Rabbits: from pest to plate

By Deborah Light February 17, 2011
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Australia has a love-hate relationship with rabbits, but now some innovative chefs are putting them to good use.

CHRIS BUSHELL REMEMBERS FERRETING for rabbits alongside his three siblings and parents around their home at Dry Creek, near Adelaide. His dad ran the government’s local powder magazine and, with little money coming in, rabbits sold to the local butcher provided welcome extra income. The Bushell clan knew where to find them thanks to dad’s customers – landowners buying explosives to remove tree stumps.

“The whole family used to go out on Sundays,” Chris recalls. “We’d be split into two or three gangs and the young brother and myself, we’d go off and play games, but the older ones had to work and get the rabbits. We used to do a bit of shooting but when we got them for the butcher shop it was always ferrets. We’d slaughter the rabbits in the backyard and lay them out on the kitchen table overnight. Then mum would deliver them to the butcher shop.” Her price: two bob a pair.

Some 40 or so years later – after a long stint running his own concreting business – Chris is back selling rabbits, only now he farms them. When he takes his rabbits to nearby farmers’ markets in Wayville and the Barossa Valley they fetch $14-18 a kilo. Chris makes extra on value-added goods such as smoked rabbit, schnitzels and sausages.

His mum had fed the family on rabbit she’d steeped in brine overnight then stewed or roasted, dished up with onions, peas and potatoes. Today, you’ll find the Bushells’ rabbits on restaurant menus such as that of classy Adelaide eatery Chianti Classico, presented as: “Coniglio Al Forno – half a farmed rabbit slow cooked with pancetta, onions, port and sage, served with rosemary potatoes.” Their price: $32.50 a serve.

As Chris’s story illustrates, Australia’s fraught relationship with this mostly accursed, often sustaining, sometimes adorable little mammal wavers, even today. Most of us grow up with rabbits: bedtime stories, cartoons, Easter bunnies, cute pets and cuddly toys endear them to us. At the same time, they continue to inflict devastation on our land, which threatens livestock and endangers native plant and animal species. This introduced pest has wreaked more damage on the Australian environment than any other.

Rabbits nonetheless have proved a godsend in times of need. They’ve also done their bit for the economy. In 1949, export sales of wild rabbit meat topped that of our traditional stalwart, mutton. Among city folk, reminiscences of the Depression and earlier times include the evocative call “rabbit-OO-OOH”, sung by hawkers who tramped the streets, shouldering racks of carcasses. Rabbitohs are among us today, only now they wear football jerseys – emblazoned with the bunny – representing Australia’s oldest and greatest team in the history of Rugby League. South Sydney District Rugby League Football Club entered the field in 1908; its players drawn from gritty, working-class suburbs just outside the city. Of these, several were rabbitohs, so the team was named for them and went on to win more premierships than any other. After a privatisation offer in 2006 worth $3 million – not a bad price-tag for a team of battlers – the Rabbitohs are now co-owned by businessman Peter Holmes à Court and actor Russell Crowe.

Rabbit Infestation

When 12 pairs of European wild rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) were released in 1859 at Winchelsea, about 100 km south-west of Melbourne – by wealthy grazier and keen hunter Thomas Austin – the little breeders thrived. Domestic rabbits, the first of which arrived with the First Fleet, had already spread along the continent’s eastern and southern coasts and were also in Tasmania, but they were never the problem that wild rabbits proved to be. They spread from Austin’s run and other release points at a furious rate. They were first seen on the NSW-Queensland border in 1886, reached the NT in 1894 and had crossed WA to the west coast by 1907.

Consider that a doe can produce 4-5 litters during a six-month breeding season – with six and more kittens per litter, which reach breeding maturity 10-12 weeks after birth – and the sums get scary. “Population increases of 8 to 10-fold in one breeding season are common,” according to a 1997 Anti-Rabbit Research Foundation handbook. “The arid interior of Australia presents the greatest problem for rabbit control. Many areas contain 100 warrens per square kilometre. With an average of 15 rabbits per warren this adds up to 1500 rabbits per square kilometre.”

Rabbits around a waterhole at the myxomatosis trial enclosure on Wardang Island in 1938. (National Archives of Australia)

It’s not that we haven’t tried to stop them. Governments, State and Federal, have spent billions trying to eradicate, or at least control, this menace and landowners have been doing their bit too. Warrens have been dug up, dynamited and flooded. Rabbits have been trapped, shot and poisoned. Fencing has delivered mixed results. WA’s rabbit-proof fence – completed in 1907 and immortalised in the acclaimed 2002 movie of the same name – comprised three branches and more than 3200 km of fencing. In Henry Lawson’s 1896 account of his outback travels, While the billy boils, he comes across a rabbit fence along the main street of Hungerford on the Queensland- NSW border – “with rabbits on both sides of it”:

“This fence is a standing joke with Australian rabbits – about the only joke they have out there, except the memory of Pasteur and poison and inoculation. It is amusing to go a little way out of town, about sunset, and watch them crack Noah’s Ark rabbit jokes about that fence, and burrow under and play leap-frog over it till they get tired. One old buck rabbit sat up and nearly laughed his ears off at a joke of his own about that fence. He laughed so much that he couldn’t get away when I reached for him. I could hardly eat him for laughing.”

Rabbit control: Myxoma virus and calicivirus

The first real blow against the plague came in the early 1950s when the myxoma virus was released. Almost overnight, up to 99 per cent of rabbits – then estimated to number 600 million – succumbed. Although myxomatosis, spread by mosquitoes and fleas, is still considered effective, resistance kicked in and rabbits were back to plague numbers within three to four decades. In some areas it took less than five years.

In October 1995, calicivirus “escaped” from quarantine conditions on Wardang Island in SA’s Spencer Gulf. It was then released in multiple places and wiped out 95 per cent of the rabbit population in some areas.

Outback Aboriginal communities – their native prey already routed by the rabbit onslaught – were hit hard. Commercial shooters and processing facilities virtually disappeared while other predators – notably the wedge-tailed eagle – faltered but survived. They started picking off the feral cats.

Down the line, others were forced to adapt, including makers of icon Aussie hat, Akubra, which uses rabbit pelts to manufacture 200,000 hats a year. “Our domestic supply basically disappeared, because the people who were supplying us with skins – they’re a by-product – stopped shooting rabbits,” company secretary Roy Wilkinson explains. Akubra was forced to source pelts from Europe, which accounts for 60-70 per cent of skins, though domestic supply keeps picking up, thanks to farmed rabbits. “We try to have a blend of about 50 per cent Australian fur and 50 per cent European fur,” Roy says. “It’s part of our thing about being Australian and, to be honest, the fur of the Australian rabbit is better than European rabbit fur. We find that the Australian rabbit makes a very resilient hat.”

Soon after the virus hit, zoologist and natural historian Dr Rob Morrison visited the Flinders Ranges in SA. “The stink in the Flinders was appalling,” he says. “There were millions of dead rabbits. And the flies! Suddenly you saw transformation, all these little seedlings that had not been allowed to develop, plants thought to be locally extinct.” The same had happened in The Coorong, on the SA coast, just after myxomatosis went through: she-oak seedlings that no-one had seen for 50 years were everywhere. Rob predicts that post-calicivirus, “you’re going to see another generation of trees that started on the one day. It’s quite noticeable already.”

Like many of his generation, Rob grew up with the children’s books of his elders, including those featuring Beatrix Potter’s plucky little Peter Rabbit, still bestsellers. It meant Rob knew more about weasels and stoats than bilbies and dunnarts, for example, and he believes a childhood like his, filled with Eurocentric mythology, can embed a sadly misguided sympathy for the rabbit at the expense of native plants and animals. But Rob turned, going on to chair the Anti-Rabbit Research Foundation, which estimates this pest costs Australia more than $1 billion every year.

“It’s not a personal vendetta,” he says. “I love rabbits. They’re an admirable creature but they’re just in the wrong place and I would love to see them all exterminated.” That said, he gruffly concedes farming them isn’t such a bad idea. “I’d rather see people farming rabbits than running sharp-hooved animals on fragile land.”

Rabbit farms around Australia

Rabbit farms are now allowed in all States except Queensland and a healthy little industry has been developing since the late 1990s, its path made easier by the very same CSIRO that abetted calicivirus. Along with industry partners, CSIRO has developed the Crusader rabbit strain, now used by 25 per cent of this fledgling sector for such attributes as superior litter sizes and rapid weight gain. Farmed rabbit remains a niche market but demand far outstrips supply, according to Dr Peter McInnes, consultant to the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.

“Compared to the wild meat it’s quite white,” Peter says. “It’s two per cent fat, so it’s very lean and high in protein – 23 per cent. The cholesterol is pretty low too.”

He has high praise for those who understand value-adding, like Chris Bushell, with his smoked rabbit, schnitzels and sausages. Chris has been operating Bushmin Farmed Rabbits since 2002 and houses 200 breeding does in airconditioned comfort. He plans to have 500 does within the year; mere rabbit-feed compared with producers overseas – particularly Spain, Italy and France – where farms run to 5000 and 8000 breeding does. Australian producers like Chris are now avid learners of their techniques, including artificial insemination.

Cook Maggie Beer is another fan. Game-cooking became a forte at her farm in the Barossa Valley, where she established a popular restaurant. Self-taught, she turned her hand to rabbit because they constituted a local menace. “They used to eat our vines, so it was my revenge!” she hoots. “It is one of the hardest things you’ll ever cook because it has absolutely no fat and each part of it has to be cooked separately.”

When her rabbit processors went out of business, thanks to calicivirus, Maggie turned to farmed rabbits and now delights in the meat. “The farmed rabbit has had an easier life. It’s plumper, it’s a much larger breed. It has a lovely coating of fat on it so it’s more forgiving to cooks.”

Today Maggie has to go out of her way to buy it. “If now we have rabbit it’s a special occasion and I cook it for friends, where it used to be part and parcel of every day. It’s funny how that’s happened.”