The 1850s were a time of dramatic transformation in Wairarapa. The completion of the Rimutaka Hill road in 1856, the opening of Greytown School in 1857, and the establishment of the Small Farms Association meant more settlers. And more settlers meant an increase in exotic fauna. As well as 200,000 sheep and 2,000 cattle, the new settlers also brought sparrows, blackbirds, trout, deer and – in the early 1850s – rabbits.
Gareth Winter, Masterton District Council’s archivist and historian, says the settlers saw an opportunity to create a ‘greater Britain’ in New Zealand, and brought with them as much as they could to replicate life in the UK.
“Settlers mostly weren’t wealthy landowners [back in Britain] but they had aspirations to follow aristocratic pastimes, like trout fishing and rabbit hunting,” Gareth says.
In the case of rabbits, what started as a plan for a pleasant spot of hunting turned into an invasion.
“The rabbits exploded! By the middle of the 1880s the hillsides were moving,” Gareth says.
One runholder claimed the financial losses to the country caused by the rabbit plague were “nearly double the value of the total yield of gold for the last year”.
The rabbits were so numerous that killing them was hardly sport – but more like shooting fish in a barrel. Historian A. G. Bagnall recounts the story of H. H. Jackson, who caught 100 rabbits in just one hour.
One answer to managing the rapacious British imports was more British imports – ferrets, stoats and weasels. Their importation began in the 1870s.
This scheme was not universally popular. Small farmers worried the cunning mustelids would ignore the free-running rabbits, and instead feast on their easier-to-catch chickens. Which they did. But poultry was only the beginning. These furry terminators also enjoyed new delicacies – native birds. There was an awareness of the danger to the endemic species – but the approach of local ornithologists only added to the problem.
“They thought ‘let’s get ours while there are still some left’,” Gareth says.
So to preserve the dwindling species, the bird-lovers went out and caught their own specimens – to stuff.
Despite the newly arrived predators, rabbits remained a problem. Wairarapa provincial councillor, Rev. J. C. Andrew, had bigger ideas for controlling the plague. He imported two badgers. Unfortunately – for him anyway – one badger escaped and no further news of them is recorded. But Rev. Andrew was undeterred. Writing in the Evening Post in 1883, he said: “The natural enemy of the rabbit should be introduced not by tens and hundreds, but by thousands and tens of thousands… The mongoose at any rate, for the North Island, should be got in quantity from the hill districts of India. Other small carnivores, such as the marten, should be brought from California.”
Luckily, further predatory immigrants were not sanctioned; instead, poison was used. In 1881, nearly 24 tonnes of poisoned grain was laid, resulting in the ‘harvest’ of 120,000 rabbit skins. The rabbits remained a problem until 1912, by which time they had been “greatly reduced”.
These days the small fluffy creatures can still be spotted frolicking in the region’s paddocks but, luckily, no longer in the plague proportions of the late 1800s. And if we achieve a pest- free Aotearoa by 2050, a rabbit-free Wairarapa – dreamed of by our forebears – will finally be achieved.
Story by Jenny Williams