HOP­PING WEST

Rab­bits took just four decades to spread from east­ern Aus­tralia to WA.

Australian Geographic - - Geo buzz -

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.

PETER MERED­ITH

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.

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