Rabbits took just four decades to spread from eastern Australia to WA.
WHEN RABBITS first crossed into WA from South Australia, their progress seemed astonishingly fast.
Grazier Thomas Austin initially released wild rabbits from England in 1859, at Winchelsea in southern Victoria. By 1891, 32 years later, they’d reached Fowlers Bay on SA’s south-west coast about 1250km away – covering an average of 40km a year. But just five years later, in 1896, they were spotted 640km further west in Twilight Cove, south of Cocklebiddy, in WA – spreading, on average, at 130km a year.
How did they more than triple their previous rate in that stretch? With help, it seems, from humankind. In his 1969 book They All Ran Wild, farmer-author Eric Rolls described rabbits as generally unadventurous. They’d much prefer a stable life in a safe place with a familiar community than to be travelling through alien landscapes. Only catastrophes such as floods, famine or severe overcrowding force migration.
By the 1880s rabbits were spreading through SA in plague numbers and humans
were helping them, both deliberately and unwittingly. People released rabbits for sport, food or to remind them of the old country. And they slaughtered potential predators such as wedgetailed eagles and dingoes.
In his 2017 book Those Wild Rabbits, Bruce Munday wrote: “Propelled by…population pressure and assisted by paddle-steamers, drovers and tramps, by 1884 rabbits were as far south as Naracoorte, west to Eyre Peninsula and north along the Darling almost to Queensland.”
On the Nullarbor’s southern edge, Eric Rolls wrote, swaggies and bushies were the main human helpers. “In that billy as they walked west out of South Australia was often a nest of three-week-old rabbit kittens completely furred and beautiful, to be set down at a good big rock-hole with some grass about it…” In this way, men of the road secured a future food supply.
The rabbits’ westward pace from the border put paid to any idea that WA’s harsh environment would block the invasion. They stuck close to what’s now the Eyre Highway, then swung southward to follow the better vegetated coastline. About the same time further north, rabbits were pouring into WA from the Northern Territory and travelling south-westwards from Lake Mackay.
Rabbits reached the west coast in about 1907, the year the third fence was completed. The following year, when a WA Rabbit Department inspector visited the Kalbarri end of the fence, he found rabbits up and down the coast on both sides of it.
The Rabbit-Proof Fence is actually three fences. The first and longest is the farthest east, number two also runs north– south while number three is east–west. Rabbits in plague proportions presented an opportunity for trappers such as this one photographed in SA in 1900. Rabbits were valued for their meat and fur and could be a vital source of income during the tough years following the 1890s economic depression.