The man who introduced the rabbit to New Zealand was banqueted and lauded, but they would hang him now, if they could get him. In England they fine a poacher, whereas he ought to be banished to New Zealand.
New Zealand would pay his way and give him wages.
Mark Twain – 1895

As Central Otago reflects on this year’s Great Easter Bunny Hunt, it’s timely to reflect on the history of this perpetual pest.

Rabbits were introduced to New Zealand from New South Wales in the 1840s to provide food, fur, and sport for early settlers. Thirty years later, immigrants were still arriving with rabbits on board ships in the hope they could be sold for a profit. Gold prospectors carried them into Otago, releasing them in large numbers around the goldfields, to provide sustenance for diggers and their families. But adding ‘underground mutton’ to a pot was not enough to control the exploding rabbit population.

In 1876 the ‘Rabbit Nuisance Act’ was passed, giving the Government inspectors powers to instruct landowners to destroy all rabbits. In the 1880s, the occupation of ‘rabbiter’ was born with pelts becoming a valuable export commodity. The pelts became so profitable that rabbiters paid farmers for the privilege of eradicating these pests from pastoral land.

Meanwhile rabbits, each one consuming as much feed as a 55kg ewe, wreaked havoc across the countryside. Between 1877 and 1885 about 540ha was chewed bare by rabbits forcing more than 75 farming families off the land. But on the flipside of the devastation was the employment and income that rabbits generated.

During the 1880s rabbits were the greatest source of income in Alexandra. Large gangs of trappers were employed to rid Central Otago of the pest and many were able to make enough to buy and develop their own farm or orchard.

The eradication started with shooting and trapping, and then various poisoning methods were used. A frequently used method was to lace carrots with Strychnine icing sugar (or jam) and baking powder or blocking and fumigating warrens with Cyanogas. During the late 1800s ferrets were introduced and trained to root out rabbits from their burrows; the irony being that they too rapidly bred becoming a threat to the agricultural industry as well as native birds and skinks.

Rabbit skins, packed in 220kg wool press bales, were in hot demand by local and overseas furriers who wholesaled them to fashion houses for coats, hats, and gloves. In 1893 more than 17 million skins were exported to the United Kingdom, demand increased steadily throughout the early 1900s netting nearly £1.5million in1919. By this time White and Co Freezing Works in Chicago Street, Alexandra (now Hinton Fruit and Wine) was in full swing. The business expanded to include a skinning factory operated by R.S Black which processed tens of thousands of carcasses daily during the height of the rabbiting season, providing a large part of the income in the district. In 1939 Borthwick & Son bought the freezing works and installed a rabbit skin drying room.

The rabbit canning industry also provided much needed employment. The Alexandra, Rabbit Canning Co. employed between eighty and ninety people in various jobs from skinning and preparing the meat to making and labelling the cans.

Hinton family and friends on a rabbit shoot in the late 1940s

Many locals growing up in the 1930s have rabbit-related memories. Some remember making pocket money from the selling of trapped rabbits delivered to factories by bike on their way to school. Others, such as the Hinton children recall hanging rabbits on the fence for collection by the school bus driver.

But the income and industry that rabbits generated came to a screeching halt in the 1950s when the government decided that eradication was the only solution to the pest problem and banned the sale of rabbit meat and skins.

Despite the shutdown and subsequent efforts since, most recently the New Zealand goal to be predator-free by 2050, rabbits remain a pest and problem throughout Central Otago. The search for a sustainable method of rabbit control continues and until that happens the annual Great Easter Bunny Shoot will continue to be a Central Otago drawcard.

R.S Black Rabbit Skinning Factory, Chicago St, Alexandra (circa 1920s),
now Hinton Fruit and Wine

The Alexandra Rabbit Canning Co (circa 1919)
now the Alexandra Holiday Camp.

A special thanks to the Hinton family of Alexandra for information and photographs.

Druett, J. (2014). Exotic intruders. [Wellington]: New Zealand Electronic Text Centre