Almost all of Australia’s invasive rabbits come from one introduction by an Englishman

New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that nearly all of Australia’s 200 million rabbits come from one group of foundation rabbits introduced into Australia in 1859 by a man called Thomas Austin. At the time he was in Australia and he wrote to his family in Britain asking them to catch some wild rabbits and send them to his estate on the next ship so that he could enjoy some sport hunting. One hundred and sixty-three years later that handful of rabbits has become a major headache to Australia’s conservationists because they cost farmers an estimated £170 million annually.

Rabbits Western NSW
Rabbits Western NSW. All of them come from a handful of European wild rabbits imported by one man: Thomas Austin in around 1859. Photo: in public domain.

Normally when a small group of invasive species like rabbits are introduced into Australia they don’t survive. For example, if they were introduced to an area where there were lots of dingoes they would have been eaten by that predator or if they were domestic rabbits they probably wouldn’t have survived. It is believed that what made Austin’s rabbits different was that they were wild.

Before this wild group was introduced domestic rabbits were probably brought to Australia. This was a departure from that trend. Wild rabbits, according to Joel Alves from Cambridge University, “are paranoid, they have a massive fear response. Those traits are key when you are in an environment where there are dingoes and a lot of things that can kill you.”

To return to the time of Thomas Austin, several years after the introduction of his wild rabbits for sport hunting he killed 20,000, all descended from the originals. He entertained the then Duke of Edinburgh to a rabbit massacre in which they hunted over 1,000.

The rabbit infestation spread at a rate of a hundred kilometres a year according to the report in The Times by Tom Whipple, the Science Editor.

Thomas Austin believed that a few rabbits would not do much harm 😎. He was a member of the Acclimatisation Society and was responsible for introducing English fauna to Australia. When you watch television these days of border control in Australia you realise that things have changed dramatically over the past 150 years! Nothing gets into Australia nowadays unless it’s approved. Importation laws of fauna and flora are very strictly applied.

The researchers said:

“They [the rabbits] all seem to come from a single release, a single introduction. If we trace them back in Australia, it seems to originate from around Barwon Park.”

Barwon Park is where Thomas Austin lived. The researchers also said that:

“We can also trace it back to where in England they came from. They seem to have come from the south-west of England, which is where Thomas Austin’s brother lived”. His brother rounded up the wild rabbits and sent them to Thomas Austin in Australia.

I expect some Aussies hate the Brits for this. They hate feral cats too. And they were introduced by Brits as well as I recall.

The lead author of the study is Francis Jiggins.

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Post Category: Invasive species