Rabbits clustered around a small pool of water.

By 1950 rabbit numbers in Australia reached 600 million.

The European rabbit

European rabbits were introduced into Australia in 1859 and soon became a major pest species. Read about their distribution and control.

  • 19 May 2011 | Updated 14 October 2011

History

The European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) arrived in Australia on the First Fleet in 1788.

These rabbits were domesticated around Sydney but did not spread.

They were, however, successfully introduced to Tasmania.

In 1859, Australia was given its worst Christmas present when 24 wild rabbits were released for hunting near Geelong.

Over the next 40 years rabbits spread to Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Distribution

Rabbits are abundant in Australia and can be found almost everywhere, with the only exceptions being the wet tropics and dense coastal forests.

In 1859, Australia was given its worst Christmas present when 24 wild rabbits were released for hunting near Geelong.

When myxomatosis was introduced in 1950 rabbit numbers dropped dramatically, with greatest reduction in the highest rainfall areas and least reduction in arid zones.

Populations increased again to around half pre-1950 levels.

The introduction of Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus (RHDV or rabbit calicivirus) in 1995 again reduced rabbit numbers to very low levels, this time especially in arid zones and with least impact in the higher rainfall areas.

Environmental impacts

Economic damage by wild rabbits in Australia, including cost of control and production losses, has been estimated at around A$600 million annually.

The accumulated damage to our environment over the last 100 years is incalculable but runs into billions of dollars.

Rabbits contribute to soil erosion by borrowing, removing vegetation and disturbing soil.

In particular in the rangelands many plant species are threatened with extinction.

Rabbits at very low densities can completely suppress regeneration of palatable plants.

This situation leads to extinctions of many native plant and animal species, even of trees.

In addition, rabbits compete with native animals and production animals for food and intensify predation by foxes and cats.

Reproduction

Rabbits can increase their populations very rapidly because of the large size of their litters, the short gestation period and their early sexual maturity.

Rabbits can breed from five months of age and mature female rabbits can be continuously pregnant between six to eight months per year if the conditions are right.

A single female can produce 30 to 40 young per year.

Control techniques

After the introduction of myxomatosis rabbit populations were much reduced, but by the late 1950s resistance was starting to build.

Introductions of the European rabbit flea in 1985 and the Spanish rabbit flea in 1992 have aided the spread of myxomatosis.

In 1989 Australia started to investigate the potential use of rabbit calicivirus (also known as RHDV) for rabbit control.

In 1995 the virus escaped from Wardang Island off South Australia. It swept across the Flinders Ranges through the arid zone killing large numbers of rabbits.

In general it has been most effective in the arid and semi-arid areas, with a reduced effectiveness in wetter areas.

The breeding characteristics of the European rabbit mean that the best time for rabbit control is when the population is small.

Control techniques vary according to density, land type and land use.

The use of conventional control techniques, including shooting, destruction of warrens, poisoning, fumigation and stock fencing, are still critical for rabbit control.

In a search for more humane control techniques, researchers are focusing on using biotechnology to develop new control methods that limit the reproduction of rabbits.

Read more about Myxomatosis and rabbits in Australia today.