Rabbits, rabbits everywhere!

Rabbits have been the bane of Central Otago for over 150 years.

Later this month Queenstown Lakes District Council (QLDC) will undertake rabbit control in the Albert Town Campground. This operation will start any time from Monday, July 27.

Drive into the campground, and the rabbits scatter in waves. Literally!

The council will be using toxic Pindone carrot baits applied on the ground within the reserve. Don't touch them!

It's also important to note the following about this operation:

While QLDC plans to start this work any time from July 27, the timing is weather dependant. It can't be done in the rain. It's expected to require up to three toxic applications, each of five nights apart. 

Stay away from the area folks, says QLDC, or at least, dog owners – keep your dogs on a leash.

It's an age-old story- rabbits have been the bane of Central Otago for well over a hundred and fifty years.

For instance, at Kawarau Station near Cromwell, rabbiters killed 24,000 rabbits in 1884 and 28,000 in 1885. Because of this infestation, the productivity of the station declined dramatically, and the death rate of the merino flock rose from 5 per cent to 10.5 per cent in just a few years. This was serious damage for the run holder back in those days.

What's more, throughout the 1870s and 1880s, farmers walked off their farms in Otago because of the impact of rabbits; come 1887, half a million hectares of land had been abandoned.

Rabbits were brought into New Zealand and released for both food and sport as early as the 1830s.

By 1875 they had spread into Otago, Southland and Canterbury; by 1890 they had overrun the Mackenzie Country, causing a massive drop in productivity on the first high-country stations as they ate out the feed, leaving little for the sheep. 

Farmers tried a variety of ways to combat rabbits. At first, they relied on digging out burrows, hunting with dogs, shooting and trapping. Large gangs of men were employed to do this but were unable to cope with the vast numbers.

However, there was a significant breakthrough after WW2 when experiments in dropping poisoned bait from planes proved successful. Remote and inaccessible areas, particularly in the South Island high country could now be included in large-scale eradication programmes.

By 1950 more than 100 rabbit boards were administrating over 7.3m hectares of rabbit-prone country. Funding came from rates charged to landholders based on the area of their properties or the number of animals carried. The combination of aerial spraying and the use of carrots poisoned with 1080 allowed rabbit boards to reduce rabbit number in most areas.

But in 1989 the administration of rabbit control was restructured entirely. The newly formed regional councils took over the role of the Agricultural Pest Destruction Council, and rabbit boards were disbanded. Farmers became responsible for meeting the costs of rabbit control undertaken on their account and imposed on them by the regional government.

Coincidentally at the same time, the funding declined and its administration changed, and a prolonged drought in the South Island led to an explosion in rabbit numbers.

It was now that rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) came clandestinely onto the scene, and for the next few years, rabbit numbers declined dramatically.

The release in 1997 was the stuff of movies - a bunch of renegade farmers desperately taking the law into their own hands and using cloak-and-dagger measures to spread the virus throughout the high country. 

Known as New Zealand's most significant intentional biosecurity breach (until COVID of course), it was a huge slap in the face for New Zealand's border officials.

Not only had a highly infectious agent been smuggled into the country, but it also appeared a group of New Zealand farmers had committed the crime.

Most pleaded ignorance but a few admitted to manufacturing and liberating the virus on their farms. They posed for the media alongside kitchen whizzes in which they'd mixed their viral cocktail. They felt the rabbit plague threatened their livelihood, and the government had let them down by failing to recognise their plight.

The covert undertaking had been in effect for several weeks before the outbreak was officially recognised. In late August dead rabbits were found on a farm in Otago, and a post-mortem showed they had died of RHD. An emergency disease response was put in place by the then-Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF), and the farm was put under quarantine. 

MAF initiated an emergency disease response, but it was too late. By then, the virus was spreading like wildfire.

But although the release was successful to start with and millions of rabbits died, 20 years on its effect was waning. Farmers were looking again for an answer to the pest that destroyed their pasture and eroded their land and profitability. Another release of RHD, which had worked well in Australia, was again on the table, but this time government-controlled.

RHD, although a different strain, was re-released in 2018. The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) approved applications for the importation and release of the poison, and this was to be managed by councils at more than 150 sites across New Zealand

By this stage, there were some "desperate" farmers out there, according to Mackenzie Country runholder Andrew Simpson, who at the time represented Federated Farmers on the cross-sector group coordinating the Rabbit Coordination Group (RCG).

"The timing of this [RHD release] was critical in some areas. If another year had gone by without the release of this virus, the ecological damage to some properties would have been a catastrophe.

"RHD was introduced into Australia the year previous and had reportedly been very effective, better than anticipated. Knockdown rates were averaging above 40 per cent, and in some areas, they were achieving up to 80 per cent."

Since the release, research teams have been intensely monitoring sites to study the impact of the virus and how well it is establishing.

'The first thing we wanted to know was whether the virus was killing rabbits within 5 km of our release sites, and that seems to be the case. So far we've detected the RHD from carcasses at all of the research sites,' said the then Manaaki Whenua lead researcher Janine Duckworth.

But the outcome has not been as effective as the clandestine release and farmers are now asking why they did not see the same dramatic numbers of dead rabbits on their property.

The answer is simple said Duckworth: "It was never expected to act that way. This virus was expected to improve rabbit knockdown by up to 40 per cent above the current strain, and results will vary with the location and number of susceptible animals in the population.

"One of the major differences with this virus release was that the rabbits had already experienced RHD-type viruses and had built up some antibodies against them, so we were not going to see the huge 80–90 per cent die-off we saw back in 1997 but it will be more effective over time."

So back to the Albert Town campground and its rabbits. Campers aren't farmers, and the impact of the animal on them is not extreme. It doesn't affect their livelihood. But rabbits do damage the topsoil with their burrowing and eat away at the vegetation affecting the growth of local flora. And their numbers will only increase, and they will spread further if nothing is done.

But here's hoping that at the Albert Town campground at least, there will be a reduction in rabbit numbers with this current operation. One thing to remember, though- the Albert Town rabbit problem is nothing new. It's been ongoing for over 150 years.

View edition 984 of the Wānaka Sun here.

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