Bunny money: when rabbiting paid

My grandparents’ "tent" in the snow during their winter rabbiting activities near Matakanui....
My grandparents’ "tent" in the snow during their winter rabbiting activities near Matakanui. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED
The misfortune of rabbits was a fortune for some.

My family has built its empire on rabbits, admittedly a very modest empire, but the rabbits have definitely contributed.

My grandparents, Bella and Ernest Huddleston, were married in 1918 in Ophir. They spent their summers in a cottage at Matakanui, where Ernie was a shearer and farm labourer, and their winters in a tent (a canvas-roofed hut) catching rabbits to supply meat to the canning factory in Alexandra and skins to the Dunedin furriers and fur felt-hat makers.

It must have been so cold, but winter skins were worth a lot more so that was when they had to be caught. They used various methods — trapping, shooting (head shots only to keep the skin in good condition), ferrets, rabbit drives and strychnine poison, but only if they were not planning on selling the meat. The rabbits were skinned and gutted, and the skins were de-fatted and stretched in pairs over loops of No8 wire, and hung up to dry. Grandma’s sister Polly Drake drove a truck around the district collecting the rabbits to be taken for processing in Alexandra.

In 1928, Bella and Ernie, along with Ernie’s brother Bob, bought a large farm near Matakanui that the previous owner had given up on because of the massive rabbit infestation. The deposit money had come almost entirely from their rabbiting activities. The farm, which they named Poplar Grove, was a large 8320 acres (3367ha) and completely overrun by rabbits, with barely a blade of grass left for a horse or a sheep to eat. They set to work and in the first year took 40,000 rabbits off the land. They boiled up the carcasses, which were not good enough to sell, and fed them to their dogs, pigs and chooks. Any other leftovers were buried in gardens. The grapevines at my parents’ wee farm in Chatto Creek had truck loads of rabbits buried under them to give them the best possible start.

Uncle Ernie Huddleston, as a teenager, skinning rabbits.
Uncle Ernie Huddleston, as a teenager, skinning rabbits.
One of the sons of Ernie and Bella, Ernie jun, had taken to rabbit hunting using snares and traps while still at primary school. He was really fast at skinning his catch, and when one of my cousins timed him secretly, Ernie jun could skin and gut 14 rabbits a minute without working up a sweat. If he was trying to prove a point he could skin 20-22 a minute. He had earned enough money from his work that he was able to buy his own farm at the age of 17. Those days have obviously long gone though.

Through all this, my grandmother, living in primitive conditions, fed everyone on rabbits. Her specialty was rabbit patties, seasoned with local thyme. She apparently never used onions in hers, but they really were super delicious, and as far as I am concerned, the only way to eat rabbits.

Here in Waitati we have a huge rabbit problem, partly caused by the Halo trapping project that has got rid of the rabbit predators (which are also native bird predators), and this is a good thing. The rabbit plague is just an unfortunate side effect.

It’s much harder to solve the rabbit problem in an urban area. Our dogs get quite a few, but we can’t shoot them because we are too close to roads and houses, and I am afraid of trying snares because of all the cats in the neighbourhood. Poison would also be a problem with all the pets and native birds that might eat the carcasses. I have managed to shoot two with a high-powered slug rifle, but we are not going to emulate the family firm anytime soon. We fenced off our vegetable garden or we would never have a vegetable to eat. However, whenever I get my hands on some dead rabbits I make Grandma Hudd’s rabbit patties and they are still very popular, and a very available source of food if you can catch it.


Rabbit patties. PHOTO: HILARY ROWLEY
Rabbit patties. PHOTO: HILARY ROWLEY
Rabbit patties

Here is a vague outline of my grandmother’s recipe, with some modern additions:

1. Take some rabbits, bone them out (bury the bones in the garden).

2. Mince the rabbit mince with a reasonably fine mincing blade.

3. Mix the mince with thyme, salt, pepper, garlic and finely chopped onions.

4. I add a little extra fat as rabbit meat can be quite dry. I use duck fat.

5. Shape into patties.

6. If you like, you can roll the patties in bread crumbs or a little flour.

7. Fry in plenty of oil or duck fat.