ORC's rabbit strategy ineffective

Since the rabbit plagues of the 1880s local and central government has been searching for a rabbit solution. Photo: ODT files
Since the rabbit plagues of the 1880s local and central government has been searching for a rabbit solution. Photo: ODT files
Michael Laws looks at attempts to control the rabbit pest in Otago and, what he believes, is the failure of both the efforts and the Otago Regional Council’s rabbit policy.

Since their planned liberation in the South Island as a source of food, fur and British nostalgia the European rabbit has plagued local authorities.

Indeed within 30 years of their introduction, that plague was literal. Stock numbers dramatically declined and settlers were forced off their land while thousands of hectares of Central Otago were abandoned to the fluffy-tailed interloper. As in rural Australia, this invasive species was spectacularly successful at colonising the land of the colonisers.

Since the rabbit plagues of the 1880s and subsequent infestations local and central government has been searching for a rabbit solution. It has never found one, hamstrung in the most part by a failure of strategy and a complete failure of will.

The latest failure is biological - the RHDV K5 virus, a Korean variant of the RHDV haemorrhagic disease illegally released in the Cromwell area in 1997. The original RHDV virus, acquired from Australia, was released by frustrated Central farmers who saw no hope of salvation from central or local government. They probably still don't.

Unwittingly, the Otago Regional Council (ORC) encourages them in this belief. Rabbits are your responsibility, it says. Chairman Stephen Woodhead publicly repeated this message last week.

Unfortunately, the chairman's message is misguided, and so too that of his council. Indeed its their collective hands-off policy that has, in good part, caused this latest plague.

But first let's deal with the ORC chimera that the official introduction of the Korean strain of the RHDV virus has been a success. According to Mr Woodhead, ``the measured rabbit population decreased by 47%'' as a direct result of the Korean virus.

You'd be forgiven for thinking ``Wow! Almost half of Otago's rabbits eradicated in a few short months by a biological agent. More please!'' Except that it's not true.

Months ago, as a Dunstan ward councillor whose constituency is overrun with rabbits, I asked for some verifiable way of testing the effectiveness (or not) of the vaccine's kill-rate.

Last month I was presented with the only constant check: night counts in thirteen different Otago locations. These have some validity because the ORC has been performing the same night counts in the same areas, and in the same way, for every year since at least 2006. What those counts showed was not a decrease in rabbits. Far from it. Those statistics showed a 40.3% increase in the rabbit population since 2016, and a 20% increase since 2017.

Under challenge, the ORC presented a second set of statistics. This looked at night counts in just selected areas and compared pre-virus and post-virus counts - even though those selected areas were only a fraction of the sites (roughly 100) where the virus had been released. Those were the figures that Mr Woodhead chose to champion.

Unsurprisingly, farmers and farming communities scoffed. So too the residents of Cromwell, Luggate and a significant number of other rural towns in Central Otago.

And tucked away in that ORC officer's report to Council was the explanation ``It continues to prove difficult to get an accurate picture of the overall effectiveness of the [virus] release with limited resources available to undertake extensive monitoring.''

At which point, the ORC's so-called ``success'' figures are rendered meaningless. And they know it.

The truth is that the Korean virus has failed to make the expected dent in Otago's rabbit figures. It was officially promoted as the means to get numbers under effective control, thus allowing landowners to apply their traditional culling techniques and win, if not the war, then this particular battle.

But the real failure has not just been of execution but also of strategy.

It is plainly obvious that the existing ORC policy of making landowners responsible for rabbit control is a disaster. Despite evidence that such a hands-off policy isn't working, it's still the strategy, the plan and the only option being offered.

In part, farmer politicians can take some responsibility for the ORC's strategy. They convinced the regional council after the demise of local rabbit boards that they could do it. And in some areas for example, the Maniototo they have.

But rabbits don't just live on farms. They don't recognise human boundaries.

They live where the living is easy and that means migration into life style blocks, wasteland, council-owned land and government reserves, and peri-urban communities. My property backs on to a small orchard and a residential development. Rabbits are as numerous as sparrows. My cat brought in Kill #23 and Kill#24 last week and that's since spring.

Meanwhile the ORC neither monitors nor enforces its existing policy of making landowners responsible. I can't recall one infringement notice in my time on council, and yet the plague has arrived, and it is surely here.

I'm happy to discuss and promote solutions. I'd be thrilled to debate options and opportunities. But the first thing that has to happen is that we admit that there's a problem, and that our current policies and programmes aren't working.

Until the Otago Regional Council gets to that point, the rabbit plague can only worsen.

-Next week Michael Laws considers options for effective rabbit control.

-Michael Laws is a Central Otago-based Otago regional councillor.


You can manipulate statistics any way you want to prove or dis-prove an argument. The ORC have been cherry picking facts for years and it has become a culture there.
The proof is the fact that they don't respond when challenged and hope the challenger shuts up and goes away.

There must be a virus that would wipe these things out/ don't fool around do it/