By Ken Zurski
Thomas Austin likely had no idea he alone would be blamed for the massive jackrabbit infestation in Australia which grew so expeditiously that it reached epidemic proportions in the late 1800’s.
Austin was an avid hunter and was looking for something, anything, to hunt. Rabbits seemed an obvious choice to an Englishman, but they weren’t native to Australia. So someone had to bring them in.
That someone was Thomas Austin.
Born in Somerset, England, Austin a sheep farmer, came to Australia’s Western District of Victoria in 1831. At the time, Australia was not a unified country but an island made up of five British Colonies. Austin may have been asked to come and help establish the agriculture and livestock footing in the region. He built a retreat of nearly 30-thousand acres called Barwon Park and became a distinguished member of the Acclimatization Society of Victoria, which introduced new animals and plants to the colony. Austin liked birds, so he brought in blackbirds and partridges. His grazing land was used mainly for sheep and horses.
Austin, who was wealthy and socially connected in his native land, liked to hunt and often hosted lavish shooting parties. But there was a problem. Unlike in England where hunting was a sporting good time, in Australia, there was nothing in significant numbers to aim at. So he had an plan. Bring me some rabbits, he ordered.
In 1859, a ship called Lightning on consignments brought 24 wild rabbits to Austin for breeding. Austin let a few go in hopes of hunting their offspring. “The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home,” he said at the time.
He had no idea.
The locals clearly stood by Austin. A little sport couldn’t hurt the neighborhood, in fact it might actually help the economy, they thought. “We hope that the common interest will be felt in saving them from being destroyed until they have so far increased to render shooting of one of them now and then as a matter of trifling importance,” an editor of the Southern Australian opined.
Austin’s plan worked perfectly.
In 1867, Queen Victoria’a second son Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, came to visit and stayed at the Austin ranch. Together the two men spent the day hunting and in just over three hours had shot and killed nearly 1000 rabbits. The Duke got nearly half of the kills and was so pleased that he came back for more the following year with even better results: more than 1500 rabbits down. The local press was quick to point out the obvious absurdity of it all. “In such an indiscriminate slaughter,” they reported, “ we cannot see how any precise conclusion can be arrived at.” Already the apparent growth of the bunny population was getting notice.
But the hunting was glorious.
Austin however was embarrassed that he could only offer the Duke modest accommodations at his ranch and certainly nothing befitting royalty. The slight, in Austin’s mind, gnawed at his English pride. So after the Duke left, Austin began construction of a larger home, a lavish 42-room mansion in hopes of having more royal visits and more successful hunting parties. The Barwon mansion as it is called today was completed in 1871. Six months later, Austin was dead at the age of 54. His widow, Elizabeth ,and most of their 11 children stayed at the mansion for many years. The hunting parties stopped, but the rabbits did not.
They would become Thomas Austin’s legacy.
Well, that and the fence.
But first lets backtrack a bit to May of 1787. That’s when 11 ships sailed from Great Britain and landed at Port Jackson, Australia, an area already explored and claimed by Captain James Cook nearly two decades before. The ship was loaded with a large crew and hundreds of “convicts” whose sentences were years of “transportation,” or in effect deportation. Until 1776, they were deposited in the thirteen American colonies, but since the colonies were now free of British rule, the new Americans understandably didn’t want them. The convicts, mostly petty thief’s, including women and children, would serve their sentences on unspoiled land, working to establish a new colony, or penal colony, in this case. But first they had to survive the harsh conditions of the journey. Stuck in cramped quarters below deck, with closed hatches, and filled with rats, parasites and other maladies, dozens either died or were sickened. The crew had no morals either. Women were raped and many were kept without food and water as punishment. Land was a welcome sight.
On January, 26 1788, now known as Australia Day, a new British settlement was born on the island. Among the new residents were several caged rabbits (reports are there were five) who were brought along for reasons unclear. Later a dispute between two colonists over their ownership was reported. But not much else is known of the rabbits fate. Likely they became someone’s dinner. But it is worth noting in regards to this story, that it was the first time rabbits were introduced to Australian soil, but only a few.
More stories of rabbit-farming enclosures in Australia appeared after that, but nothing more than controlled breeding. Basically rabbits were bred to be eaten, like chickens or turkeys are today. That is until Austin was looking for something to hunt.
By 1864, while Austin was still alive, complaints started coming in from farmers throughout the region. Their crops were being overrun and decimated by the bushy tailed critters. Although the jackrabbits certainly weren’t native to the land, the land was perfect for them to thrive. Winters were mild and ideal for year round breeding and widespread farming on the rich soil meant they always had something to eat. Bunny families quickly grew in very large numbers until they were not only destroying crops but plant species as well. Young trees in orchards were felled by “ringbarking,” a process by which an animal strips away a portion of the bark completely around the tree. also known as girdling. Girdling eventually kills the tree. Austin must have known about this, but was powerless to stop it. He could only kill so many.
In 1864, government officials stepped in and offered a substantial reward for “any method of success not previously known in the Colony for the effectual extermination of rabbits”. More than a thousand suggestions were received. Many were deemed unsafe, but that didn’t stop the use of poisons and other widespread killing methods including one called “ripping” where sharp tillers were dragged along the ground dismembering the rabbits in their burrows and effectively destroying and burying them at the same time. Other animals like ferrets and cats were used, but to little impact. And besides, no one wanted more cats. (The feral cat population was actually a problem like the rabbits in Australia, but on a much smaller scale).
Finally in 1901, the idea of building a wall was raised and quickly approved by the Colonel Government. But a wall in a practical sense was a bit of an exaggeration. Typically a wall to keep large predators – or people – out is built high, sturdy and solid. But in this case the offender was only five inches tall. So, in essence, the “wall” would be more like a fence and similar to one you would put up in your garden for the same purpose – only straighter and much longer. The fence was planned at a little over three feet in height and made mostly of wood or iron; then covered in barbed wire and wire netting. The bottom would sit six inches below the surface.
The fence would extend from new South Wales to Southern Australia a distance of about 346 miles, effectively creating a border along the northern mid-territories. The fence’s objective was to keep the rabbits from spreading into the western territories. A rabbit plague across the entire land mass would be irreversible and devastating. If anything, the makeshift “wall” would contain the rabbits in an area where exterminating them was somewhat more feasible. Two more fences would be be built extending the length to nearly 1500 miles total.
It was a massive undertaking and would take nearly seven years before all three proposed sections were completed. In the southern regions, known as the Great Victoria Desert, camels were used to pull carts and transport material since they could survive the heat and go for days without water, a scarcity in the outback.
The fence had limited success. Rabbits were wily creatures who found ways to breach it. Some were agile enough to simply jump over it. Still for a time, population was being controlled at least in some respect by slowing the rabbits down at the fence border and rounding them up for mass killings. But there were still millions more left. In 1898, it was reported to be nearly 300-million. By comparison, the human population in all of Australia at the time was 3-million.
Across the world, and especially in the U.S., Australia’s rabbit dilemma was treated seriously, but also with a humorous tone. “Br’er rabbit is a terrible pest in Australia” the Chicago Daily Tribune reported in April 1901, tying the article into the upcoming Easter holiday and a cutesy tale about Mollie Cottontail, Br’er’s wife in the Uncle Remus stories, who is “responsible for all the [Easter] eggs.”
The situation in Australia was dire enough, however, to warrant several paragraphs of startling comparisons and anecdotes. “Geniuses who love to calculate, have figured out that the tails of the 25,000,000 [yes, that’s 25 million!] rabbits killed in a year in Australia if sewn together would girdle the earth [a reference to girdling, no doubt].” Hunting them down, the article goes on to report, had been as successful as “drying up the ocean by dipping the water out a spoonful at a time.”
Austin was not mentioned in any coverage at the time. Only later would his name become synonymous with the bunny epidemic.
Too bad really because after Austin’s death , Elizabeth, his widow used her husband’s money to open up a hospital for incurable diseases in Heidelberg, a suburb of Melbourne. She also founded the Austin Home for Women, in Geelong, a port along the Barwon River, and Victoria’s second largest city by population.
Elizabeth died in 1910. In her obituary, she was lauded for her philanthropic contributions. “Since the incorporation of the institution in January of 1882, it has won for its benefactress the affection and gratitude of hundreds of unfortunate incurables who were denied admission to the general infirmaries.”
For her efforts, Elizabeth should be the Austin best remembered in Australia today.
Instead her husband, Thomas, the hunter, for completely different reasons, gets the nod.
After all, he brought the bunnies.