In a past column I related how an amphibian, the cane toad, has had a very negative impact on Australia, Hawaii, and other sites over the globe. Another animal, this one a mammal, had and still has caused Australia even more trouble than the cane toad. This creature is the European rabbit. Now this is not our cottontail, the common rabbit here in Indiana. Here, while hunted, the cottontail is our “bunny,” “Easter bunny,” and “Peter Cottontail” most people like.
The European rabbit is larger than the cottontail and is the species that has been domesticated into the various forms raised in pens all over America. It is fine to raise this rabbit in captivity, but in the wild where they are not native it’s a different story.
In the United States, the European rabbit has escaped in some locations, especially in the San Juan Islands of Washington state, and have become a problem. It is Australia where the tale of the European rabbit becomes a horrible story. It all began as early as 1778 when the first European settlers brought a few rabbits with them. At this time they only became established on the island of Tasmania off the coast of Australia.
It was not until 1859 that a farmer brought 24 European rabbits to mainland Australia. He wanted to use them for meat but some escaped and the apocalypse began. A female European rabbit in a warm country like Australia can have up to six or even more litters of up to 12 baby rabbits a year. As there were no native predators in Australia, as can be expected there was a population explosion.
A century after the rabbits escaped it was estimated there were 600 million rabbits in Australia. Rabbits love to eat and eat they did. In some areas the ground was stripped of all vegetation. The rabbit warrens, as their burrows are known, were a problem for farmers as was the loss to their farm crops.