Saturday, February 23, 2008

Cautionary Tale : a story told to warn its hearer

Rabbits were first introduced to Australia by the First Fleet in 1788, but the current infestation appears to have originated with the release of 24 wild rabbits by Thomas Austin on his property, Barwon Park (near Winchelsea, Victoria), in October 1859 for hunting purposes. While living in England, Austin had been an avid hunter, regularly dedicating his weekends to rabbit shooting. Upon arriving in Australia, which had no native rabbit population, Austin asked his nephew in England to send him 24 grey rabbits, five hares, 72 partridges and some sparrows so that he could continue his hobby in Australia by creating a local population of the species. Many other farms released their rabbits into the wild after Austin. At the time he had stated:

"The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting."[1]

Rabbits are extremely prolific creatures, and spread rapidly across the southern parts of the country. Australia had ideal conditions for a rabbit population explosion. With mild winters, rabbits were able to breed the entire year. With widespread farming, areas that may have been desert, scrub, or woodlands were instead turned into vast areas with low vegetations, creating ideal habitat for rabbits. Humans were directly responsible for the initial release of the rabbits, and indirectly responsible for modifying the Australian landscape for ideal rabbit survival.

Within ten years of the 1859 introduction, the original 24 rabbits had multiplied so much that two million could be shot or trapped annually without having any noticeable effect on the population.

It was the fastest spread ever recorded of any mammal anywhere in the world. Today rabbits are entrenched in the southern and central areas of the country, with scattered populations in the northern deserts.

Effects on Australia's ecology

The effect of rabbits on the ecology of Australia has been devastating. One eighth of all mammalian species in Australia are now extinct (rabbits are the most significant known factor), and the loss of plant species is unknown even at this time.

Rabbits are also responsible for serious erosion problems as they eat native plants which leave the topsoil exposed and vulnerable to sheet, gully and wind erosion. The removal of this topsoil is devastating to the land as it takes many hundreds of years to regenerate. Some of this erosion may also be the result of settlers clearing much of Australia's land for farming (and use of unsuitable agricultural techniques) and to make room for housing.

See also

External links

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