Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 21, 2017

Those Wild Rabbits, by Bruce Munday

It struck me this morning when I was reading The Weekend Australian Review, that two of the books reviewed are companions to this one which I have just read by Bruce Munday.  Those Wild Rabbits is a salutary reminder (and a warning) from an era that has vanished.  Geoffrey Blainey makes the same point about a vanished world in his review of Slow Catastrophes: Living with Drought in Australia (Australian History) by Rebecca Jones and The Vanished Land: Disappearing dynasties of Victoria’s Western District by Richard Zachariah.

When I was married to The Ex, I became part of a huge family, and most of them lived in the bush or wanted to.  That was where their roots were, in the dry dusty plains of the Mallee in an arc that had spread out from the Goldfields where some had been quite successful.  When the aunts and uncles of this extended family retired they went back to the bush, to Wedderburn and to Swan Hill,  but only one of them had nearby offspring (who was farming dried fruit not far away in the backblocks of Mildura.) Now they are all gone, and the thriving towns I drove through on my way to visit them in the 70s and 80s are dying too.

As Blainey says:

A host of city people now have no relatives who live in the bush, and yet as recently as 1945 I would suggest that more than half of the city dwellers had either come from the bush or were in touch with relatives who lived there. (The Weekend Australian Review, Oct 21-22,  2017, p 20)

This matters. I knew people who remembered the dust storms of the 1940s and the rabbit plagues which devastated agricultural and pastoral land.  Bruce Munday writes in Those Wild Rabbits that one of the pleasures of writing the book was talking to people who had living memory of those dreadful times, and his fear is that because most people know nothing about it, Australia lacks the eternal vigilance that’s needed to keep the rabbit in check and preferably to eradicate it completely. Blainey, an historian sympathetic to the bush and its issues, links the growth of One Nation’s political influence with rural decline, noting the gulf in social values between the city and the land…

Well, it seems to me that we just don’t understand each other any more, and that brings a lack of empathy, a lack of understanding, a willingness to blame and punish and an unwillingness to learn.   For every person reading this review there are probably many more who saw its title and thought, I don’t want to read about the rabbit problem in the bush and deleted it out of their inbox.

Well, the rabbit problem in rural Australia isn’t theoretical for me.  It’s about people in my photo albums. These are two photos from the Family Archive:

Taken just a few years apart, the one on the left is from a visit to a relation’s farm in Clare, South Australia, and the one on the right is of The Offspring in my back garden, with the imaginatively named and long-lamented Bunny (known as Bun for short).  And these two photos exemplify a key theme in Those Wild Rabbits: there is a longstanding tension between farmers who want to see every last rabbit exterminated, and the attitude of people who don’t realise it’s a problem.  No farmer or pastoralist in Australia would ever keep a rabbit as a pet.

Our Bun was not, of course, a wild rabbit.  Or not to start with.  He was a domestic rabbit and he came from a pet shop.  But he escaped eventually, and if he wasn’t despatched by a neighbourhood cat or a dog, he probably made it no further to freedom than the highway, though he would have nibbled his way through some greenery en route.  Had we lived on Melbourne’s outskirts, it might have been a different story.  If he survived the foxes, the feral cats and the dogs of laissez-faire owners, he might well have found a lady friend and could have founded a whole new dynasty of bunnies.  Meanwhile, we bought another rabbit, also called Bunny, who also escaped.  (And after that we got a dog).  But there were real tears over the demise of Bun 1 and Bun 2.  No farmer or pastoralist would ever weep for a rabbit, and as you can see from the photo on the left, lofty ideas about cruelty to animals don’t apply.  Attitudes start young and that small cousin is only too delighted with the night’s spotlighting, and not considered too young to go along either!

That photo was taken in 1970, when by rights the rabbit problem should have been done and dusted.  After a century or more of spectacularly ineffective strategies which included poisoning, trapping, digging up warrens, and putting up (so-called) rabbit-proof fences, the rabbit should finally have met its match.  In the middle of the 20th century a combination of a communicable disease called myxomatosis, a poison called 1080 and a serious research effort by the CSIRO should have exterminated the wild rabbit, but as Bruce Monday says at the beginning of Chapter 15 (ironically titled ‘The Empire Strikes Back’):

The tale of Australia and the rabbit is really a tale of its people and their relationship with it. The people who brought it here, had fun shooting it, wept over its devastation of everything they valued, lived off trapping, dreamt of controlling, searched for cures, rejoiced when it finally got sick.  Rabbits exhausted our emotions, our wits, our natural garden and our bank accounts. (p.190)

And though myxo reduced the rabbit population from 600 million to 100 million within a couple of years, enabling the growth of pastures and improving the crop yield, the problem of resistance to the disease came up against the problem of complacency.  There was in the initial phase of the myxo epidemic an opportunity for farmers throughout the land to clear out every last rabbit … but at least in the short term most could think of better ways to spend [their cash] than on the last few rabbits – machinery, fertiliser, animal genetics, not to mention off farm.

Munday includes in his book the iconic photo of the rabbit plague at Quinyambie Station, and when I went looking for it online I found it at a site called Rabbit Scan. This is what Munday says about it:

That the rabbit problem was far from over finally sank in to the wider public in November 1988.  Peter Bird of the South Australian Animal and Plant Control Commission took what was to become the most widely published rabbit photo of all time.  The calamity on Quinyambie Station, after a couple of wet years with a dozen permanent shooters and about 5000 dingoes, should never have happened.  But an estimated 20 million rabbits did not obey the rules of sustainable development.  Breeding with such rapidity in the abundant vegetation they simply ate themselves out of food and water.  The tragic images of thousands of emaciated rabbits scurrying among the corpses of brethren in search of shade rammed home the awful truth.  This horrifying story found its way into the most unlikely publications, magazines that would never publish rural or environmental issues but thrived on sensation.  If that’s what it took to raise awareness of the need for a new weapon to complement myxo, then so be it.  (p.202)

Those Wild Rabbits is a surprisingly readable book.  The history of the rabbit is traced through its early days, revealing the persisting problem of the commercialisation of rabbits.   Bounties for trappers and shooters; a flourishing trade in meat and skins (including a profitable export market) plus a ready source of food for the poor in times of economic downturn meant that that it was always in the interests of some to maintain supply.  Munday’s droll style renders the balkanised politics of inter-colonial governments’ efforts to deal with the rabbit rampage with dry wit and often made me laugh out loud. (Rabbits do not observe colonial or state boundaries, and they were always ahead of the rabbit-proof fence before governments stopped arguing and actually constructed it.)

Lest you think that these issues are over, Munday provides us with the example of George Babaniotis, the owner of SA Rabbit Supply, who said in 1992

…that he could export 50 million rabbits a year ‘but there aren’t enough of them, so to try to get rid of more doesn’t make sense.’ (p.209)

What’s more, the modern era’s need to consider multiple stakeholders led to delays in the release of the latest form of biological control, the calicivirus (RHD) and the carrier for the virus, the Spanish rabbit flea:

The 1990s were utterly different to the 1950s, with many more boxes to tick.  The agenda for rapid and widespread rabbit control now had to account for a myriad of affected interests: indigenous hunters; rabbit predators, both native and introduced; shooters (traps were banned in all but Queensland) and processors; pet owners; animal welfare groups; international trade where Australia would lose its RHD-free status; compatibility with myxomatosis and commonly used poisons.  Recognising this ever-more-demanding operating environment, a comprehensive review of rabbit management looked to temper expectations both of RHD and Spanish rabbit flea by declaring that ‘the release of such new agents will be years away, even if these research projects succeed.’ (p. 210)

Was frustration with that delay responsible for the premature release of the virus?  Munday doesn’t think so. He thinks it was probably insects.  But whatever the cause… while it took the myxo scientists 15 years to discover how to transmit the virus from one rabbit to another, it took six months for RHD to escape from field testing on the island of Wardung in 1995 and onto the mainland.   The research to find out how best to make this virus work – to systematically embed RHD into a well-planned rabbit control strategy – was dead in the water.  So once again the opportunity to eradicate the pest once and for all was lost.  (And it you look at the map of infestations on that Rabbit Scan site you can see what’s happened in the two decades since then).

The only good thing about the premature release of RHD was that it coincided with community-group-driven, grass-roots collective-action-based Landcare (which started BTW in my home state of Victoria under the leadership of its first female premier, Joan Kirner, and became a national program).

Landcare was a great platform for rabbit management because it brought people together for a common purpose – just what was needed for such a crafty character as the rabbit. (p. 225)

(It is, after all, no use to clear your land of rabbits, if your neighbour doesn’t.  Rabbits don’t respect property boundaries either.)  Landcare did a lot of good things, but as Munday points out, in the argy-bargy over limited resources, there’s always tension between supporting projects supported by good science and the pet project of an enthusiastic community group.  (I myself have taken groups of schoolkids into the bush to do Landcare tree-planting in environments where the trees were always going to die from salinity problems before the year was out).

I’ll leave the last word to Munday:

That historical inability to get that ‘last pair’ leaves us where we have always been – largely dependant on biological control to do just that: control.  The goal is not to kill rabbits, but to minimise their damage .  Where or so long as myxo or RHD are effective the impact on agriculture might be acceptable, particularly if hotspots are addressed by ripping, baiting or both.  How long this strategy is viable is difficult to predict, but we do know that myxo and RHD cannot go on forever; the decline will be continuous and eventually we will be back where we were in 1950, beset by rabbit plagues.  This bleak outcome looks unlikely to people younger than 65 but it is inevitable. (p. 229)

Update 16/11/17 For a review by a proper historian, see John Myrtle’s review at Honest History. see John Myrtle’s review at Honest History.  

Author: Bruce Munday
Title: Those Wild Rabbits, How they shaped Australia
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2017
ISBN: 9781743054574
Review Copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available from Fishpond: Those Wild Rabbits: How they shaped Australia

 


Responses

  1. I think that all this book got in SMH was one dull paragraph. I realise there are masses of books for editors to choose from. But it I sounds like a very important and extremely interesting book. You have brought it to life, in any case. 🐰

    • Thanks, Carmel. We don’t get The Age (SMH) any more (too tabloid these days) so I don’t see their coverage of books in print but I come across them occasionally online, and yes, those mini-reviews are often disappointing. It makes me feel a greater responsibility for this little blog when there are so few opportunities for authors to have their work taken seriously.

  2. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  3. That is a most interesting review and reminded me that right here in Fremantle’s Esplanade Park there are rabbits aplenty and can be seen in the evening running to and fro. I don’t think I have ever heard or seen the matter discussed in all the years I have lived in this place. Without being too cynical Who Cares? Unfortunately the mediocrity of mediocrities dominates much of the airwaves both sight and sound so there is a dearth of engagement with important and serious matters. Thanks so much Lisa for your informative and eclectic analysis which have drawn me to subjects and topics that may otherwise have been passed by.

    • Yes, they’re in Braeside Park not far from me, and I’ve also seen them in Cheltenham Park and in the roadside verges alongside the golf courses here. Next time I’m haranguing our local council about something, I’ll ask them what they’re doing about the rabbits too.

  4. Thanks so much for this review illuminated by your own recollections and great photography. Another side of the rabbit ‘control’ efforts is the demise of the local hat industry. Akubra – one of the last remaining producers – now imports rabbit felt from Europe for its local hat production ( presume the author covers). Will look out for Munday’s book.

    • Hello Peter,
      *chuckle* I don’t think my little snaps qualify as ‘great photography’ though now that I think about it, that B&W one came out well considering it was taken at night. Unless I missed it, I don’t think he does mention Akubra… my guess is that these days it would be seen as environmentally unsound to be part of the commercialisation of the wild rabbit?
      .

      • Hi Lisa – and it’s a crying shame – here’s a link to a poem on buying Australian hats – thought you might enjoy the photo – Fort St boys learning about the hat trade – c. 1927. – Cheers https://peterfrankiswrites.blog/2017/02/24/hat/

        • Wow, I love the photo and the poem too: yes, it’s true that an Akubra can look insincere.

      • I hope it is not poor form for the author to respond to the review, but perhaps as it appeared (to me) a favourable review I might mention that the iconic Akubra does get a mention (p. 141) but does not appear in the index. Bad oversight.

        • Hello Bruce, thank you for writing such an interesting book!
          I’m sorry I missed the reference to the Akubra, and thank you for pointing it out. How interesting that it was 3rd-rate furs that found their way into ‘the ever-expanding hat manufacturing market, from which evolved the Australian icon: the Akubra.’ (Equally fascinating on the adjacent page is the sign warning that the penalty for keeping rabbits is $44,000!).

  5. A well argued and passionate review. Mum, who grew up in the Mallee near Swan Hill remembers the dust storms of those years from overclearing. Even in the 1950s and 60s when I was at school in the mallee there were huge rolling sandhills that would bury the fences. Rabbit shooting and trapping for pocket money was common back then, It would be good to see them gone though the dogs that live on them would move on to native animals. Cats, now that’s the animal I’d really like to see banned, followed up by all exotic fish and reptiles.

    • I’d forgotten you were a Mallee lad!
      I remember when Melbourne had its great dust storm in 1983, I was telling my then MIL about it afterwards and said I’d thought it was the end of the world, nuclear fallout of some sort. I was too scared to go outside my office until I tuned in the radio and found out what it was. She laughed (not unkindly) and said that they were a regular occurrence when she was a girl in the Mallee. There are some really striking photos in this book that show what it was like, though really, there’s no way to convey the effect of a tidal wave of red dust rolling towards you!

  6. What a fascinating review Lisa, made all the more so by little glimpses into your history.

    • Actually, that trip to Clare has a sort of heritage significance this week, the week that Holden closed down. That car in the background was my then FIL’s brand new Holden, and the trip was to ‘run it in’. Remember when we used to have to ‘run a car in’ when it was new?

      • Oh yes, I do remember how cars had to be ‘run in’ but had totally forgotten about that until you mentioned it. Seems quite funny now.

  7. Ah yes, Lisa, I remember “running in” cars. It still feels a little odd not to have to, doesn’t it?

    As for rabbits we are only too aware of them where I live. They run amok in our street quite regularly, though I think our new landscaping is probably not going to bring them to our front lawn any more. No more grass! As you say, they requite vigilance. Perhaps we need to get back to making tinned rabbit so we can send them back to where they came from!!

    • I gather from the book that tinned rabbit was not … ahem… a delicacy. There’s a sort or irony, isn’t there, that rabbits are running amok up there in Canberra where all the politicians can see them and yet nothing is being done about it…

      • True. I’m assuming the politicians see them – they must surely get on the lawns at Parliament House. Otherwise, if most of them stay in central appartment areas they may not see them. There’s an interesting article in The Conversation, from a few years ago, which sounds like it covers some of what your book does: https://theconversation.com/controlling-rabbits-lets-not-get-addicted-to-viral-solutions-5701

        • Well, if they run true to form they’ll wait till the rabbits devastate a year’s crops and then they’ll take notice…

          • Remember when we read Position Doubtful and noted that the pictures were too small and muddy to be appreciated? (Which was a sad thing for that book because it’s such a great book and the pictures really mattered). I said then that it’s a pity Wakefield Press didn’t publish it because they do live up to their motto that they publish ‘beautiful books’. They get everything right: the size, and the papers, and the illustrations get the space and layout that they deserve.

  8. Good review. Here’s another http://honesthistory.net.au/wp/how-wild-rabbits-shaped-the-wide-brown-land-review-of-munday/ Also note that Rebecca Jones (Slow Catastrophes) has a chapter in The Honest History Book http://honesthistory.net.au/wp/the-honest-history-book-is-coming-in-april-2017/ on environmental factors in Australian history. Beautifully written and very sensible.

    • Thanks, David, it’s always good to have a book like this reviewed by a proper historian. I think I’m going to get a copy of Slow Catastrophes, it looks excellent.

      • That other review is lovely in its comment about Wakefield Press: “Munday has been well-served by his publisher with interesting, informative photographs and an impressive array of colour plates.”. They should be patting themselves on the back, shouldn’t they.

  9. Love the mix of autobiography and larger context in this review.

    • *chuckle* I didn’t realise I was doing that!

  10. Totally fascinating to me because it’s an “exotic” topic. I’d heard about it but never imagined the extent of the problem. 600 million of rabbits !!! Wow.

    • It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? And when you imagine that if they hadn’t been able to cull those 600 million to 100 million, how many more there would be now is a staggering figure.


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