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U3A Writing: Rabbits

Mima Fisher tells of the war fought by Australian farmers against the common enemy - rabbits.

When Donald's children got some rabbits for pets a few years ago I thought how disgusted their grandfather would have felt! Rabbits are lovely little animals, soft and cuddly, but I don't think they have personalities, or are particularly loving to their owners, but then, who am I to judge? I only think of the physical effort, the financial cost to the landholder, and the mental stress they caused us, especially for the several years it took to eradicate them, and keep them off the farms.

The first farm we bought after we were married was "Germaines", in the Nypo district. It had been the first land selected in the area. It was part of the Lascelles district, and an outpost for that property, held for Lord Lascelles, and based in Hopetoun. In the early days Mr Germaine was a worker for Lord Lascelles. He had an accident of some sort, and as compensation was given his choice of a selection of land to farm, when the country was being opened up.

He chose this area of approximately 640 acres, possibly a little more, on the banks of Lake Albacutya, and overlooking a lovely part of the Mallee. He built a home, and established a garden, with pepper trees and shrubs around it. This home was still occupied in the early 1940's but, when we bought it, the home had been empty for several years, and was in a dilapidated state. My husband demolished it and tidied up the surrounding area.

Mr Germaine had had an area to the north of the house he called the nature paddock, so we tried to keep this as it had been. Over the years the buloke trees fell in storms and had to be cleared up, but it was a great area to shelter sheep and lambs.

During the dry years of the forties and fifties, rabbits flourished on the properties along the lake frontage. Germaines was no exception, A little bulldozer tractor (D24, I think it was called) was used to grade along fences, and to rip burrows where possible. Long lines of furrows were made on the Lake, and along the property to poison the vermin at certain times of the year.

The farmers in the district did this together, to get a better kill. This operation was supervised by the Land's Department. If a farmer hadn't made an effort, he would get a summons to do so. Many man hours were spent doing this chore. The trails were free fed with grain for several nights to encourage the rabbits to come, before the strychnine laced grain was spread. The next morning the carcasses had to be gathered to prevent poisoning of other animals.

One of the worst areas of rabbit infestation was the big sand hill at the back of our neighbour's property. As hard as we worked to clear Germaines of the pests, they would simply move back in from the big hill over the road. So, eventually, at great expense, my husband decided to fence with a rabbit-proof fence. He was able to get some assistance from the Government to build the back line along the Lake frontage. I think they shared the cost of the wire netting, and he did the work.

There had to be constant surveillance of the fence lines, as the rabbits were persistent in their efforts to get in. They dug under the fence and made tracks in, or found a weak spot if one appeared anywhere. Traps were used on these spots at times. Then we could have a rabbit stew if a nice young one was caught. An old local identity, who lived in a humpy in the Nypo area, earned himself a living trapping rabbits to be skinned for their pelts, or for the chiller that operated in the district at times to process the carcasses. He was a cunning old chap, and would let the female rabbits go, so that he would keep a supply of rabbits for the future!

In drought years the problem was compounded. Feed for the pests was almost non-existent, so they moved into our house yards after garden plants. When the weather was hot, I often slept out on the veranda which had a very old grape vine growing around the edge. This was the only green plant anywhere about. I was wakened one night by thumping noises near my bed. There in the moonlight I saw several rabbits, jumping to get at the grapevine leaves. When I hunted them off, they darted to the lowest part of the fence, and clambered over it. The fence was fairly high and we could find no holes, so that must have been the way they got in.

One source of earning money for charity, or for the local school, was to have a rabbiting day picnic. Our Mothers' Club arranged the day, and all and sundry turned up, armed with ferrets, nets and dogs. Some fathers had guns to shoot escaping rabbits, but with the children there, that was not usual.

The biggest warren in the district was on our neighbour's farm, so it was there we often started our day. The entrance holes were found and covered with the nets; the ferrets were put in, and the fun began. Some of the folk had little fox terrier dogs. These little chaps were filled with excitement, trying to go down the burrows where they could hear the thumping, bumping noises of the occupants, trying to get away from the ferrets.

The little dogs were very knowing, seeking out the nearest hole to the underground noise, ready to catch an escaping rabbit, which erupted at great speed. The rabbiter had to be ready to grab the bundle of twisted net and kicking animal, no easy task at times. Sometimes several rabbits would come out together.

The dogs were quickly on the chase. Not many rabbits escaped. A quick twist of the neck killed the rabbit. If it was for the chiller, it was gutted, and hung across a rod with others, ready to be taken at the end of the day. If the pelt was to be sold, the carcase was skinned, very skilfully by the men, stretched on a wire and put aside to dry. Some weeks later, the skins were taken to the local skin buyer and sold.

Occasionally we had trouble getting the ferrets to leave the burrows. It is their nature to go down, find a rabbit, kill, and eat it. After a nice meal, the ferret wanted to curl up and sleep. There were different ways of coaxing them out. Often a fire was lit on the windy side of the warren entrance, and the smoke wafted down. Poor ferret had to come out to escape the smoke. Sometimes the ferret was trapped by a carcase on the wrong side of the exit, so his owner had to dig with a shovel to rescue it. The men were good at listening, and finding just where the little animal was trapped, and where to dig and find it.

There were other ways of trying to rid the land of rabbits. Spot-lighting at night to shoot or catch them was great fun. Drivers of the utility used needed to be aware of the terrain, as they had to go into the areas where the rabbits were. When our sons were young, the Young Farmers club to which they belonged often had such a night. We had a greyhound, "Snips", which was very adept at running rabbits down when the light pinpointed them.

One day, when the boys were still at school, the science teacher asked if anybody could get some live rabbits for him to use in a lesson. My two offered their Dad as a possibility. However, he was not available that night, so I was given the job of driving out to the lake front, where there were always plenty of the pests. The two boys undertook to run down and bring the rabbits back alive. All went well until they had caught one; they had forgotten a sack to put them in. So they were just popped into the cabin with me. It was hilarious driving with rabbits darting around.

Scientists have worked for years researching methods of eradicating this dreadful pest. Myxomatosis was discovered about thirty years ago. It was hailed as the saviour of the land. To introduce it to the rabbit communities, farmers had to catch several rabbits, take them live to the Lands Department on certain days, where they were inoculated with the virus and returned to the area where they were caught. Mosquitoes aided the spread of the disease.

Soon all the pests died. It was a nasty death, the animal became blind, its nasal passages blocked as in a flu, eventually it died from starvation. The virus did do a good job for a while, but gradually rabbits became tolerant of it, recovered from the disease, and multiplied again. In time it was ineffective, so the practice ceased. Rabbits flourished again.

Once again the scientists found a remedy. This time calaecy virus. This is very deadly to the rabbit. It was very successful in lots of districts. Unfortunately, it was released illegally in some places by farmers anxious to clear their properties of the nuisance. Therefore it has not been entirely successful. In some areas the rabbit is on the rise again.

We have our ancestors to thank for the nuisance, degradation of land, and huge financial cost to our landholders and government in attempting to rid the country of it. The early settlers thought a rabbit or two was needed to have their hunting fun and games as in the "Old Country". There, of course, the rabbit is native and does not over breed as it does here. Natural predators in their natural habitat keep it in control.

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