Recently, in my research of the supply chain radio doco, I've come across quite a few people who identify as animal activists, but actually just reserve their animal welfare activities to the rescue of rabbits.
That's just what Australia needs more of. Rabbits.
Gabbing to them got me thinking more about one of Australia's iconic man-made structures. The Rabbit-Proof Fence.
Most people in Western Australia have seen the signs for Rabbit-Proof Fence Road. A century ago everyone knew about the fence, but in recent times many Australians weren't particularly aware of the rabbit-proof fence until the eponymous film came out in 2002, based on the 1996 book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington.
But what is the story behind the Rabbit-Proof Fence?
Although many of Australia’s early colonial settlers of the eighteenth century were not of the highest moral fibre, by the mid 1800’s various affluent Britons were relocating here. Welcome the Acclimatisation Societies.
Oh! Acclimatisation Societies. That sounds lovely, you think. They obviously wanted to acclimatise to their new home, Australia, right?
No. Not exactly.
Acclimatisation Societies were created in order to “enrich the fauna of a region with animals and plants from around the world.” Of course, today we find that idea abhorrent, having seen the ruinous affects of introduced species on endemic flora and fauna. But the real purpose of the Acclimatisation Society in Australia was to make Australia more like Great Britain. Early acclimatisers had introduced domesticated rabbits (among other things), but these were not good for hunting, and didn't survive very well in the scrubby landscape.
Thomas Austin (1815 – 1871) is generally considered the person responsible for the ubiquitous wild rabbit (above) which still inhabits almost every part of Australia. Austin was an Englishman whose uncle was a convict sent to Tasmania. He arrived in Hobart Town in 1831. Using money from his deceased uncle’s estate, Austin bought a property, Barwon Park, in Victoria.
A keen hunter and Acclimatisation Society member, Austin asked his nephew, William Mack, to bring twenty four wild rabbits to Australia from England. Apropos, in December 1859 Mack bought the requested acclimatisation rabbits to Australia on the clipper ship “Lightening”. Eighteen of the rabbits were feral, caught and held in a warren until they were shipped.
Austin set thirteen rabbits free, and kept eleven enclosed in the fences on his farm. They did what rabbits do best, and bred.
Rabbit hunting parties were extremely popular in the day, and Prince Alfred the Duke of Edinburgh visited Barwon Park, reportedly shooting 416 rabbits in three and a half hours. It was recalled he needed attendants on hand to exchange his guns because they were too hot to handle. One imagines you could have shot blindfolded and hit several rabbits with one bullet, such was the infestation of the pests on the farm.
Then…disaster: the property was flooded, and some of the fences were destroyed, allowing the enormous rabbit population to escape.
By 1867 rabbits spread north and west across the entire country. The effects were immediate. They destroyed farmland and the native landscape, stripping it of all vegetation, and subsequently caused the erosion of enormous stretches of land. Property values in many parts of the country began dropping. The diaspora was unstoppable. By the 1880’s the government was offering bounties on dead rabbits, and by the turn of the century rabbits were in all, or part, of every state of the country. They were, in less than fourty years, the biggest nuisance the country had ever known (since the colonials themselves). Crowding out native species for habitat, they were also great fodder for other introduced animals like foxes, wild cats, and wild dogs.
In the late 1800’s people were attempting to build rabbit-proof fences of their own, although the effectiveness was variable, as rabbits were more often than not on both sides of the fences already. Also needing to be dug in deep to stop the underground progress of the warrens, hand tools and manual labour made the deep fences prohibitive for farmers.
1901 – 1907: Following a Royal Commission into the rabbits, construction began on a state line fence to attempt to stop the rabbits from decimating Western Australia. Originally the fence was constructed out of wooden posts, wire, and wire netting, with gates every 34kms, and traps to stop rabbits burrowing under the wire. Crews cut posts out of the surrounding trees as they progressed. The netting was buried, and the bottom parts of the fence treated to stop rusting. Three rabbit-proof fences were built because the rabbits kept getting ahead of the crews. The number one fence runs north-south, roughly through the middle of Western Australia (the entire length of the country). The number three fence runs east-west, about halfway down the number one fence, and number two divides the zones created by the other two.
At it’s completion in 1907, 3256kms of fence were in place, which cost more than three hundred thousand pounds in the money of the day. The First Chief Inspector of Rabbits, Alexander Crawford, was handed the responsibility of the never ending inspection of the fence. Workers travelled by foot, bike, horse, and camel, checking the integrity of the fence all year round. Even today, 30 – 35kms of fence are replaced annually by a various mixture of DAFF, working parties, and local government.
There is still a lot of contention around the various animal fences across Australia. Do they work? Do they impinge on the biodiversity of the areas where they are erected? This year the fence has seen it's share of controversy in a plan to extend the old rabbit-proof fence by more than half its length again at its southern end. Opponents to this addition have raised questions about its appropriateness in a new ecological era. It has been called a Berlin Wall against native wildlife. But the problem of non-endemic pests remains in many agricultural areas.
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