Since the first recorded releases of rabbits in 1838, the rabbit has been many things to many people. Efforts to eliminate it continue, and disagreement persists over how to do so. Many farmers have faced dire hardship or ruin while for others it has been a source of food or supplementary income. For most it has been a persistent nuisance, brooking no let up in the pursuit of its extermination.
From the 1870s to the 1950s, however, rabbiting and the industries that grew up around it kept many people employed, sustaining the local economy. During the Depression of the 1930s the rabbit provided food and income for families with no other source of earnings, ‘bread and butter’ for possibly more people than pastoral farming now supports. Many made enough money to set themselves up on a farm, orchard or other business, particularly around Alexandra where at various times three factories processed the thousand of rabbits brought in each day.
On the other hand, left unchecked the rabbit wrought considerable ecological damage on the Central Otago countryside. A combination of rabbits, overstocking, hard frosts and drought left the land barren and desert like. This eventually prompted legislation, in 1947 and 1956, introducing decommercialisation, a ‘killer’ policy and the formation of the Pest Destruction Council.
This study considers, to begin with, the introduction of the rabbit, its impact on the environment and farming, attempts to control it and then the growth of an industry around the export of skins and meat. Finally, it focuses on those people in Central Otago for whom the rabbit was an essential part of life, and the lifestyles of some of those involved in the industry from 1915 to the 1950s.
Introduction, impacts and control
In 1838 a small number of rabbits were introduced from Australia, although it is not known exactly where they were released. The next recorded release occurred in 1848 near Riverton. These and similar casual releases in the Nelson-Marlborough area in the 1850s proved unsuccessful, probably because ‘the rabbits were, for the most part, fancy breeds and were ill adapted to free range success under New Zealand conditions’.
The English rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, which Dr. J.A.R. Menzies probably introduced near Bluff in 1862, proved much hardier. Another release, by the Southland Acclimatisation Society, followed at Sandy Point near Ocean Beach in 1863. A £5 fine for anyone found shooting them provided a measure of protection. The same year, Farley, the proprietor of the Vauxhall Gardens in Dunedin, imported rabbits to establish his own warren. The Otago Acclimatisation Society also released six rabbits so that ‘sportsmen and naturalists would be able to enjoy the activities that made the remembrance of their former home so dear, that tables would be better supplied, and new industries fostered’.
By 1864 rabbits inhabited large areas of Otago and Southland, reaching Earnscleugh Station, near Alexandra, by 1866. At the same time the Otago and Canterbury acclimatisation societies made further releases, as did the newly formed Wakatipu Acclimatisation Society. With other game species like pheasants, quail and deer, it would provide sport for both the ‘gentry’, as in the old country, and those who had been excluded from such activities in England.
Besides its recreational value, the rabbit provided settlers with a food supplement. ‘A favourite recipe of pioneer housewives was to bake a rabbit slowly in a buttered paper bag.’ The pelt also had some value, ‘although the quality varied according to the time of year when the skin was taken’.
The potential to become a pest: ‘burrows alive with rabbits’
It did not take long, however, for a realisation to emerge that in the New Zealand environment the rabbit had the potential to become a great pest. As early as 1866 an exploding rabbit population had converted some Southland pastures into barren waste, and they were being caught and shot in large numbers for sale. Even so, liberations continued in several parts of the South Island into the 1870s despite a few individuals such as F.D. Rich, the runholder W.D. Murison, and J.W. Murdoch, cautioning the Otago Acclimatisation Society in 1867 to end further rabbit releases and introduce measures such as breeding cats to control them. The society ignored their advice and made further liberations in 1868.
At the same time the Otago Daily Times noted, in January 1868 and again in March 1869, that rabbits had became a menace in parts of both Otago and Southland, and had extended north as far as the Waitaki River. In Central Otago they were particularly bad, being shot in large numbers. By 1875 they had penetrated beyond Earnscleugh Station onto the Old Man Range. On the other side of the Clutha River they had moved around the Knobby Range onto Galloway Station and past the Manorburn onto Ida Valley Station.
By 1870 the enormity of the problem became apparent to some, as runholders began to lose land to rabbit depredations. One of these, Ruck Keane, had liberated rabbits on his North Canterbury run in the 1850s. He estimated the loss of production they caused to be £70,000 a year. ‘The hillsides on his run at Kaikoura were honeycombed with burrows alive with rabbits, while his flocks were starving as the land was eaten bare.’ In the North Island a Wairarapa runholder, Charles Carter, had the experience of the seven pairs he liberated in 1857 increasing to cover 20,000 hectares by 1882. Carter joked that in rabbit arithmetic 2 x 3 = 9 million, i.e. two rabbits became nine million in three years.
By 1876 much of Otago and Southland was either infested with or affected by rabbits. Central Otago in particular experienced a phenomenal increase in numbers. On one run, where there had been no rabbits in 1873, by 1876 sixteen men and 120 dogs had to be employed in an effort to control them. On two other runs 30,000 rabbits on one and 50,000 on the other had been killed to no effect, at a weekly cost of around £27. In some cases the expense forced runholders off their land. Others had to live with the reality that they needed more rabbiters than shepherds.
Causes and effects: ‘Its impact … was much greater’
A number of factors contributed to the successful acclimatisation of the rabbit. Environmental conditions, especially in Otago and Southland, were particularly favourable. The sandy banks of Southland rivers like the Mataura, Oreti, Aparima and Waiau were perfect for warrens and the surrounding flax, tussock and scrub provided excellent cover, to the extent that the rivers became rabbit highways. Above the plains, rocks and forest afforded an ideal refuge from which they could descend onto the grassy flats.
The temperate climate allowed the rabbit to reproduce over a longer period than in England, enabling them to have at least nine litters of six or more youngsters a year. Females were able to reproduce within three months of birth and the absence of predators, except for the hawk, allowed more of each litter to survive to adulthood.
In addition, farming practices made the land both susceptible to and ideal for rabbits. The practice of burning off tussock to stimulate spring growth, introduced from the Scottish Highlands whence many of the shepherds and runholders had come, also reduced the small plants that grew under and between the tussocks. This allowed the rabbit to come in and eat the new shoots before stock could be put back on the area. The repeated and reckless use of this method soon resulted in a marked decline in the condition of tussock grasslands. ‘Its impact on semi-arid Central Otago was much greater than had been experienced on the wet hills of the Highlands of Scotland.’
Overstocking by pastoralists who had overestimated land fertility, or who found themselves having to meet high mortgages, also rendered the land more vulnerable to rabbit invasion. Even before their arrival the tussock country had begun to show signs of decline, with bare earth, fissures and erosion. The appearance of rabbits exacerbated the situation. Occupying the same ecological niche as sheep, by grazing down to the roots they further exposed the earth, poisoning it with their dung and urine. Their advent in epidemic numbers meant in effect a quadrupling of stock numbers on land estimated to be capable of carrying one sheep to every 3.2 hectares. Cut up by the hooves of stock and undermined by burrows, the land now lay exposed to the mercy of the elements.
In combination with droughts, these depredations left the land in many places completely denuded of vegetation, resulting in the starvation of sheep and cattle in the hundreds and thousands. Where there had once been lush tussock, only scabweed, Raoulia lutescens and R. beauverdii, survived, creating a virtual desert:
Hills and gullies that used to be a scene of perfect sylvan beauty, with variegated pasture intermixed with sparkling streams and alpine snowcapped ranges, and literally covered with sheep, now look like a deserted waste, as though some gigantic deluge had swept vegetation off the earth.
Such depletion severely threatened pastoral life. A runholder in the Strath Taieri-Macraes Flat area recorded producing in his first year there two bales of shorn wool, five bales of dead wool, plucked from dead sheep, and six bales of rabbit skins. Others reported their shepherds having to prop weak sheep up against speargrass plants. Many runholders found themselves bankrupted and forced to abandon their land. Between 1876 and 1879 thirty-two runs, comprising some 300,000 hectares, were abandoned. The total area amounted by 1887 to 526,000 hectares, with a consequent loss of revenue to the Crown of £32,800, hastening the break up of South Island runs into smaller properties.
On top of the severely reduced carrying capacity of the land, falling wool prices during the 1880s, coupled with declining lambing percentages and a consequent reduction in the wool clip, further tightened farmers’ finances, spurring efforts to control rabbit numbers.
Early control measures: ‘rabbiting became a full time occupation’
Individual farmers and runholders introduced the earliest control measures in Central Otago. From 1867 James Cowan, manager of Kawarau Station, evolved a continuous system of poisoning and trapping, using phosphorised oats and pollard, employing fifty rabbiters, two pack horse teams and one or two poison makers. The 500,000 pelts sent to London annually helped to defray some of the cost. In 1875 Fraser and Strode introduced ferrets to Earnscleugh Station, with the shepherds given the additional task of shooting rabbits.
From these beginnings rabbiting became a full time occupation in Central Otago. Initially farmers and runholders employed rabbiters as wageworkers but as the profitability of the rabbit industry grew in the late 1870s most became freelance, living off returns from the sale of skins and carcases. Such was the high level of profitability to be had that in some cases rabbiters paid runholders for the privilege of rabbiting a block of their run. Methods used included distributing grain poisoned with arsenic and strychnine, and the release of cats. A Dunedin dealer who could not meet an order from one pastoralist for a hundred cats advertised that he would pay 5 shillings per cat. A great response by the small boys of town saw the cats spread around the run before Dunedin residents discovered their loss.
From the 1870s onwards the numbers of people calling for a halt to further rabbit introductions began to grow. Those attending a typical public meeting held in Riverton in 1873 to discuss the problem agreed that the rabbit should be exterminated and to that end powder and shot should be exempt from excise duty. A committee formed at the meeting also recommended to the Otago Provincial Council the levying of a rabbit rate to be used for control measures. The latter, however, soon ran up against objections from those who had not yet been affected by rabbits, a conflict of interests that would persist until the decommercialisation of the rabbit in the 1950s.
Legislative approaches: ‘the relationship between farmer and state’
In the meantime the belief persisted that the reduced carrying capacity of pastoral land could be attributed solely to rabbits. Land use methods remained largely unconsidered until the early twentieth century, leaving the land depleted and ideal for rabbits. It is not surprising, then, that early legislative efforts focused on compelling landowners to keep rabbits in check.
In 1874 the Otago Provincial Council agreed to the request to end the duty on powder and shot and in the face of increasing demands that it levy a rabbit control rate appointed a committee to look into the problem. The council rejected the committee’s suggestion that it provide a bonus to encourage the extermination of rabbits, on the grounds that it meant taxing the whole community to benefit a few, who probably gained from the sale of rabbits anyway.
In 1876, following public pressure from organisations like the Southland Agricultural and Pastoral Association, the Central Government established a select committee to enquire into the rabbit nuisance. During a month long enquiry it received submissions from a variety of local committees and concerned groups keen on government action. Many expressed frustration about the failure of neighbours to control rabbits, and the resulting re-infestation of land they had paid to clear.
Not everyone sought government control measures however. Some thought the answer lay in subdividing the land into farms of a size where management could be more intensive. Others resented any idea of government intervention at all and felt landowners could deal with the problems themselves at their own expense. A number suggested alternative measures such as badgers, which would not harm native birds, or introduced game birds and new poisoning methods.
After looking at the situation in both New Zealand and Australia, the select committee recommended legislation to compel land occupiers to keep rabbits in check and allow the immediate introduction of weasels. The resulting Rabbit Nuisance Act 1876, based on Tasmanian legislation, provided for the voluntary establishment of Rabbit Districts, presided over by boards of trustees elected annually by local landowners with the ultimate aim of eradicating rabbits. Individual landowners remained responsible for rabbit destruction on their own land. If they failed to do so after a request from the board, the board could enter the property, destroy the rabbits and charge the cost to the landowner, with sanctions against anyone who obstructed rabbit destruction. The Act also allowed the board to levy an administration rate of one half penny and acre, and removed the tax on dogs used for rabbiting.
So began a ‘long process of defining the relationship between farmer and state on this issue’. From the outset the boards proved ineffectual, but there were also other problems. Rabbit Districts were not formed all over New Zealand. This and the failure to include forest and river reserves under their jurisdiction provided refuges from control. As well a conflict had already emerged between those who sought total eradication and an increasingly large group who were making money from the sale of meat and skins.
An 1877 Amendment Act, aimed at improving administration, had little effect. While some farmers set about tackling the rabbit problem others either could not do so due to financial problems or because they could make a profit from rabbits. The Government responded with another Rabbit Nuisance Act in 1880, establishing rabbit inspectors, an additional role to be filled by the existing sheep inspectors. These assumed the powers of the boards of trustees to request landowners to control rabbits on their properties. As well, county councils could assume control of any rabbit board whose trustees proved neglectful. The Act established fines of up to £50 or six months imprisonment for anyone liberating rabbits and between £1 and £20 for every week a landowner refused to take action against rabbits. A fine of up to £20 could also be imposed for obstructing a rabbit inspector, with no right of appeal for any of these penalties.
The Act spurred some, such as the runholders in the Earnscleugh area and other parts of the Vincent and Lake counties, to form rabbit districts. Their efforts proved ineffectual, however, with falling wool prices making it difficult to raise finance for control measures. Farmers also began complaining about abuses of inspectorial power and excessive fines, to which the government again responded in 1881 with another amending Act, based on the assumption that the problem lay in administration of the Act rather than in flaws in the underlying policy.
To improve the boards’ finances the amendment increased the administration rate to a farthing (a quarter of a penny) per acre and Crown and Native land now came under the jurisdiction of rabbit districts in an effort to overcome infestations from these refuges. The Act reduced fines to between £5 and £10 for every week no action was taken to deal with rabbits, but established another penalty of £10 for killing animals considered ‘natural enemies’ of the rabbit, including weasels, stoats, ferrets and cats. The introduction of weasels and stoats from Britain in 1884 had a far greater impact on native birds than on rabbits. The idea of the ‘natural enemy’ persisted, however, in spite of its obvious ineffectiveness, and legislative protection of these animals remained in place.
A string of similar amending acts throughout the 1880s saw a steady rise in the coercive nature of the legislation with fines increasing to as much as £100 in one instance. Powers under successive acts seesawed between inspectors and the boards as the Government responded to submissions from the public, who either resented the unreasonableness of inspectors or opposed the partiality of the boards. The establishment of the Agricultural Branch of Crown Lands marked an increase in bureaucratic regulation of farming but at the same time the Government increased its involvement in and commitment to dealing with the rabbit problem by introducing a pound for pound subsidy on the rate levied by the boards.
Rabbit proofing: ‘lessons … had to be relearned the hard way’
These amendments appeased farmers’ demands to an extent but failed to contain rabbit numbers, so the Government tried a different approach, introducing provisions for the construction of ‘rabbit proof’ fences into the 1886 amending Act. These could be erected anywhere by a board and remained its property. ‘Rabbit proofing’ involved the addition of fine netting to the bottom third of a normal fence, and carrying the netting into the earth. Individual farmers and rabbit boards soon took up the idea, the two most notable fences being one of 64 kilometres from southern Hawkes Bay to the Wairarapa and another of 120 kilometres in South Canterbury.
All proved failures, for a variety of reasons. In some cases rabbits moved into new areas faster than the fences could be built, in others they infiltrated through gates and across streams. The lessons learned in Australia, where the fences had been tried and failed, had to be relearned the hard way in New Zealand. Nevertheless, in 1890 the Government stepped up the emphasis on fences and prevention, introducing legislation allowing the construction of rabbit proof gates across roads and imposing fines or a prison sentence of up to one year for anyone damaging a rabbit fence.
Subsequent amendments to and consolidations of the Rabbit Nuisance Act in 1891, 1901, 1907 and 1908 continued to be aimed at refining administrative details. The Department of Agriculture, formed in 1892, took over administration of the legislation adding another level of bureaucracy. By 1895 rabbit control consumed a quarter of the department’s budget without noticeable effect. Speculation continued inside and outside Parliament as to possible solutions, with ‘rabbit farming’ seen as the main barrier to eradication, a theme that would continue from the 1890s until decommercialisation of the rabbit in the 1950s.
Further amending and consolidating Acts in 1920, 1921, 1921 and 1935 continued to emphasise enforcement rather than address problems with the policy itself. Requiring individual land occupants, subsidised in part by the State, to take responsibility for rabbit control with the aim of total eradication proved unachievable. As long as some continued to profit from skins and meat, control remained at the whim of market fluctuations, with maintenance of low numbers occurring in a few areas only as long as skin prices remained high.
Where landowners determined to eliminate the rabbit and make no further income from them they did achieve some measure of control. Elsewhere, however, individual farmers and rabbit boards found themselves hampered due either to inadequate funding for expensive control methods or because some rabbiters had a vested interest in maintaining breeding stocks, while others were simply incompetent.
During the 1930s a pattern of successful control and maintenance of low numbers continued so long as skin prices remained high, but by then the rabbit problem had reached a peak in Otago and parts of Southland largely due to the export trade, a situation which, according to Department of Agriculture reports from 1924 onwards, continued right through until the 1940s.
A killer policy: ‘the whole of Central Otago was transformed’
The Rabbit Nuisance Act 1947 saw the first change in the hitherto unsuccessful control policies of the previous seventy years. In 1945 prices took a decided turn for the worse and rabbit numbers began to rise again to epidemic proportions, bringing a realisation that the income from the rabbit industry in no way compensated for overall losses in pastoral production and land degradation.
The 1947 Act established an independent Rabbit Destruction Council, representative of farmers’ interests, and introduced a ‘killer’ policy that required the use of more efficient methods to wage an all-out war on rabbits. Some rabbit boards had adopted such a policy as early as the 1920s, but now the Government, recognising the success of such an approach, applied it nationally. It would take some time before all rabbit boards adopted it but in the meantime the legislation required the Rabbit Destruction Council to advise the Ministry of Agriculture on the best methods of destroying rabbits. It also imposed an initial twenty percent levy on the sale of meat and skins for both local consumption and export in an effort to make rabbit ‘farming’ unprofitable. This would eventually be raised to one hundred percent, with the levies being paid to rabbit boards, enabling them to increase their expenditure, so long as they operated a ‘killer’ policy. The Government also made additional funds available where initial control proved very expensive.
These incentives and the pressures of necessity and popular opinion saw a proliferation of new rabbit boards. Two hundred and ten boards had adopted the ‘killer’ policy by 1960, covering 15.1 million hectares. The introduction of sodium mono-fluoroacetate poison (1080) proved to be very effective in reducing rabbit numbers more rapidly than before. Other methods used included the distribution of jam poisoned with phosphorus, the fumigation of burrows with chloropicrin and the dropping of poisons from planes. Attempts to introduce the myxomatosis virus failed due to the lack of a suitable vector to spread it, just as it was becoming evident that Australian rabbits had developed immunity to it, necessitating the reintroduction of conventional methods.
Amending Acts passed in 1949, 1953 and 1955 steadily increased the levy on sales and allowed the Rabbit Destruction Council to employ and house staff to undertake control measures. The final blow to the rabbit industry came with the Rabbits Amendment Act 1956. Although the sale of skins and meat had already become unprofitable, this Act finalised the situation with a complete prohibition on the sale of rabbits in any form, bringing to an end the lifestyle of many people who had worked in the industry. Some transferred from freelance rabbiting for profit to employment by the Rabbit Destruction Council, often with a drop in income but the surety of full time employment and recognition of their skills. The co-ordinated use of aerial poisoning by day and night shooting brought the rabbit problem under control in most areas so that ‘between 1950 and 1970 the whole of Central Otago was transformed. Properties where farmers were once unable to make a living now grew grass and were profitable enterprises.’
Complacency: ‘inadequate incentives to improve control measures’
From 1971, however, Government policy changed from ‘killer’ to ‘containment’ resulting in complacency about the task and its importance and a reduction in Government attention and funding. By the 1980s the rabbit population again exploded. W.H. Howard seems to have been right when he wrote in 1958:
The biggest problems facing eradication are human ones; lack of cooperation, misunderstanding, fear of the unknown, unwillingness to spend money … too little research, objections to killing, inadequate incentives to improve control measures.
The degree of control achieved by the 1970s was assumed to be permanent, with no one prepared to spend money on what had ceased to be a problem, even after the problem began to re-emerge. Some looked again to easy options such as myxomatosis as a means to fast and inexpensive control, to no avail. Government restructuring in 1993 saw the end of rabbit boards altogether and the introduction of legislation legalising the rabbit industry once more in the hope that this would aid the reduction of rabbit numbers. The hope of reaping some financial benefit, rather than spending money on control, took precedence over long term environmental benefits.
So, after thirty-seven years, legislation had come full circle with no sign that the killer policy would be re-introduced in an era of cost effectiveness and user pays. One hundred and fifty-five years after its introduction the rabbit, it seemed, was ‘left with the last laugh’.
The rabbit business: ‘companies … make a profit’
The export of rabbit skins began in the early 1870s, barely ten years after the rabbit had become established, with 20,000 skins from South Canterbury fetching two pence each. At the same time Kawarau Station began exporting around 500,000 skins a year. In 1875 two other Central Otago stations exported 300,000 skins between them. None of these ventures aimed at making a big profit, but rather at recovering losses caused by the rabbits. It would not be long, however, before companies began to be formed in New Zealand and move in from Australia to make a profit.
The canning of rabbit meat, already well under way in Australia, seemed to offer similar possibilities in New Zealand along with fur exports. Initial reports that profits would be low and confined to the winter season failed to dissuade entrepreneurs and the introduction of refrigerated shipping in the 1880s ensured profitability. In turn, the export industry saw the emergence of the professional rabbiter, opening up a whole new area of employment, offering jobs for large numbers of people from field to factory. Small towns throughout Otago and Southland burgeoned, with the rabbit industry becoming one of the largest in the area by the 1920s, a situation that continued until the decommercialisation of the rabbit in 1956.
The Hon. Robert Campbell of Otekaike in North Otago, has been cited as the first to export 200 frozen rabbit carcasses, fetching a shilling each, in 1885. By 1894 Taylor and Mann, established by John Taylor in Mataura, Southland, were preparing 5000 rabbits a day and exporting 150,000 frozen carcasses a year to the London market. Towards the end of the century the main players in the industry included W.J. Tonkin and Company (Timaru), R.S. Black (Alexandra), Taylor and Mann, Casey’s (Gore), McConnell (Mataura), and White and Company, of Melbourne, at Port Chalmers.
Australian expertise enabled the industry to raise the quality of export carcasses by improving handling methods. Poor handling by both rabbiters and processors meant losses of up to £20,000 for every consignment of 5 million carcasses. White and Company, who opened their Port Chalmers freezing works in 1889, improved standards by paying for carcasses according to quality. Improvements in product quality enabled the industry to expand considerably. By 1897, W.J. Tonkin, who established operations in a Timaru flour mill, exported 1.5 million carcasses annually, despite the difficulties of transporting them long distances to the works in horse drays over poor quality country roads.
In Alexandra, R.S. Black’s freezer processed tens of thousands of carcasses daily during the height of the rabbiting season, providing a large part of the income in the district, until Government levies made the business unprofitable.
Over time, the frozen rabbit business proved to be quite volatile. From a peak of nearly 7 million carcasses annually in the late 1890s it declined sharply to between 3 and 4 million a year over the next two decades. Canning, which provided a more suitable means of transport during wartime, had a considerable effect on the frozen trade in the final years of World War One. By 1927 this trade had almost collapsed, due largely to increased packaging, freight and wage costs, while the fur trade picked up. A recovery in the frozen export market to more than 5 million carcasses in the mid 1940s came about largely as a result of high prices following World War Two. Another peak, brought about by high prices in the early 1950s, when up to 2 million carcasses were exported each year, fell away to nothing in 1956 with the advent of decommercialisation.
Canning rabbit meat for export, largely to the United States and England, began in the 1890s with factories established in Gore, Dunback and Alexandra and other locations throughout New Zealand. They enjoyed only short-term success but employed a large number of people at different times. The value of canned rabbit reached around £20,000 in the mid 1890s, falling away until it reached a peak of £50,000 towards the end of World War One, with other small rises in the export trade in the 1920s and 30s.
Although small in comparison to the frozen meat and fur trades, the canning industry provided much needed employment and income for local economies. The factory at Alexandra, for example, employed between eighty and ninety people in various jobs from skinning and preparing the meat to making and labelling the cans.
Initially, those engaged in exporting rabbit meat also sent skins overseas. This soon changed, however, with Joseph Hatch being one of the first to send skin buyers around Southland. Dunedin became prominent in the fur trade from the 1880s, with brokers holding regular auctions of skins collected from throughout New Zealand, from the 1890s onwards. Most skins came from the South Island, particularly the Mackenzie country and Central Otago The boom in the trade became a bone of contention among those who felt it encouraged the rabbit population, moving a contributor to an early issue of Forest and Bird to note that ‘Jack rabbit knows that he is farmed, and to that extent protected and perpetuated, by the trapper … Next to Presbyterianism I am told that hides are Dunedin’s chief religion.’
Following a peak of around 17 million skins in the early 1890s, the trade stabilised at between 5 and 10 million skins until World War One, when the number of skins exported increased considerably due to the inability of European sources to meet United States and Canadian demand. This required an improvement in handling and classing methods. The resulting high prices reflected the fact that the United States had been able to perfect its own fur dyes and shake off German control of the market. Selling directly to the United States rather than through the London market also increased New Zealand exporters’ profits.
Exporters like White and Co., Remschardt and Co., Turner Bros., R.S. Black, J.H. Kirk, D. McLennan, F. Sullivan, Tonkin and Co., and J.K. Mooney and Co. purchased skins at fortnightly auctions. The growth of manufacturing furriers and the development of dressing and dyeing plants in New Zealand after World War One saw the export of not only raw but also finished products, which could also be sold on the local market. This became particularly important during World War Two when local manufacturers could meet the whole of the local demand following a ban on the import of furs.
During the 1940s the fur trade went from strength the strength, with high levels of export and high profits, but the introduction of the ‘killer’ policy in 1947 put and end to this growth. While firms were able to continue buying and selling for a short while, by 1952 levies had risen to 66.6 percent. With business falling off by 80 percent, the last skin auction took place in the Otago Farmers’ Cooperative saleroom in September of that year. Those companies that also dealt in other skins, opossum and sheep for example, continued to trade but at a much-reduced level. The others were forced out of business.
Although the fur trade operated on a far larger scale than either canned or frozen meat, it too proved a fickle business, with fluctuations in the number of skins exported reflecting price and demand rather than the number of rabbits killed or the general rabbit population. Overall, the rabbit industry contributed less to the New Zealand economy than pastoralism, but while it lasted it contributed significantly as a secondary export commodity and provided employment for countless people in the field, in the factories and in the fur trade. Decommercialisation ended this avenue of employment and national income.
Rabbits and Central Otago lifestyles: ‘It was a lonely life’
The importance of rabbits in Central Otago can be seen from the sheer numbers of individuals involved in the industry in some way or other and the ways in which they influenced rabbiters’ lifestyles including such things as housing, food, work practices, family life and relationships with the farming community, as well as influencing the lives of those in the transport, meat and fur trades.
The rabbiters, and sometimes their families, lived in primitive conditions with little more than tents or small huts to protect them from the elements. Some huts were built of sod with a thatched roof while others might have only a solid chimney, the rest being canvas on a wooden frame. Both looked very similar to those constructed by miners in earlier days.
Len Jackson, who took up rabbiting after leaving school in the 1920s, recalled using flour bags, cut down the seams and sewn together, to make a ‘fly’ to put over his tent, cutting a frame for it from a willow tree. He and his wife Doris, whom he married in the 1930s, later lived in a 2.5 x 3 metre rabbiters hut on a Lindis farm, with two pre-school boys. He built a bedroom from willow poles with an iron roof and flour bags walls, just big enough to bed down the four of them and store some chaff. They considered themselves to be relatively well off compared with a nearby family with three children who lived in a 3 x 3.5 metre hut.
Single men often lived in a 2.5 x 3 metre hut with a timber framed chaff sack and straw palliasse bunk at one end and a fireplace and small table at the other. Some huts had only a wooden floor and low wood or packing case walls to a height of around a metre with canvas on the rest of the walls and roof. Most huts had only beds, a table and chairs, but access to a sewing machine enabled Doris Jackson to construct a comfortable armchair from packing case timber, which she upholstered with sugar bags sewn together and stuffed with tussock. For the rabbiters’ wives, the generally rough living conditions could be relieved after several months in a rabbiting camp by something as simple as a table cloth. ‘I don’t know what we ate but the first thing that lightened me up was the white starched table cloth … I’d come back into civilisation and to me it was really something.’
Isolation also meant that the rabbiter lived on food that was simple to buy and prepare. Remoteness also meant buying infrequently and then only the essentials, and in bulk. Rabbit appeared frequently on the menu, but without refrigeration much of the diet consisted of non-perishable items such as flour, sugar, tinned condensed milk, salt and cheese. Without a vehicle, riding a horse up to 16 kilometres or so to town to buy food meant valuable time lost so rabbiters often relied on others like the local farmer’s wife to pick up a grocery order, leaving a note of what they needed under a stone on a roadside post.
Occasionally, the farmer might supply a few mutton chops as a change from rabbit, cooked on a small range or in a camp oven, with potatoes and vegetables the rabbiters grew themselves. Doris Jackson cooked over an open fire, fuelled with matagouri wood her husband packed home from the hills. ‘It had a wonderful heat and gave off a smell of its own.’ She did not have a camp oven, but baked scones, buns and cakes in a biscuit tin, covering the top with hot wood embers.
The rabbiter worked long and demanding hours, from about seven in the morning until five in the afternoon, wet days excluded, and without holidays except for the summer months of December and January. After the evening meal the day’s catch had to be skinned, the excess fat removed from the pelt and then stretched on wires to dry. With an annual catch of around 30,000 rabbits this meant 100 skins had to be dealt with every evening. A fast rabbiter could skin each rabbit in less than sixty seconds, using a very sharp knife to ensure the skin remained in one piece and in good condition.
Rabbiters usually lived in extreme isolation unless they resided in a camp with other rabbiters or had a wife and family. A typical day began with the rabbiter feeding his dogs before cooking a meal for himself. He fed and saddled his horse then went around his trap lines, taking rabbits out of the traps, gutting them, hanging them on a fence, and resetting the traps in new location. Between 100 and 150 traps would be worked each day, sometimes half at a time if the rabbits were really thick on the ground.
By the time you’d done all that, come [sic] back at night, cooked your meal and fed your horse and tied your dogs up and had a wash and cleaned up, and did the little bit of washing up you had to do in a tin basin or whatever, the day was gone. It was a lonely life. The horse and dogs were all [the company] you had.
Married rabbiters like Len Jackson could share the work with their wives and families. Doris Jackson dealt with meal preparation and other domestic chores and she and their sons helped to prepare the carcasses and skins for sale. The presence of other rabbiting families nearby also lessened their isolation. ‘We lived in primitive conditions but it was always home, always callers coming. In between work we had many happy times attending country dances etc … We had good health, were a family, had good friends around us and we were progressing financially.’
In contrast, single rabbiters found few opportunities for socialising even when they did get to town, with little entertainment other than a football game once a week. ‘There wasn’t a chair or a table or anything in the pub in those days. You could buy a beer, no meals or nothing, that was all. So you weren’t missing out on much being out in the middle of nowhere.’ And, when they had collected their cheques, had a haircut and a few drinks, they could not stay in town for the night, ‘ ’cos you had your dogs to feed.’
Most rabbiters worked independently, gaining their income from selling the skins themselves. Permission had to be gained from the farmer, to whom the rabbiter was to some extent accountable for keeping numbers down. Some farmers charged for the right to collect rabbits off a block, and often bought rabbits from the rabbiter for food or in large quantities for resale. But on the other hand rabbiters often made more off the land than the farmers.
Some began rabbiting as children, either to earn pocket money or to help their father to prepare skins. Len Jackson started when only five years old, using ferrets and traps and selling the carcasses to local residents for three pence each. Others sold skins for up to three to four shillings a pelt or caught rabbits to supplement the family diet. As Lew Wahrlich recalled, ‘[W]e used to just about live on them … we had no money and there was one way of getting it. There were rabbits offering outside. That was it. Actually the rabbit is very nice to eat, he’s … white meat, and it’s very fine grained in the meat and it’s quite nice.’
Rabbits were usually trapped during the hot summer months when the pelts were thinner, and used mainly for their meat. In winter, when thicker pelts brought higher prices, and with the ground too hard for trapping, the rabbiter changed to poisoning and shooting. Poisoning involved moving sheep from the area to be treated and laying unpoisoned carrots to get the rabbits used to finding food along the ploughed feed lines. The lines were then relaid using carrots laced with a strychnine and icing sugar paste. Gassing of rabbits in their burrows and rabbit drives, involving trapping them in large numbers in temporary netting fences, were commonly used when a farmer wanted to get rid of rabbits on a property rather than profit from them.
The severe Central Otago climate had a considerable effect on the rabbiters’ daily routines. Winter, the busiest time, when pelts were at their best, could be intensely cold. Very heavy frosts made it difficult to keep huts, clothing and bedding warm and dry, and deep snow required the use of dogs and ferrets to locate and retrieve the rabbits. At the other extreme, high temperatures reduced the amount of rabbiting that could be done between December and February. ‘The ground used to be that hard setting traps it would bounce up in your face, you know, just about blind you, that hot.’
For many rabbiters the ultimate reward came from being able to make enough money to buy a farm or orchard, set up a business or clear debts. Len and Doris Jackson, for example, made enough to lease an orchard, but went back to rabbiting when they were frosted out at the height of the Depression and had no money to pay their rent. Rabbiting again supported them until things picked up after the Depression, when they gradually built up the largest cherry orchard in the southern hemisphere.
Others, however, were less than honest, seeking secure employment by allowing rabbit numbers to be maintained from one year to the next. Lifting the base of rabbit proof fences above ground level to allow them through and avoiding laying poison when they were breeding were just two of the practices employed.
At one stage the Government set up a subsidy system to encourage trapping in the summer months when prices were low, leading to other doubtful practices. Rabbiters skinned young rabbits, nesters, and had them included in their tallies of adult animal skins, for which the farmer paid a subsidy. One rabbit board might pay for nesters’ ears and another for tails, so rabbiters swapped them among themselves. In some cases earless rabbits were reported to be found in their burrows after rabbiters had been out just to get the bounty.
Some farmers also took advantage of the situation, with many accused of ‘farming’ rabbits. They let numbers build up so that they could sell the right to rabbit blocks on the quiet, sometimes for as much as £50, to the detriment of neighbours trying to clear their land of the pest. Such practices, by both rabbiters and farmers, contributed to the Government decommercialising rabbiting.
Some of those directly involved in rabbiting later remembered the good days in spite of the hardships they endured. Others have emphasised the hardships, particularly the loneliness, the long hard days, the primitive living conditions and the cold winters, especially at high altitudes in places like the Nevis Valley. Overall it is difficult to generalise about the kind of life a rabbiter led. Clearly some enjoyed the experience while others endured it out of necessity.
Carriers, factory hands and skin merchants: ‘important economic contributors’
Carriers provided a vital link in getting unskinned carcasses from the rabbiter to the canning factory, often working under pressure to get them in for processing before the meat went bad. To meet the demand, around four carriers operated in the Alexandra area alone in the 1940s, with up to seven or eight trucks, each truck carting 3000 or more rabbits a day.
Like the rabbiters, the carriers worked long hours, , starting around six or seven a.m. and sometimes working until the canning factories closed at midnight, or later. They travelled considerable distances, one carrier’s route taking him and his wife from Fruitlands down the Clutha Valley to Millers Flat, then over the hill to Moa Flat before returning to Fruitlands for a late afternoon meal. In the early evening they unloaded at the Borthwick’s factory at Alexandra, then set out to pick up more carcasses from Blackman’s Gully and the Clyde-Dunstan district, before returning to the factory. ‘It was good money while it lasted, but it was strenuous work, because it was from Saturday to Saturday, week in and week out, for about two years. We couldn’t have gone much longer, you got too tired.’
The carriers worked either independently or as contractors to the factories. Independent carriers bought the carcasses from the rabbiter and on-sold them to the factory. If a contractor, the factory paid the carrier for the cartage and the rabbiter for the carcasses. The rabbiter hung his carcasses in pairs by the roadside, on wires and covered with scrim. The carrier tallied and transferred them to poles or rails installed in the back of the truck, packing in up to 1500 in each load. Factory floors built at truck height allowed for easy unloading.
During World War One and until 1924, Central Otago Preserves operated a typical canning factory in a former brewery building at Alexandra. Started by Steve Spain of Earnscleugh Station, it employed around ninety people, working long hours to keep up with the large numbers of carcasses brought in daily, and sending most of its produce to Britain and the United States.
On arrival, the carcasses were skinned and dressed, the skins being stretched and dried for sale in New Zealand or overseas for hats, gloves and coats. The carcasses were then cut into portions and put into cans made in the factory by a tinsmith:
They put it in a tin, put a lid on it, with a tiny whole in the top, and water in it. Boiled it all up. As it got hot it expanded and all that was going to come out of the tin came out. Then they’d put solder over the hole and when it cooled down there was no air in it, so it preserved. I don’t know what it tasted like.
Despite extensive mechanisation, the canning factory went into liquidation in 1924, being replaced by a pelt processing company, although canning did resume during and after World War Two with a rise in rabbit meat prices.
The period from 1914 to the mid 1920’s also saw the heyday of rabbit freezing in Alexandra. During the boom years R.S. Black’s freezing works processed between twelve and fourteen thousand rabbits a day. A chain of workers skinned, cleaned, trimmed, and packed the carcases, which were then frozen by a steam powered refrigeration plant. The skins were wired, dried and exported. Borthwick’s operated another plant after the Second World War when high rabbit meat prices again made it a profitable undertaking. Workers could make enough money in the nine months or so the factory operated to tide them over the two or three summer months, but worked long hours at the height of the season, generally from 8 a.m. to nearly midnight, to process between 6000 and 10,000 carcasses a day.
Skins collected directly from rabbiters and from canning and freezing factories for export came to Dunedin for Monday auctions, held fortnightly during the season by the Brokers Association. On arrival, the stock firms’ classers graded the skins, often under pressure to meet auction deadlines, according to their quality for the furrier, hatting and gloving industries, principally in Britain and the United States.
After each auction, stock firm employees, grateful to have work as the Depression deepened, worked long, hard hours to get each shipment baled up for export before the next arrived, treating each skin with naphthalene, an unpleasant smelling substance, to prevent weevil damage in transit. During school holidays workers’ children could earn pocket money by doing odd jobs such as fatting skins to upgrade borderline pelts, supplying classers with piles of skins for grading and filling naphthalene buckets.
Rabbiters and other suppliers received payment according to a complex system which took into account the different weights of up to twenty grades of skin, the bucks and does being dealt with separately, and deductions made for freight and commission. Suppliers kept a check on the stock firms by sending identical bags of skins to each of the auction firms or skin merchants in Dunedin. ‘The vendor would soon notice any few “bob” differences in the resulting cheques. Because of this sort of thing we all had to do our bit to give the rabbiter a fair go.’
All those who worked in the freezing and canning industries had to find alternative employment after decommercialisation. Many of the firms dealing in rabbit skins, however, also exported opossum and sheep pelts so, although their businesses were greatly diminished, they were able to retain some employees. Altogether, however, the end of the rabbit industry dealt a severe blow to those who had been employed in it. It had been a saving grace, as well as a way of life, to many during the Depression and an important contributor to many Central Otago economies.
Conclusion: ‘the lesson … has not yet been learned’
Mark Twain remarked in 1897: ‘In New Zealand the rabbit plague began at Bluff. The man who introduced the rabbit there was banqueted and lauded; but they would hang him now if they could get him.’ Over a hundred years later the environment is still paying the price of overstocking and of rabbits with erosion, gullying, grassland depletion and soil exhaustion. These effects could not, however, have been anticipated at the time rabbits were introduced, and seeking to place blame will not rectify the situation.
Efforts to control rabbits, beginning in 1876, proved to be generally ineffective. Varying emphases on which methods of control should be used, and shifting responsibilities between landowners and Government contributed to the problem. Some blamed the rabbit industry for maintaining rabbit numbers, while those in the industry did not see the rabbit as a problem at all, arguing that without the industry the pastoral situation would be worse. In the meantime, many people made money from the industry – the rabbiters, carriers, factory owners and workers, exporters and some farmers. Indeed, some of the latter made enough money from rabbiting to purchase their own farms.
But pastoralists, farmers and those in the rabbit industry were competing for the same resource, the land. In the delicate environments of places like Central Otago, much of it marginal for grazing, rabbits proved an uncontrollable element and pastoralism lost out. Only the introduction of a killer policy and decommercialisation in 1956 allowed control to be slowly achieved in the worst affected areas. Gradually large tracts of land could be restored to levels of fertility and production not seen for nearly a century. With the law on their side the pastoralists won the battle for the land, at the expense of an industry which had provided employment and a way of life for hundreds of people over the years. Indeed, rabbiting employed more people than pastoralism ever did, even now with land producing to its full potential.
But with decommercialisation came complacency. Successful pastoralism can only persist if all those involved take on the responsibility of controlling rabbit numbers as part of an integrated land management scheme. This needs to take into account environmental limitations and a recognition of the potential for the rabbit to again take over. In 1993 the possibility of the rabbit trade re-emerging raised questions about how effective any new industry would be in providing for rabbit control. History would suggest that a rabbit industry and pastoralism cannot co-exist in Central Otago without serious and long-term environmental damage and a reduction in pastoral returns. But, even after a century and a half of experience, factors including lack of co-operation, fear of the unknown, unwillingness to spend money, too little research and inadequate incentives still stand in the way of effective and on-going control. It would seem that the lesson that successful pastoralism and the rabbit industry cannot share the same fragile environments has not yet been learned.
Agricultural Pests Destruction Council, Environmental Impact Report on a Proposal to Introduce Myxomatosis as Another Means of Rabbit Control in New Zealand, John Bamford and Associates, Nelson, 1987, p 10.
M.J. Campbell, ‘Runholding in Otago and Southland 1848-1876’, MA Dissertation, University of Otago, 1981, pp 173-4.
Agricultural Pests Destruction Council, Environmental Impact Report on a Proposal to Introduce Myxomatosis, p 10; J.C. Parcell, Heart of the Desert,Whitcombe and Tombs, Dunedin, 1951, pp 296-7.
J. Durett, Exotic Intruders: The Introduction of Plants and Animals into New Zealand ,Heinemann, Auckland, 1983, p 151.
Campbell, ‘Runholding in Otago and Southland …’, p 175-6; Agricultural Pests Destruction Council, Environmental Impact Report on a Proposal to Introduce Myxomatosis, p 11.
A.H. Clark, The Invasion of New Zealand by People, Plants and Animals: The South Island Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 1949, p 267; Durett, Exotic Intruders, p 186.
Durett, Exotic Intruders, p 152.
Clark, The Invasion of New Zealand by People, Plants and Animals, p 268; Parcell, Heart of the Desert , pp 296-7.
Appendices to the Journal of the House of Representatives (hereafter AJHR), II, H-10, 1876, p 5, cited in Campbell, ‘Runholding in Otago and Southland …’, p 180.
A.S. Mather, ‘The desertification of Central Otago, New Zealand’ Environmental Conservation 9, 3 (Autumn 1982), p 211.
Durett, Exotic Intruders, pp 154-6; R.M. Lockley, Man Against Nature, Andre Deutsch, London, 1970, pp 149-50.
G. McLaughlan, The Farming of New Zealand: An Illustrated History of New Zealand Agriculture, Australia and New Zealand Book Co., Auckland,1981, p 147.
‘Particulars of runs abandoned in Otago during years 1877-1884’, AJHR, C-9, 1885, pp 1-3, cited in Mather, ‘The desertification of Central Otago … ’, pp 210-16.
Parcell, Heart of the Desert, pp 9-10; Campbell, ‘Runholding in Otago and Southland … ’, p 185.
Durett, Exotic Intruders, p 153
Southland News (Invercargill), 10 September 1873, cited in Campbell, ‘Runholding in Otago and Southland … ’, p 181.
Campbell, ‘Runholding in Otago and Southland … ’, p 182.
T. Brooking, ‘Sir John McKenzie and the Origins and Growth of the Department of Agriculture, 1891-1900’, MA Dissertation, Massey University, 1972, p 22; AJHR, II, I-5, 1876, pp 1-2; Campbell, ‘Runholding in Otago and Southland … ’, p 183.
Campbell, ‘Runholding in Otago and Southland … ’, p 183.
The Statutes of New Zealand (1876), pp 435-8.
T. Nightingale, White Collars and Gumboots: A History of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, 1892-1992, Dunmore Press, Palmerston North,1992, pp 23-4.
Statutes of New Zealand (1880), pp 159-64.
Parcell, Heart of the Desert, p 297; I. Roxburgh, Wanaka Story: A History of the Wanaka, Hawea, Tarras and Surrounding Districts, Whitcombe and Tombs, Dunedin, 1957, p 132.
 Statutes of New Zealand (1881), pp 15-20. Studies have since shown that this policy was doomed to failure because ‘rabbits are more likely to determine the density of predators than predators are likely to govern the density of rabbits.’ W.E Howard, The Rabbit Problem in New Zealand, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, Wellington, 1958, p 12.
Nightingale, White Collars and Gumboots, pp, 102-6; Statutes of New Zealand (1886), pp 269-80.
Nightingale, White Collars and Gumboots, p 26.
T. Brooking, ‘Sir John McKenzie … ’, p 29; Nightingale, White Collars and Gumboots, pp 102-6.
Nightingale, White Collars and Gumboots, p 106; AJHR, II, H-29, 1920, p 14.
AJHR, III, H-29, 1924, p 6.
Roxburgh, Wanaka Story, p 233.
Statutes of New Zealand (1947), pp 408-24; Howard, The Rabbit Problem in New Zealand, pp 28-30.
Nightingale, White Collars and Gumboots, pp 107, 108; Durett, Exotic Intruders, p 163; J.A. Gibb and J.C.E. Flux, ‘Why New Zealand should not use myxomatosis in rabbit control operations’, Search 14, 1-2 (February-March 1983), pp 41-3.
Statutes of New Zealand I (1955), pp 109-67; Statutes of New Zealand I (1956), pp 214-15; ‘Rabbiters’ skills fast disappearing’, Otago Daily Times, 16 March 1990.
Nightingale, White Collars and Gumboots, p 108; Howard, The Rabbit Problem in New Zealand, p 12.
Clark, The Invasion of New Zealand by People, Plants and Animals, p 259; Parcell, Heart of the Desert, p 297.
C.W.S. Moore, Northern Approaches: A History of Waitati, Waikouaiti, Palmerston, Dunback, Moeraki, Hampden and Surrounding Districts, Whitcombe and Tombs, Dunedin, p 171; Campbell, ‘Runholding in Otago and Southland … ’, p 185.
D.W. Stewart, ‘From Fur to Fashion’. The Background Story to the Establishment of the New Zealand Fur Industry, D.W. Stewart, Dunedin, 1990, p 19; Parcell, Heart of the Desert, p 298.
Stewart.‘From Fur to Fashion’, pp 1-6.
New Zealand Year Books and Statistics of New Zealand, 1879-1956.
New Zealand Year Books and Statistics of New Zealand, 1879-1956.
Cited in Stewart, ‘From Fur to Fashion’, p 31.
Stewart, ‘From Fur to Fashion’, pp 9-10, 12, 28-9.
Len Jackson, interview transcript, Alexandra Museum, 1975, p 1; Stewart, ‘From Fur to Fashion’, pp 44-5.
Lew Wahrlich and C.R.‘Kelly’ Walker, interview by the author, Alexandra, 26 May 1993; Doris Jackson, interview transcript, Alexandra Museum, 24 July 1984, p 7.
Wahrlich and Walker interview, pp 6-7.
Stewart, ‘From Fur to Fashion’, p 46.
Len Jackson interview, p 3; The New Zealand Farmer (10 July 1947), p 4.
Wahrlich and Walker,interview, p 6.
Stewart, ‘From Fur to Fashion’, pp 43-4.
Wahrlich and Walker interview, pp 7-8.
Doris Jackson interview, pp 1, 5; Wahrlich and Walker interview, p 9.
Len Jackson interview, p 1; Hugh Campbell, interview transcript, Alexandra Museum, 4 October 1984, pp 6-7; Walter Fox, interview by the author, Alexandra, 26 May 1993.
Stewart, ‘From Fur to Fashion’, p 46; Wahrlich and Walker interview, pp 3, 5-6.
Doris Jackson interview, pp 5, 8; Len Jackson interview, pp 3, 4.
Doris Jackson interview, p 11; Wahrlich and Walker, interview, p 9; W.H. McLean, Rabbits Galore: On the Other Side of the Fence, A.H. and A.W. Reed, Wellington, 1996, pp 33-6.
Wahrlich and Walker interview, p 9.
‘Mrs. R’, interview by the author, Alexandra, 27 May 1993.
‘Mrs. R’ interview; Fox interview.
Doris Jackson interview, p 1; Fox interview, p 2.
Fox interview, p 1.
Stewart, ‘From Fur to Fashion’, pp 11-14.
Stewart, ‘From Fur to Fashion’, pp 40-2.
Mark Twain, Following the Equator: A Journey around the World, American Publishing Co., Hartford, 1897, cited in Tony Simpson, Shame and Disgrace: A History of Lost Scandals in New Zealand, Penguin, Auckland, 1992, p 44.