Wanaka Sun column by Pam Dovey - Upper Clutha Historical Records Society
In 1844, Frederick Tuckett was looking for a site for the “New Edinburgh” (Dunedin) on behalf of the New Zealand Company. He mentioned in his journal that there was “an island well stocked with rabbits” close to Tautuku Bay in the Catlins.
This could be the earliest mention of rabbits in the south. The fact that Tuckett was able to capture six of the rabbits suggests that they may have been the non-burrowing species. Perhaps an American jack-rabbit brought over by the whalers.
The rabbit we know today, loved by children and dogs and disliked by farmers and gardeners, was liberated by the dozen in the 1860s.
It was widely regarded as a pest by the mid-1870s and had forced itself to be recognized as a disaster in the 1880s.
By 1882, it was reported that the rabbits were coming over the Kakanuis in their millions.
They bred particularly on the high runs and on unoccupied Crown Land. Traps, poison, shot and natural enemies were tried, but made little impression.
The rabbits delayed the bridging of the Ohau for many years, as the Mt. Cook Road Board and its successor, the Mackenzie County Council, put some trust in the river as a barrier against them. When the bridge was built in 1889, a rabbit-proof gate was also built.
Old hands said that the rabbits came on to the bridge, examined the gate, shook it a little, held a conference, returned to the Otago bank and swam over as they had been accustomed to do!
Rabbit districts were defined in 1881, but the efforts to combat the total onslaught of the rabbit were quite ineffective. During the first decade of the 1900s, the export of rabbit skins from the Upper Clutha valleys became a large operation.
The industry grew in the 1920s and 30s. Up to eight million skins were being exported annually and a situation arose where rabbiters were offering a premium to operate on the properties.
Until 1940, freelance rabbiters were holding their own against the pest, when suddenly the price of skins dropped and at the same time the Government discontinued summer bonuses.
The government then formed Rabbit Boards. The Upper Clutha basin had five Boards, The Forks, Hawea, Lindis, Wanaka and Cardrona.
They were formed to carry out what was known as the “killer policy”. By 1949, over 200 men were employed and several state houses were built in Wanaka in an attempt to retain permanent staff.
At the close of the Board’s first season, despite the large number of men employed and thousands of rabbits killed, the pest was more numerous than it had been before.
Aircraft drops of poisoned oats and carrots were carried out, particularly in the Lindis area, recognized as one of the most heavily rabbit-infested parts of New Zealand.
By 1950, it was noticed that overall numbers of the pest had considerably decreased.
Sources: White Stone Country K.C. McDonald; Wanaka Story Irvine Roxburgh.
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