Rabbits run wild at Molesworth
‘‘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.