Where to now in the war on rabbits?

Rabbits at Queensberry, near Wanaka, in 2013. PHOTOS: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
Rabbits at Queensberry, near Wanaka, in 2013. PHOTOS: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
As rabbit populations climb once again in the South, some southerners are calling for the return of rabbit boards. Environment reporter Hamish MacLean asks whether 
rabbit boards could be the silver bullet.

 

For about 150 years New Zealand has waged a war on rabbits.

Ferrets, stoats and cats have been bred and released en masse to hunt down the pests.

Hundreds of kilometres of fences have been erected to box the animals in.

Rabbit burrows have been gassed.

In the wake of World War 2 fixed-wing aeroplanes were used to drop poison, the landscape being bombed with 1080 from 1954.

Still rabbits persist.

Online encyclopedia Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand outlines the history of rabbit control in New Zealand.

The first Rabbit Nuisance Act was passed in 1867, and there have been many more Acts since.

The 1881 Act established a system of rabbit inspectors. The 1882 Act increased their powers. Inspectors came under the authority of the Department of Agriculture after it was set up in 1892.

Rabbit control was one of the department’s major functions, accounting for a quarter of its budget in 1895.

By 1946, there were more than 100 rabbit boards administering rabbit control over 7.3 million hectares.

The Rabbit Nuisance Amendment Act 1947 required all rabbit boards to adopt a "killer policy" — their priority was to kill rabbits, almost regardless of cost.

It restructured the rabbit control system, setting up a central advisory body, the Rabbit Destruction Council, which consisted of farmer and government representatives.

It made rabbit board staff responsible for all organisation and operation of rabbit destruction, funding for which came from rates charged to landholders based on the area of their properties or the number of stock carried.

The funds from rates were paid to locally elected rabbit boards, and were subsidised by central government on a pound-for-pound basis.

At the same time rabbits were to be progressively de-commercialised.

By the 1970s there was a drop in rabbit numbers, but the control costs were high.

In 1980 the government changed its funding from by then a dollar-for-dollar subsidy to a lump sum payment, to be reviewed annually.

Then in 1984 a "user pays" policy was adopted, and the government’s contribution was progressively withdrawn.

In 1989 newly formed regional councils took over the role of pest control and rabbit boards were disbanded.

Coincidentally, at the same time, a long drought in Marlborough, Canterbury and North and Central Otago led to an explosion in rabbit numbers.

Since then with night shoots, or releases of rabbit calicivirus, nothing has worked to abate the invasion.

There has been a particularly strong rabbit infestation around Moeraki since 2017.
There has been a particularly strong rabbit infestation around Moeraki since 2017.

Rabbits flourish today as does the correspondent frustration.

And, increasingly, a co-ordinated rabbit control approach has been called for, including from those who seek a return to central control via rabbit boards.

But it is a call that seems likely to go unheeded.

Historian and researcher Robert Peden wrote the Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand entry on the government’s role in rabbit control.

He said he doubted there was the political will at present for the government to fund rabbit boards as it once had.

"I would also ask if rabbit boards were really that successful in controlling rabbits in the past," Dr Peden said.

"It seems to me that rabbit numbers were always dependent on climate.

"In a wet season there was a high mortality rate among young rabbits and the population declined.

"In a series of dry seasons young rabbits thrived, the breeding season was extended and rabbit numbers exploded.

"Rabbit control has been a contentious issue in New Zealand since the late 1870s.

"Whether rabbit boards are the answer is debatable.

"I don’t believe there is a single solution to control rabbits, but research into finding ways to control their breeding seems to me to be the most cost-effective long-term solution," he said.

"Of course, someone has to fund that research."

The Otago Regional Council has no plans to bring back rabbit boards in any form.

It is not entertaining the idea.

Council biosecurity manager and rural liaison Andrea Howard said significant changes had happened since rabbit boards were operating and they were unlikely to be a panacea for managing rabbit populations now.

"There have been changes to national and regional legislation regarding biosecurity; government subsidies for pest control have been withdrawn; and land use and land intensification in Otago has changed significantly since rabbit boards were operating."

After local government reform in 1989, the council inherited the former functions of rabbit boards until the arrival of the Biosecurity Act in 1993.

Since 1996, when the first regional pest management plans were implemented, the Biosecurity Act has provided the mandate for pest management now used across New Zealand.

The Biosecurity Act puts the responsibility for pest management on the land occupier — landowners contribute to pest problems and landowners also benefit from pest control.

Regional council pest management typically came at the "very early" intervention stage, Ms Howard said.

When a pest first established, its distribution was very low, so suppression in the early stages was more manageable.

The council played a more direct role, for example, in controlling species such as wallabies and rooks, because the infestation was not yet so solidly established.

And the strategy was to prevent that happening.

Environment Canterbury biosecurity regional leader Graham Sullivan noted things had moved over time to a "user pays" system.

There were many "very competent" pest management contractors in both Canterbury and Otago, should farmers want to hire them, he said.

Land Information New Zealand (Linz) biosecurity

and biodiversity group manager Megan Reid said Linz carried out rabbit control in the required manner as a responsible landowner.

It carried out rabbit control on land it administered to comply with regional pest management plans.

It regularly took part in co-ordinated rabbit control programmes to ensure an effective reduction of rabbit populations across areas.

Linz worked with neighbouring landowners and partners, including the Ministry for Primary Industries, Department of Conservation and regional councils, to ensure control works were co-ordinated where possible.

As for rabbit boards, there would need to be an investigation into whether it would be more effective than current arrangements, Ms Reid said.

Reinstating rabbit boards, or a similar arrangement, would require a law change, Biosecurity New Zealand spokeswoman Lesley Patston said.

The Biosecurity Act was being reviewed at present, and as part of that work a discussion document would be released for public consultation, which would include how the Act addressed pest management.

But the predominant view had skewed away from rabbit boards, she said.

There had not been a specific investigation into re-establishing rabbit boards. There was, however, a thorough overview of the state of rabbit management in 2009.

A resulting report found government-funded collective approaches, such as rabbit boards, "could lead to a loss of individual responsibility and less ownership of the rabbit problem".

The Lough Report examined a range of possible options for collective management of rabbits, including the formation of local boards working to geographic boundaries, and concluded that a case for public funding appeared weak, Ms Patston said.

Instead, it found there was a role for government in "supporting collective action" and improving access to advice and skills.

Following the Lough Report, the New Zealand Rabbit Co-ordination Group was created.

That group collectively led the effort to import the latest rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus.

Biosecurity New Zealand estimates rabbits cost New Zealand more than $50million in lost production, plus a further $25million in direct pest control a year.

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