The Rabbit in Australia (1979)
The story of the European rabbit in Australia must surely be one of the most amazing examples of an animal’s ability to colonise a new land. Just how and why this happened makes a fascinating study.
This film traces the history of the rabbit from its evolutionary home in the Mediterranean through to its introduction into Australia as a source of food and sport and as a reminder of the English countryside. The rabbit population explosion began about 1860, and within 30 years, rabbit numbers had reached plague proportions over large parts of southern Australia. The long battle to control the rabbit had begun.
With the introduction of Myxomatosis in 1950 came the start of a big research effort aimed at a complete understanding of rabbit behaviour and ecology. Not many animals have ever been studied in such detail, so that we now have a much better understanding of how rabbits feed, breed and survive in different parts of Australia.
The film shows some aspects of social behaviour, reproduction and predation. It shows that, while rabbits were ideally suited to Australia’s temperate areas, they have also adapted to living in arid country and even in alpine regions.
[Image appears of a black screen with two headlights and a spotlight above them flashing brightly and moving towards the viewer]
[Image changes to the spotlight on the grass and a rabbit flashing across the screen]
[Image changes to two men standing on the back of a vehicle. Image shows one man loading the gun while the other is holding the spotlight]
[Image changes to show a rabbit being shot]
[Image changes to show the two men on the vehicle. Image shows one man reloading the gun]
[Image changes to show the spotlight on the grass and a rabbit being shot]
[Text appears on the screen ‘THE RABBIT IN AUSTRALIA’]
[Image changes back to the two men on back of the vehicle]
[Text appears ‘PRODUCED BY THE CSIRO FILM AND VIDEO CENTRE’ with a background of the men on the back of the vehicle]
[Text appears ‘CSIRO AUSTRALIA 1979’ with a rabbit running through the grass in the spotlight]
[Image changes to show a man loading a gun]
[Image changes to show rabbit being shot]
[Image changes to show many rabbits running through a paddock]
Narrator: The story of the European rabbits in Australia must surely be one of the most amazing examples of an animal’s ability to colonize a new land. Just how and why this happened makes a fascinating study. But our story really all begins in Spain.
[Image changes to show a car driving down a sandy road through a Spanish village]
[Camera pans over the village stall as a man throws a stick for a dog]
[Images flash through of a man on a donkey, cars driving past and people walking up the village street]
[Image changes to show a view of the mountains. Camera pans over the landscape of the mountains, shrubs and sandy soil]
For many hundreds of years the people who lived in the villages of southern Spain hunted rabbits for food and sold them in the marketplace. The landscape around these villages looks surprisingly like much of Australia. This type of country is thought to be the original home of rabbits.
[Camera zooms in on rabbits in the landscape]
They thrive in dry sandy soil which is easy to dig. And the Mediterranean climate of a short, dry, summer followed by regular winter rains means that there is always food for the litters of young rabbits in springtime.
[Spanish guitar music plays]
[Image changes to show two eagles in the sky. Camera zooms in on the eagle]
Here in Spain rabbits have many predators. The Imperial eagle is one.
[Spanish guitar music plays]
[Image changes to show two wolves]
Wolves are another.
[Spanish guitar music plays]
[Image changes to show a European lynx galloping across the landscape]
[Image changes to show a rabbit ducking down in the grass near a river]
So too is the rare European Lynx.
[Spanish guitar music plays]
[Image changes back to the eagle in the sky]
It seems that the combined effect of all these predators, including man kept the rabbits in check and they never became a pest in Spain.
[Camera pans over the landscape again]
[Spanish guitar music plays]
[Image changes to show a Norman frieze of hunters and then boats]
From earliest times, rabbits were hunted and domesticated in parts of Europe. So it was fairly natural that the Norman invaders should be amongst the first to bring rabbits into England, sometime after their conquest in 1066.
[Image changes to show a landscape of England. Camera pans over the landscape showing a cottage and areas of rabbit warrens]
As time passed rabbit farming became a useful means of supplying meat and fur to the people of rural England. This house was used by a Warrener, who looked after several enclosures that contained specially constructed mounds for warrens. And holes were often dug by hand to encourage the rabbits to breed.
[Image changes and zooms in on a building with the sign ‘WARREN HOUSE INN’]
Warreners in fact used to make a good living by selling off their surplus animals and so rabbits became very much a part of the English Way of life.
[Image changes to show a black and white rabbit in a hutch]
[Image changes to show two Beatrix Potter books ‘The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies’ and ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’. Camera zooms in on the cover picture of the Flopsy Bunnies book]
Many domestic breeds were kept in hutches for food and as pets and of course in stories for the young, rabbits endeared themselves to all.
[Image changes to show a painting of a large ship and small boats rowing out to it]
[Image changes to show a painting of an early Australian settlement. Camera pans over the settlement]
When European settlers began arriving in Australia during the 1800s all kinds of domestic animals came with them. The little colony was to be a copy of their homeland.
[Image changes to show a page of the ‘FIRST ANNUAL REPORT OF THE ACCLIMATISATION SOCIETY OF VICTORIA’]
[Image changes to a map of Australia. Camera zooms in on Victoria and Tasmania]
[Image changes to a picture of the Clipper Lightning ship]
It wasn’t long before rabbits were introduced into the southern part of the continent as a source of food for the settlers. In 1859, the clipper Lightning, arrived from England with 24 wild rabbits.
[Image changes to show some yellow flowers then the camera zooms out to show a field with a large country house in the background]
These were shipped to Thomas Austin, for hunting on his property near Geelong.
[Image changes to show a sketch of the Duke of Edinburgh and a hunting party. Camera zooms in on the hunting party in the sketch]
[Image changes to show a sketch of dead rabbits]
Here a few years later the visiting Duke of Edinburgh shot more than 300 in one day and was delighted.
[Images flash through of rabbit hunters and then a map of southern Australia. Camera zooms out to show the spread of the rabbit distribution on the map]
By now the surrounding countryside had been largely settled and the rabbits began to spread.
[Image changes to show a drover on horseback in the Australian bush. Camera pans over the drover’s cattle]
[Image changes to show the drover releasing a pair of rabbits from a hessian bag into the bush]
But they weren’t just spreading by themselves. For a few people soon realised there was big money to be made from selling rabbit’s meat and fur and so drovers and trappers carried pairs of rabbits with them, letting them go in areas well ahead of the spreading population.
[Camera zooms in on the rabbits]
[Image changes to show the landscape affected by the rabbit plague]
In parts of New South Wales the impact was becoming serious. Plagues of rabbits stripped the ground of all cover. Very soon much of the best pastoral country looked like a huge rabbit warren. The economic affect was alarming and sheep numbers fell to half their previous level.
[Image changes to show a sketch of a rabbit drive and the camera pans over the picture]
A rabbit drive was the cheapest method of control.
[Image changes to show rabbit fences in the bush]
Elaborate fences were built along state borders but always the rabbits got through.
[Image changes to show a page from a book ‘EXTERMINATION OF RABBITS’. Camera zooms in on the article offering a 25,000 pound reward]
By 1887 the situation was desperate.
[Image changes to show a map of South America and the camera zooms in on the map]
[Image changes to show a street. Image changes again to display a sick rabbit]
[Image changes to show a sketch of the local cottontail rabbit]
Then in 1898 came news from South America. In Montevideo, Professor Sanarelli of the Hygiene Institute discovered a virus which was killing the domesticated rabbits he was using in his experiments. The virus was traced to the local forest Cottontail, which was only mildly affected by it.
[Image changes to show a painting of Dr. Aragao and zooms in on his face]
[Image appears of Dr. Aragao’s document about a virus control for rabbits]
[Images appear of sick rabbits]
A few years later Dr Aragao working in Brazil, suggested to the Australian Government that this myxoma virus could be used for rabbit control. But the idea of introducing such a disease into Australia created a lot of opposition at the time and so the proposal was shelved. For the trappers these were great years.
[Harmonica music plays]
[Image appears of a young boy holding four trapped rabbits in his hand. Camera then zooms out on two men looking at a whole fence full of dead rabbits hanging head downwards]
[Image changes to show a rabbit drive and images flash through of many graziers in a paddock chasing rabbits, rabbits being fenced in and killed with sticks and having their necks stretched]
But all the time, graziers were fighting a hopeless battle. At this rabbit drive in 1948, they killed nearly 5,000 in one afternoon.
[Image changes to show two men injecting a rabbit with the myxomatosis virus]
[Image changes to show a rabbit affected by myxomatosis virus]
By now there was strong arguments in favor of releasing myxomatosis. The disease was proved to be harmless to man and other animals and so after several attempts to spread the virus among rabbits, myxomatosis finally got away in 1951.
[Images flash of newspaper articles on the myxomatosis virus]
Crops and pastures grew in a way that hadn’t been seen for years and the national income rose dramatically.
[Image changes to a paddock with rabbits then camera zooms in on an individual rabbit]
Although myxomatosis had spread over a large area many rabbits still survived and their numbers were building up again. Obviously myxomatosis was not the complete answer. By the early 1950s, it became clear that much more had to be learnt about the rabbit if we were going to get anywhere with our attempts to control it. And so a complete study of the animal was begun.
[Image changes to show a researcher inside an observation tower studying rabbits through a pair of binoculars]
[Image changes to show the outside of the observation tower with a car parked beside it]
Much of the research work took place at observation sites in different parts of Australia where rabbits could be watched for weeks at a time in their natural state.
[Image changes back to the inside of the observation tower. Image shows a researcher looking through a telescope]
Researcher: Left green orange grazing at L43. Right red pink…
[Image changes to show identified rabbits in a paddock grazing and resting]
Narrator: On this site the rabbits were tagged for easy identification – males on the right ear, females on the left. A colour code system identified each individual. Rabbits are highly social animals and live in small groups of two or three males and up to six females. They seem to spend a lot of time doing just nothing.
Each group occupies an area of land where they can feed, rest and breed. This is their territory which they mark from scent glands under their chin. Animals of the same sex will oppose each other at the borders of their territory but actual fighting is not common.
[Image changes to show a rabbit rubbing its’ chin on a stick in the ground]
There are other ways in which all members of the group mark their territory. As we have seen chinning is one very effective method. Both males and females feel confident on their home ground and will guard their territory throughout the year.
[Image changes to show a mound of rabbit droppings. Camera pans over the area of rabbit droppings]
All rabbits have scent glands, which give their droppings a distinctive smell. This is another way of communication.
[Image changes to show a single rabbit digging]
Sandy soil is preferred above any others for a warren and a large warren may be the home of several social groups.
Part of the rabbit’s success as a species depends on being able to live underground where they can escape many predators and cope with the extremes of temperature which occur above ground.
[Image changes to show a female rabbit bringing grass into the inside of her burrow and placing it into her nest]
Successful reproduction depends very much on eating green food and after the winter rains each pregnant female hollows out a nest chamber at the end of a burrow.
During the last week of pregnancy she brings in tufts of dry grass to form the nest itself. It takes many trips before her nest is complete.
[Image changes to show the female rabbit in her nest lining her nest with her own fur]
[Camera zooms in on female rabbit giving birth to her young. Camera then moves to show her licking her young to clean them]
Pregnancy lasts about 30 days and just before birth the female plucks fur from her body to line the nest. The young are born with the female sitting up.
After cleaning her litter the female will leave the nest chamber plugging it with soil to protect the young. She’ll reopen it once each night to groom and feed them.
[Image changes to show two ten day old baby rabbits held in the researcher’s hands]
When the kittens are ten days old their eyes are open. They weigh around 120 grams and move about in the burrow.
[Image changes to show the young rabbit at 21 days old]
[Image changes to show two young rabbits at a burrow entrance]
[Image changes to show hawks taking off and the camera pans over the paddock following the rabbits running]
At twenty-one days the young will spend much time at the entrance of the burrow. At this age young rabbits are easily picked off by foxes, cats or hawks.
[Image changes to show the researcher studying the baby rabbits through the telescope]
[Image changes to show the view through the telescope of the hawk catching and killing a baby rabbit]
On this study site brown hawks were regular predators. All these studies showed that climate has a lot to do with the rabbit’s ability to survive and breed.
[Image changes to show a paddock of sheep then the camera pans over the area showing a landscape dotted with sheep and trees]
[Image changes to show a single rabbit under a bush]
Some parts of Australia are very similar to the western Mediterranean where rabbits are thought to have evolved. Here the climate is ideal for them and each female may have up to seven litters a year. But such breeding rates are only possible if they have a good supply of high-protein green food during the breeding season and dry sandy soil in open country for their warrens.
[Camera pans over the paddock and follows a cat running through the paddock. Image shows the cat entering a rabbit burrow and emerging with a rabbit in its mouth]
Predators play a big part in keeping the population down and most of these have been introduced into Australia. Wild domestic cats kill a big percentage of all young rabbits.
[Image changes to show a fox chasing a rabbit]
Another introduced predator is the fox.
[Image changes to show a hawk on a log then camera zooms in on the hawk as it lands on the back of the baby rabbit and catches the baby rabbit in its’ talons]
A few native birds of prey live on rabbits catching mainly the unwary young kittens. Although rabbits have adapted easily to Australia’s sheep and wheat areas there are other parts of the country where living is much more difficult.
[Camera pans over a snowy landscape and zooms in on rabbits in the snow]
In Australia’s alpine areas rabbits must survive a cold winter with a shortage of green feed.
[Image changes to show the landscape when the snow has melted. The camera zooms out to show a paddock with mountains in the background and then the camera shows the rabbits feeding in a paddock]
In these areas the breeding season is very short. It begins when the snow melts in spring and finishes in early summer. This means that only two or three litters are produced by a female each year. In most alpine areas there is a serious lack of sodium in the soil and plants.
[Image changes to show salt impregnated pegs in the ground. The camera zooms in on the rabbits licking the pegs]
On this study site the rabbits were easily drawn to these experimental salt impregnated pegs. We now know that females with young need eight times more sodium than normal. So this explains why rabbits in these areas don’t breed very well.
[Image changes to show a desert landscape and the camera pans over the landscape]
In the dry inland areas of Australia rabbits face other problems. Here they thrive in sandy soils and after a period of good rain there is usually plenty of green feed.
[Image zooms in on a rabbit burrow and then image changes to show a man putting his arm in the burrow and bringing out the nest]
But in this sandy soil foxes can easily dig into the burrows. Here a nest chamber has been raided during the night.
[Image changes and camera pans over a stony landscape and follows a dingo running]
Stony ground may give rabbits a little more protection but they still need to be alert for many other predators such as the dingo.
[Image changes to show an eagle taking off in flight and landing in a tree]
In these arid areas breeding seasons can be very irregular because of the uncertain rainfall. When there are several dry years of little or no rain many rabbits will die.
[Image changes to show a lake with a water bird in it]
But when rain does fall most plants grow very quickly and the rabbits begin to breed again.
[Image changes to show a researcher plotting the rabbit population on a map then flashes through images of the different areas and their soil types on a map]
In one arid area the warrens were mapped over a number of years and it was possible to see quite dramatic changes in the rabbit population.
This area of land had several different soil types. In 1963 rabbits were found mainly in the sand dunes and avoided the heavier soils. In 1965, the start of a dry spell, 1966, very dry, rabbits almost gone, 1969 – some good rains and a fairly big increase in the population.
[Image changes to show a man locating burrows followed by a person on a tractor ripping up the rabbit burrows with a ripper towed behind the tractor]
By keeping track of falling rabbit numbers during the dry spell it was easy to rip up the few burrows where the survivors lived. Ripping at any other time is not likely to be as successful.
[Image changes to show a rabbit infected with the myxomatosis virus]
Myxomatosis still plays an important part in controlling the rabbit population. This rabbit is infected with the Lausanne strain. Its killing power is high.
[Image changes to show a mosquito biting the ear of an animal]
Anything which pierces the skin lesions of an infected rabbit can transmit the disease to other rabbits. The virus will stick to the mouthparts of mosquitoes and so the disease is carried from one animal to another.
[Image changes to show caged rabbits and the camera zooms in on a rabbit flea in the rabbit’s ear]
During the 1960s another carrier of myxomatosis was introduced into Australia, the rabbit flea. The biology of this flea is closely tied to that of the rabbit itself, so that once fleas become established in a warren they can be used to transmit the disease to most of the population.
[Image changes to show a sign with the text ‘1080 POISON HAS BEEN USED ON THIS PROPERTY TO DESTROY RABBITS’]
[Image changes to show a Land Rover towing a trailer dispensing poison in a paddock]
For a long time Australians have used poisons to keep down rabbit populations. Furrow poisoning, if done well, can be very effective.
[Image shows a sign in a tree ‘POISON LAID’ then the camera moves down the tree to show the dead rabbits at the base. The camera zooms in on an individual rabbit]
But we now know that the poison will only kill those animals in territories which the furrow actually goes through.
Other rabbits won’t leave their territories to reach the bait. But if the poisoning is not done carefully many of the rabbit’s natural predators will also be killed and if there aren’t enough predators left to keep the population in check the problem could get worse rather than better.
[Image changes to zoom in on a single rabbit sitting in a paddock]
[Image changes to show the researcher watching the rabbit through the telescope]
[Image changes back to rabbits grazing in a paddock then the camera pans over the rabbits chasing each other]
Not many animals have ever been studied in such detail so that we now have a much better understanding of how rabbits feed, breed and survive all over Australia. There’s no doubt that rabbits are here to stay. They were brought here by people who didn’t realise that this country would be so perfect for them.
Because of their great versatility they’ve adapted easily to all sorts of different environments and have survived, despite all our efforts to get rid of them.
[Spanish guitar music plays]
[Image changes to a black screen displaying a CSIRO logo in the bottom right corner]