Throw in about two dozen non-native, horny rabbits on an island, and end up with several million furry descendants in a matter of years. That’s the story of the common rabbit in Australia, originally from Europe and North Africa.
The man behind it all, Thomas Austin, was an English farmer and avid hunter who moved to Australia in 1831. He owned a large run of 29,000 acres and called it Barwon Park. He missed having hares crossing his crosshairs, so he asked his nephew William Austin to send him a dozen grey rabbits, five hares, seventy-two partridges, and some sparrows to continue his hunting hobby. His complaisant nephew was unable to meet his order of grey rabbits, and instead outsourced to domestic ones. In 1859, Austin released the 24 excited rabbits and said nonchalantly “The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.” Oh, boy, was he wrong. Within 10 years, 2 million rabbits could be hunted and trapped annually without having an impact on the total population. The interbreeding of the two distinct types of rabbits is theorized to have resulted in a particularly adaptive and vigorous hybrid. Low vegetation, mild winters, and an endless breeding season – it was rabbit utopia. It was also the most rapid spread of mammals ever recorded anywhere in the world’s history. Imagine the look of Thomas Austin’s face in the midst of a stampede of his own rabbit children.
By 1887, overgrazing, and burrowing was reported to cause serious erosion on topsoil, devastating the continent – as it takes many hundreds of years to regenerate. It is suspected that the infestation has caused the most significant loss of species in Australia. The New South Wales Government offered a £25,000 reward for “any method of success not previously known in the Colony for the effectual extermination of rabbits”. Of the 1456 suggestions, none were found both safe and effective. For the next several decades, Australians implemented a number of unsuccessful control measures, such as shooting, poisoning, and stretching a fence hundreds of kilometres from the east into Western Australian pastoral areas, only to realize that the rabbits could jump or burrow past the impenetrable defences.
The reward even caught the attention of Louis Pasteur, who was unable to provide a solution however accelerated the introduction of microbiology into Australia.
It wasn’t until 1950, when Frank Fenner produced the myxoma virus, dropping the staggering 600 million rabbit population to around 100 million. Genetic resistance allowed the population to rebound to 200-300 million by 1991. However, after three years of comprehensive tests, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation released the rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) to control the remaining population.
It is estimated that Thomas Austin’s hobby has cost the country millions of dollars in damages.
Thomas Austin (1815-1871), father of 600 million rabbits – may he rest in peace.