds,' he suggested, 'was offered to any one who invented or discovered some safe, yet comprehensive, means of destruction, precluding the present waste of capital for this purpose, the terms and conditions under which such bonus would be paid to be advertised in the leading papers throughout Great Britain and on the Continent, possibly scientists with this inducement might take the matter up, and . . . this would compensate for the cost of advertising and inquiry.' The Government was desperate, so it followed Mr Bayly's advice and offered prizes for anyone who could come up with a good rabbit-killing device.
Some of the entries bordered on the hysterical. Donne tells of one entry submitted: a device in the form of a long sharp spike, which was to be strapped to the belly of a good strong buck rabbit. The theory was that the rabbit females would be impaled fatally while mating. As Donne said, 'Their laxity of morality was to be punished by a death wound dealt to them by the exotic weapons affixed to the bucks.'
More mundanely, rabbit boards arrived on the scene. A rabbit board could be established if a petition was sent to the Minister of Agriculture by a majority of farmers in an area of land not less than 8 000 hectares in extent. Not surprisingly, the first rabbit boards were formed in the North Island, commencing with the Hawkes Bay Rabbit Board in 1887. Each rabbit board had a board of trustees elected by the ratepayers, and this board had the power of levying rates on all land in the district. The Government met this revenue with a pound for pound subsidy, paid out of the Consolidated Fund.
The policy of rabbit boards varied from area to area. They either employed inspectors who investigated properties and had powers to compel farmers to do something about rabbits on their land; or else they would hire rabbiters to do the work. At first it was difficult to get men to work for the boards: in the 1930s they paid their rabbiters three pounds a week, ludicrous money when the men could get two pounds for each hundred skins if they worked on their own account. However, the Great Depression ensured that soon plenty of men were seeking jobs.
Rabbit boards were slower to get established in the South Island, simply because rabbiting was so profitable there. At the back of Bannockburn there was one area on the brown hillside that was a brilliant patch of green. It was a fifth of a hectare of rabbit heads, piled deep, with thistles growing riotously in among the heaps of skulls. This was by the side of a road down which the trucks to the freezing works collected rabbit carcasses; the rabbiters used to come down from the hills and gut and head their rabbits while they were waiting for the truck. Southlanders thought that rabbit boards would never work: without rabbits too many farmers would go broke, and without farmers the rabbit board levies would never be paid.
Because of this, stronger legislation was called for. In 1947 the Rabbit Destruction Council was formed. It consisted of eight members, three from the South Island, two from the North Island, and three appointed by the Government. The job of the Council was to advise the Minister of Agriculture on measures to destroy rabbits, with the aim of completely eradicating the rabbit problem in New Zealand. The policy of the Council was to make the surreptitious farming of rabbits unprofitable, by juggling taxes so that eventually the skins would be decommercialised. They did this by putting a levy on the pelts. To avoid hardship, the levy was first set at twenty per page 163 cent of the value of the skin, and then gradually increased until complete devaluation of the skins was achieved. It became illegal then to keep pet rabbits or sell rabbit meat.
With this killer policy the rabbit boards swung into new and more efficient methods of killing the animals. Phosphorised jam was produced on a commercial scale: warrens were fumigated with chloropicrin gas; myxomatosis was introduced on an experimental scale; studies were set up to try and determine the real effect of introduced predators such as the ferret on the rabbit population; the poison 1080 was used on a large scale; green-dyed poison bait was dropped from top-dressing planes; night safaris with Land Rovers and spot-lights were organised. Although eventually the goal of 'catching the last rabbit' had to be abandoned, the overall population decreased satisfactorily.
While all this furore about rabbits was going on, the rabbits had some near relatives living in New Zealand, largely ignored because of all the fuss. Rabbits are the slum-dwellers of the family, living by preference in conditions of dirt, overcrowding and squalor. Their cousins the hares are definitely more aristocratic.
The hare sits smug in leaves and grass,
And laughs to see the green man pass ...
And while he slept like any top,
The little hare came, hop, hop, hop.
The first hares to reach New Zealand arrived in the Eagle in 1851. They were carried in one of the cabins, and when the ship came to anchor in Lyttelton Harbour, the hares jumped out of their open port hole and swam ashore. As Donne said, 'The action of these hares clearly demonstrated their common sense and the attractiveness of New Zealand, as, when they got a view of its beautiful shores, their desire to become settlers and impatience of delay overcame their natural timidity and antipathy to the sea ...' Everyone was most surprised—it had been assumed that the hares had drowned—when they were sighted hopping around on Banks Peninsula.
In 1868 or 1869 some hares were imported from Australia to Auckland, along with a number of Angora goats. They were put on display in the Domain grounds, and then liberated in scrub in the Tamaki district. Four hares were imported by Mr G. Holmes of Pigeon Bay, Canterbury, in 1872. There were many unrecorded liberations made at this time, because so many individuals were anxious to introduce this animal to New Zealand.
The reason for their popularity was that they provided a sport that was very popular at that time: coursing. This was the art of chasing hares with greyhounds, not by scent but by sight. It is a test of the greyhounds' speed and stamina. The coursing could be held in open country, and in 1881 at Westwood, Canterbury, about a hundred horsemen gathered and had a fine day's coursing that was halted only when page 165 it became too dark to carry on. However it was more usual for coursing to be held in an enclosure, and in 1882 a coursing ground of 30 hectares was established at Templeton, Canterbury. Other coursing clubs were founded in both the North and South Islands. In 1888 Donne went coursing on the Opaki plains. The hounds killed over thirty hares, and Donne remarked how only four were taken away, because, unlike the Englishman, the New Zealander does not like to eat hare in any way, shape or form, either 'jugged, baked or stewed'.
For a while it looked as if coursing was going to be a more popular sport than horse racing. In Round about New Zealand, a contemporary traveller, E. Payton, wrote that he enjoyed a meeting he attended on a Wellington estate and the dogs ran well in open country, although when it was a 'case of dodging around flax bushes or cabbage trees . . . the effect was very comical.' The dogs were indeed very fast, and the hares were strong enough to make a good show in sprinting. The judges who decided which dogs were the winners often asked that the dogs have coloured collars, so that they could be recognised from a distance; they could not ride fast enough to keep up with the action.
Public interest in coursing died a natural death in the 1890s because of the depression; coursing was an expensive pastime, rather like polo today. Hares were still regarded as good sport, however, and were hunted like foxes with hounds, or else were driven in imitation of the profitable rabbit drives. In some cases they were driven by bands of motorcyclists but this did not turn out to be as good a sport as anticipated.
By this time the hares were being condemned as pests. In the early 1870s Mr Lancelot Walker of Four Peaks Station, Canterbury, had imported hares from Melbourne, and in no time at all his property was swarming with them. They got into his vegetable garden and his flower garden: when they also got into his nursery of over 12 000 tree seedlings, eating 9 000 of them, he became sufficiently upset to apply for permission to shoot them. The Government understood his situation, giving him a licence to shoot for one month. Other property owners followed his example. Residents of towns close to coursing grounds began to become very agitated about the way hares took refuge in their gardens during coursing events. Because of this, in the 1880s the shooting of hares became unrestricted.
Nonetheless, hares are now common in all suitable areas of both the North and South Islands—they have never been introduced to Stewart Island or any of the offshore islands. Exports of hare skins and carcasses were included with rabbit shipments, but not in large quantities. Probably never more than 50 000 carcasses and skins were exported in any one year, although it is hard to obtain correct figures; many carcasses and skins may have been exported under' the label of 'rabbit', and, indeed, after 1935 hare skins and carcasses were included in the figures for rabbits.
Hares were often killed by rabbiters and rabbit boards, along with rabbits, but it was not until 1959 that boards were given official permission to include hares in their kill policy.
Hares are harder to control than rabbits as they are very suspicious of bait. The best results are when they are hunted down at night by Land Rover, as they are more completely nocturnal than the rabbit. Unlike rabbits, they have not been decom-mercialised, so a small export trade exists for their skins. They do not burrow, so page 166 cannot be fumigated; their young are born in a smooth place in a tuft of grass or tussock. Leverets are born fully furred and with open eyes, so they are more able to cope with arriving in this world in an exposed place than are the blind naked rabbit kittens. Like rabbits, hares live on open grassland, but they prefer more cover, and do better in long grass than rabbits. They are more solitary, scorning to live in grossly overcrowded warrens and preferring to associate with just a few others in a select group. The litters are smaller, with only two or three leverets being born at a time. Each female has four or five litters a year.
However hares are like rabbits in that they compete with sheep for food. They also attack cabbage, turnip, swede and barley crops. They nibble at young trees and ring-bark them, and in the South Island became a nuisance in the Selwyn Plantation Board exotic forest plantings, often killing twenty-five percent of the young pines. However the hare has never been regarded as the menace that the rabbit became, simply because the hare never went through the population explosion that the rabbit exhibited. Although in some places the hare is considered a nuisance, there has never been the public outcry that the rabbit inspired. The introduction of rabbits and hares had a lasting effect on acclimatisation in New Zealand. With the laying of poison for these animals partridges and pheasants disappeared in certain areas, and many native birds were reduced. And, had rabbits not been a nuisance, the farmers would not have thought of certain other introductions. When Mr Bayly made his Report in 1883, he said, 'I see but one solution, and that is the introduction of the natural enemy ... It seems to be the general impression that the ferret (where liberated) is doing good work, and experience shows that they must be turned out in as large numbers as possible to be serviceable.'
And with these words, another major change in the ecology of New Zealand was set in motion.
Hare today ... export tomorrow
Exports worth S4 million a year are being wasted on New Zealand's grasslands where hare carcasses are left to rot, claimed Dr Flux in an article in 'New Zealand Agricultural Science'. Hares are in demand in Europe, frozen whole and shipped as game, a source of overseas funds not restricted by EEC regulations or levies. Even more profitable could be the export of live hares. In France live hares for stocking shooting estates brought S45 each in 1977. The French spend more than S4 million a year importing live hares from other countries.
Dr Flux considers Canterbury the best area for hare cropping, based on overseas techniques, though lucerne growers could also profit. In his article he suggests fencing off five to ten hectare lucerne stands with wire netting to exclude hares during the summer. If small trapdoors in the fence were left open in the autumn after harvesting, hares would soon be drawn by the fresh feed. When the crop was being grazed regularly the trapdoors could be sprung one night and the animals collected next morning by driving them into a funnel trap in one corner.
Sounds familiar? Present day farmers would probably enjoy this sport and the profits it could bring—as much as their grandfathers did.