Rab­bits run wild at Molesworth

Marlborough Midweek - - YOUR LOCAL NEWS - CHRIS WOOTTON - DOC RANGER

‘‘Across the Alma was a block of coun­try known as the Alma Cor­ner. It was quite a small block, but it was thick with rab­bits. To come round a spur qui­etly and then make a sud­den noise was a pas­time I always en­joyed. There were always a few rab­bits to be seen hop­ping about, but when a shout rang out the whole hill­side moved. It was a sight to glad­den a rab­biters eye - and to break a sta­tion owner’s heart. White ones, grey ones, black ones and our own spe­cial Tarn­dale brand of black-brown rab­bits, with rusty ears - they were there in thou­sands.’’

Bruce Stronach: Land of Rocks and Rivers Deep. This se­ri­alised ac­count of life at Molesworth, ap­peared in the Christchurch Press in 1937. Stronach later pub­lished a book, sum­maris­ing his ex­ploits: Mus­terer on Molesworth, in 1953. His ob­ser­va­tions of the hard coun­try and even harder work en­dured dur­ing his mus­ter­ing ex­ploits il­lus­trate how things were dur­ing the 1930s, when Molesworth was farm­ing sheep, but also ex­pe­ri­enc­ing mas­sive rab­bit prob­lems.

In­ter­est­ingly, Stronach naively en­dured a harsh sea­son of mus­ter­ing meri­nos at Molesworth for a pal­try five pounds a week. All this while working through desert-like heat and con­trast­ing freez­ing bl­iz­zard con­di­tions. It was only years later, after talk­ing to a rab­biter, that he dis­cov­ered he would have been much bet­ter off if he had been con­cen­trat­ing on rab­bits rather than sheep.

Rab­biters were coy about re­veal­ing what ex­actly they earned com­pared to mus­ter­ers. This was be­cause at the time, rab­bit skins were worth very good money. A clever rab­biter could make more in a sea­son - and live a much more com­fort­able life - than a mere sheep mus­terer. Win­ter rab­bit skins were worth 1s 6d each. Rab­bit skins were much in de­mand for fash­ion. Stronach noted just how many rab­bit fur coats he ob­served be­ing worn in Christchurch’s Cathe­dral Square at the time.

In ad­di­tion to skins, rab­bit meat was a pop­u­lar food from the late 1800s. Rab­bit can­ner­ies op­er­ated through­out the coun­try, and rab­bit was a valu­able ex­port.

Rab­bits har­vested for meat needed to be cleanly shot, but wider control ne­ces­si­tated poi­son­ing. In the 1930s, car­rots and strych­nine were a favoured poi­son com­bi­na­tion. Phos­pho­rised pol­lard, strych­nine oats, or strych­nine jam were also used. Fu­mi­gat­ing war­rens was also un­der­taken. Many rab­biters had their own jeal­ously guarded spe­cial poi­son mix­tures. Un­sur­pris­ingly, many of these poi­sons were ap­plied with the min­i­mum of per­sonal safety con­sid­ered, some­thing that wouldn’t be tol­er­ated in to­day’s cli­mate of health and safety reg­u­la­tions.

The poi­soned rab­bits were re­cov­ered for skin­ning, which was made more dif­fi­cult in win­ter if the rab­bits were frozen. One hun­dred rab­bits skinned an hour was con­sid­ered good go­ing. After bury­ing the car­casses, to avoid poi­son­ing their dogs, the rab­biters would take the skins by horse­back to camp. Here the skins were pro­cessed and hung to dry.

Sev­eral relics can be ob­served at Molesworth that are a re­minder of the rab­bit­ing hey­day. Old rab­bit fur­row ploughs lie aban­doned. Parts of the fa­mous 128km long Wa­iau rab­bit fence, built in 1887, still stand.

DOC main­tains sev­eral in­ter­pre­ta­tion shel­ters through Molesworth. The shel­ter at Lake Ten­nyson con­tains more in­for­ma­tion about rab­biter’s lives. It’s worth stop­ping here to re­flect on how this small furry crea­ture had such an in­flu­ence on the Marl­bor­ough high-coun­try.

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