Rabbits were introduced into Australia from Europe by the First Fleet in 1788. What followed is unprecedented and the bunny is now a serious mammalian pest and invasive species. James Orrick looks at rabbit-proof fences, myxomatosis and the dangers of uncontrolled growth.
When Beatrix Potter wrote The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1893 it’s unclear how much she knew about a growing problem on the other side of the world. From her desk in Lancashire, was she aware that the antipodean relatives of her heroes were devastating an entire continent?
In financial terms alone it’s estimated that Australian agriculture currently loses more than $115 million a year because of rabbit overgrazing. Grazing and burrowing can cause serious erosion problems, reduce the survival of native plants, and modify entire landscapes.
Rabbits also threaten the survival of native animal species by altering habitat, reducing food sources, displacing small animals from burrows and attracting predators such as foxes. Rabbits are believed to have contributed to the decline of a number of species in New South Wales, such as the greater bilby, yellow-footed rock wallaby, southern and northern hairy-nosed wombats, the malleefowl and the plains-wanderer.
But, how did this uncontrolled growth begin and what efforts have been made to stop the spread?
The current infestation appears to have originated with the release of 24 wild rabbits in Victoria by Thomas Austin in October 1859. In a classic example of unintended consequences, rabbits became so prevalent within ten years 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.
Thomas Austin had asked his nephew in England to send him twelve grey rabbits, five hares, seventy-two partridges and some sparrows so he could create a local population and continue hunting. They couldn’t find enough grey rabbits to meet the order, so it was topped up with domestic rabbits. One theory is that the resulting hybrids were much more suited to Australian conditions.
Victoria was perfect for a rabbit population explosion. Mild winters allowed breeding all year round while widespread farming turned scrub into vast areas with low growing crops, creating ideal habitats for rabbits.
In 1887 the New South Wales Government offered a £25,000 reward for “any method of success not previously known in the Colony for the effectual extermination of rabbits”. The Commission received 1456 suggestions but none were found to be both safe and effective.
In 1893, a rabbit-proof fence was started in Queensland. It was extended through the years and in 1997 a final segment was built connecting it to the Dingo Fence. In 1907, another one was built in Western Australia between Cape Keraudren and Esperance. However, since European rabbits can both jump very high and burrow underground even a perfectly intact fence stretching for hundreds of kilometres proved to be both expensive and virtually useless.
Then came myxomatosis, a disease caused by the myxoma virus. It was first observed in Uruguay in laboratory rabbits in the late 19th century. In Australia a full-scale release was performed in 1950 which was devastatingly effective, reducing the estimated rabbit population from 600 million to 100 million in two years.
Resistance has been increasing slowly since the 1970s; the disease now kills only about 50% of infected rabbits.
What better example can there be of the unintended consequences of uncontrolled growth? Business growth and expansion are good of course – unless they happen too quickly. Whose foot is on the brake?
As with rabbits, too much business growth can be bad especially for start-ups and small businesses. Rapid, uncontrolled business expansion can be negative in the short as well as the long-term. At PEA we are highly skilled professionals who are constantly monitoring our clients’ performance. We will always advise sustainable growth through controlled expansion.
It might be tempting to pull rabbits out of hats to make growth happen faster, but our advice is to look at Australia first and be careful what you wish for!
James Orrick holds a Masters in Corporate Governance from Bournemouth University, a BSc (Hons) in Accounting and Finance from the University of Essex, is a Fellow of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants and the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators.