From an email saent to me by Byter Leo M, with additional comment by myself.
RAAF PBY Catalina, 1952, for Rathmines.
HMAS Anzac II and Fairy Firefly on the HMAS Sydney. RAN. 1953.
Australian rabbit plague. Narromine, NSW. 1953.
European rabbits were introduced to Australia in the 18th century with the First Fleet and eventually became widespread. Such wild rabbit populations are a serious mammalian pest and invasive species in Australia causing millions of dollars of damage to crops. Their spread may have been enhanced through the emergence of strong crossbreeds.
Various methods in the 20th century have been attempted to control the Australian rabbit population. Conventional methods include shooting rabbits and destroying their warrens, but these had only limited success. In 1907, a rabbit-proof fence was built in Western Australia in an unsuccessful attempt to contain the rabbits. The myxoma virus, which causes myxomatosis, was introduced into the rabbit population in the 1950s and had the effect of severely reducing the rabbit population. However, the survivors have since adapted and partially recovered their previous numbers.
Truck carrying 1760 pairs of rabbits
In 1827 a Tasmanian newspaper noted “the common rabbit is so numerous ... they are running about on some large estates by thousands. We understand there are no rabbits whatever in the elder colony” of NSW.
This changed after Victorian grazier Thomas Austin released 24 rabbits for hunting on his 11,736ha Barwon Park run at Winchelsea, southwest of Melbourne in 1859. Austin, who left England aged 15 in 1832 for Tasmania, supported “acclimatisation’’ by importing European plants and animals. He asked a nephew in England to send 12 grey rabbit breeding pairs, five hares, 72 partridges and sparrows. Austin planted lettuce crops and dug warrens, then went hunting, inviting the Prince of Wales to Barwon Park in 1867, when the prince shot 486 rabbits in two days.
Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, rabbit shooting at Barwon Park, Victoria in 1867
Austin reportedly crossed English rabbits with local domesticated rabbits, creating a hybrid so well suited to Australia that they reached NSW by 1880, when Victorian pastoralist James Cudmore reported a plague reduced his woolclip 80 per cent.
English hat maker Benjamin Dunkerley turned the pest to his advantage in Tasmania, inventing a machine in 1892 to remove hair tips from rabbit fur, previously done by hand, to use the underfur for felt hats.
Benefiting from mild winters and no natural predators, rabbits reached South Australia and Queensland in 1886. In 1887 damage and losses compelled the NSW government to offer a £25,000 reward for successful extermination methods “not previously known in the Colony”. Among 1456 suggestions was a proposal from French microbiologist Louis Pasteur, who in 1888 sent three agents to Australia to release chicken cholera microbes, used to kill rabbits in a Rhiems vineyard. The NSW government thwarted Pasteur’s trials with the Noxious Animal Act, prohibiting use of microbes to conduct experiments in inoculation in open country. Rabbits reached Western Australia in 1890.
A royal commission in 1901 led to unsuccessful experiments to control or reduce rabbits, while Dunkerley moved his hat business to Surry Hills, where English hat maker Stephen Keir joined him in 1904. Keir wed Dunkerley’s daughter Ada in 1905, and in 1912 introduced the Akubra name, a Pintjantjantjara word for headdress.
By the 1920s Australia had 10 billion rabbits, reproducing by 18 to 30 births per female per year, unhampered by rabbit-proof fences across Queensland and Western Australia. But in the Great Depression even future Victorian premier Henry Bolte, who quipped in 1934 that his property ran 600 sheep and 60,000 rabbits, supplemented his income by trapping rabbits to sell skins and carcasses.
Microbiologists Frank Fenner, Macfarlane Burnet and Ian Clunies Ross chose a wet summer of 1951-52 to release fleas and mosquitoes infested with a South American rabbit virus, myxoma. Fenner injected himself when it was feared myxoma was spreading Murray Valley encephalitis.
In 1950, after years of research, scientists released myxomatosis—and it was devastating. The rabbit population dropped from 600 million to 100 million in the first two years. The change was immediate.
Brian Coman remembers walking in a field with his father as a boy and looking at a hill, part of which was covered with bracken fern.
'He clapped his hands, and it was almost as if the whole surface of the ground got up and ran into the bracken fern. There were hundreds upon hundreds, perhaps thousands of rabbits. It was a sight I'll never forget.'
But after myxomatosis 'the grey blanket' disappeared.
'You could walk all day and not see a rabbit,' says Coman.
The accidental release of calicivirus during tests on Wardang Island off South Australia in 1995 killed 10 million rabbits in eight weeks. In 2015 declining rabbit numbers forced Akubra to source all rabbit pelts from the Ukraine.