The Rabbit proof fence of Western Australia
Blame it on an English settler, Thomas Austin.
Rabbits were not indigenous to Australia and were first introduced in 1788 to provide a source of meat for the settlers and convicts. They were bred on special farms and kept in enclosures and seemingly were as happy with their lot as they could be, rarely attempting to break out. But life in the outback can be a little boring. To ginger things up, Austin in October 1859 had the bright idea of releasing twenty-four wild rabbits into the grounds of his property so that his guests could amuse themselves by hunting them. As he was reported to have said at the time, “the introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.”
Unfortunately, the hunting skills of Austin’s guests were not great and the rabbits bred, well, like rabbits. Worse still, the rabbits Austin released were two separate types, which interbred to produce a hardy and vigorous species. And even worse, rabbits normally don’t breed in the winter because the little ones are susceptible to the cold. Of course, there is no equivalent to a Northern hemisphere winter in Oz and so the rabbits were able to breed all the year round. Food was abundant and within ten years, even though up to two million rabbits were killed a year, there was no discernible dent in the population.
So great was the damage to crops that the Inter-Colonial Rabbit Commission offered a prize of £25,000 “to anyone who could demonstrate a new and effective way of exterminating rabbits” in 1887. There being no convincing solution, a surveyor, Arthur Mason, despatched to look at the rabbit population in 1896 suggested that a barrier be built along the border with South Australia and another further west to protect Western Australia’s crops. Nothing happened for a further five years but in 1901 a Royal Commission decided that the only solution was a barrier fence across the State.
So work started in 1902 to erect a fence, some 1,824 kilometres long, which stretched from the south coast to the north-west coast of WA along a line which ran north of Burracoppon which is 230 kilometres east of Perth, the longest in the world. It was completed some five years later.
But as you might have expected, there was a major flaw in the plan. It takes time to erect a fence and rabbits have time on their paws aside from copulating and munching their way through crops. They would find a way around the fence as it was being built. And so a second fence, prosaically called Fence No 2, was built to the west of the first fence, a mere 1, 166 kilometres in length, running from Point Ann to the point where it joins the first fence at Gum Creek. They may have concluded that it had ended at Shit Creek because a third fence had to be erected, running from there to the coast, a mere 257 kilometres.
And this formidable barrier of wire was the Western Australian farmers’ principal defence against rabbits and other itinerant creatures and parts of it still exist. In the 1950s, however, a more aggressive approach was adopted to containing rabbit numbers – introducing viruses including myxomatosis. Initially, this approach was successful as numbers dropped from around 600 to 100 million. But the rabbit wasn’t finished yet and genetic modifications have allowed it to build numbers back up to the two to three hundred millions.
If only Austin had stuck to cards and charades.