What do you do when a national pest is also an increasingly favourite pet in New Zealand homes?

I speak here of the common rabbit, loved and adored by some, yet hated and vilified by others. This week marks the anniversary of the declaration of rabbits as pests and a very revealing aspect of our past.

History tells us various breeds of rabbit were introduced to New Zealand during the 1830s, although most of these were too weak to survive the conditions. That was until some genius introduced the common European rabbit in 1848, which was left to run amok in the hinterland of Southland and Otago in an effort to keep the grass plains down to a reasonable level for sheep. As history also shows us, it was a mistake that still plagues New Zealand to this very day.

But despite the issues that faced Otago and Southland in those pioneering days, farmers continued releasing rabbits throughout the South Island where they became firmly established in the likes of Canterbury, Marlborough and Nelson. Thousands of acres were abandoned to the booming rabbit population and although the density of bush in the North Island slowed their progress, it was only a matter of time before the Wairarapa, Hawkes Bay and Wairoa were also suffering similar fates.


To combat the burgeoning rabbit population, stoats, weasels, ferrets and cats were introduced in the 1880s, although the net effect was the devastation of indigenous bird populations while the rabbits continued to roam free and virtually uninhibited.

When predators couldn't curb problem and hunting, trapping and burrow fumigation also proved largely inadequate, those that made such decisions decided to turn instead to science; namely poison. The 1950s saw a proliferation of 1080 and arsenic drops, before myxomatosis was given a crack. Then, in 1997, the RCD virus was illegally imported and released in the South Island. But, like its poisonous predecessors, it was met with limited success.

A new product that includes a variant of rabbit calicivirus, known as K5, is set to be introduced later this year and targets only the common European rabbit. And while most experts accept K5 is no silver bullet for rabbit eradication, others are calling it nothing more than another stop-gap measure.

So while the rabbit plague is clearly a massive drain on farms, with some stations spending in excess of $100,000 a year on rabbit control, it seems the little blighters are ironically becoming one of the trendiest pets for urbanites. It's estimated there are 116,000 pet rabbits in New Zealand and many owners are worried the current vaccine won't be adequate for the new strain of poison.

Speaking of pests, there has been a typically vicious reaction to concerned pet rabbit owners. Old, tired, terms like "hand wringers" and "lefties" were wheeled out, replete with obligatory spelling mistakes and poor grammar. People who comment on internet news stories are just as much pests as rabbits!

They belong in the same category as drivers of Road Maggots and Rugby referees. And of course one of our favourite contributors on The Country, Central Hawkes Bay farmer Jeremy Rookes, chimed in with an oldie but goodie; "the only good rabbit's a dead rabbit!" 10 out of 10 for originality Rookesy!

For a well-bred Canterbury syruper who can trace his ancestry back to the first four boats I would have thought this uncouth interaction with the lower classes would be beneath you!

Now I must finish here and go and pick some fresh grass for Flopsy.