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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 2 (May 1, 1937)

Shiploads of Weasels and Millions of Rabbits — Calculations Astray

page 89

Shiploads of Weasels and Millions of Rabbits
Calculations Astray

Ruin is apt to result when strange animals are released in New Zealand on the assumption that they will behave just as they do in their natural habitat. The latest example of this has been proved officially at least and at last; the weasel, the ferret, the stoat and the mongoose—arch enemies of rabbits—in New Zealand have refused to work overtime according to calculations. So New Zealand's rural areas are cursed with millions of rabbits and the expensive little thieves imported to catch the rabbits.

About 50 years ago weasels, ferrets and stoats were imported at high cost by the Governments and given statutory protection. All protection has now been removed and the “friends” have become official enemies of native birds, domestic animals and the State. Sometimes in batches of hundreds, members of the ferret family were purchased to prey on swarms of rabbits whose ancestors were released by stray callers very early in New Zealand's European history and afterwards imported.

Members of the ferret family are supposed to prey upon rabbits. They do, when it suits them. They are rather like the family man whose tastes range between pork, mutton, beef, venison, fish and turtle. In New Zealand there have been other and daintier morsels for the ferret who, with his nasty little relatives, has made a change, preferring feathered creatures for food. Native birds, domestic fowls, and countless eggs have been destroyed “by the ferret and his relatives. The fact that the protection they and the common cat enjoyed under the Rabbit Nuisance. Act has been removed may mean little difference, but at least the law is with their hunters.

In 1838 the first definite notice of rabbits in New Zealand was made in the Journal of the voyage of the Venus, which stated, “there are still to be found some rabbits imported from New South Wales.” In 1844 rabbits existed between the mouth of the Clutha and Mataura. They were introduced into Nelson in 1865, and were observed to be running wild about Te Kuiti in 1857.

Not only have rabbits eaten crops sufficient to feed thousands of sheep, but they destroyed the land. Several districts are overrun with rabbits and several other districts have grave fears of invasion. Reports from South Tara-naki indicate that hordes are advancing from the King Country. Several years ago there were no rabbits to be seen about Patea and the country inland from Stratford. Now they are encroaching on the outskirts of good dairying land north of Patea and eastward of Hawera. Rabbit barriers have been kept on bridges, notably at Mokau, but reliable observers state that rabbits can and do swim wide rivers.

The menace was recognised fifty years ago. The ferret was introduced by the Canterbury Acclimatisation Society in 1867, but apparently those imported were not then liberated. In 1883 the rabbit inspector recommended introduction of stoats and weasels. In July, 1883, the Agent-General in London had made 32 shipments of ferrets, totalling 1,217 animals in 15 months. Only 178 were landed, but the cost was £953! Of 241 purchased in Melbourne, 198 were landed at a cost of £224. Thus the total number landed was 376 and the cost £1,177—or £3/2/7 per head!

The Horseshoe Bend, Waiau River, Southland, New Zealand.

The Horseshoe Bend, Waiau River, Southland, New Zealand.

“A substantial bonus” was offered in the same year to anyone who would introduce a certain number of stoats and weasels in healthy condition. In about a year things happened. Nearly 4,000 ferrets were turned out—3,041 in Marlborough alone, and about 400 on Crown lands in Otago. The rest were sold apparently to private individuals. An agent was sent abroad to procure stoats and weasels.

In 1885, 185 weasels and 50 stoats were received from London, 67 being released on Lake Wanaka where they did succeed, at first, in reducing the rabbits. Twenty-eight weasels and six stoats were liberated at Lake Waka-tipu; fifteen weasels near Waiau River, in Southland; eight stoats at Ashburton, and the rest were sold in Wellington, Christchurch and Dun-edin. Further lots were introduced subsequently, all probably guaranteed harmless.

Approximately 3,000,000 rabbits, worth £70,000, and 8,000,000 skins worth £115,000 were exported in 1921. In 1930 rabbit skins exported exceeded seven millions and in successive years the total has grown to 13,000,000 in 1934.

The task now is to catch the myriads of rabbits, and also the ferrets, weasels, stoats, mongoose and wild cats which acclimatisation societies and past Governments misjudged. All now are pests, and must be caught. The most provocative word is “How?” and the best advice. “Don't do it any more!”

page 90