Reviewed by Ian Lipke
For older Australians the great rabbit plagues of the first half of the twentieth century are remembered as vividly as if they were just a short time ago. Older readers will recall, as children, watching Uncle Jack sending his team of ferrets down a rabbit hole. They remember the heart ache their parents suffered when good soil was rendered useless. Bruce Munday’s Those Wild Rabbits: How they Shaped Australia is sure to be read and balanced against memories of a tough life on the land. No doubt exists in the mind of this reviewer, who witnessed the myxomatosis onslaught on the rabbit population, that Bruce Munday’s memoir is an accurate record of a page in our history.
Munday has had a long association with the Landcare movement in leadership roles and as spokesperson. He has been a communications consultant in agriculture and natural resource management, and has a very sophisticated understanding of the meeting place of scientific research, government policy and community action. He and his wife have farmed in the Adelaide Hills for more than forty years and are well equipped to tell the tale of the rabbit scourge as it gripped Australia. Munday takes us back to the very beginning when Thomas Austin in the 1860s played a major part in supplying the gentry with rabbits to act as targets for shooting parties hosting such dignitaries as Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh in 1867. Munday is too generous in his assessment of Austin:
There is nothing to suggest that Austin was a bad man, nor ignorant, but perhaps overly caught up in the spirit of the times. He was in some ways a symbol of an Australia a bit hung over from the gold rush, but feeling quite big about itself (14).
Munday continues that “Not only was Austin a life member of the Victorian Acclimatisation Society, he was also their pinup boy” (15). Acclimatisation Societies were formed initially to provide the social and political clout that gave the importation of outside species credibility. He reports on a shoot at Barwon Park (Austin’s property) which bagged 14, 253 rabbits in 1866, just seven years after the first rabbits were let go in the Australian bush. Yet, tragically, nobody showed any concern at the rapid rate of reproduction.
Munday traces the spread of the rabbit plague from 1859 until the present day. His is a tale that must disgust cool thinking Australians. The book tells its readers that the spread of rabbits began with an act of stupidity and, as well as trace the spread of the bunny, the book also reveals the appalling apathy of both individuals and government authorities and the drive for self-interest that thwarted so many attempts to restrict the menace. It is a sad tale of bumbling inadequacy, and Munday does not hesitate to sheet responsibility home.
The book devotes much space to shooting, poisoning, trapping and all conceivable means of controlling the pest. The horrific deaths due to poison baits of creatures other than rabbits is not forgotten. The employment of professional shooters, as individuals or in gangs, is explained as part of our social fabric, and will be new to many younger readers. In fact a major strength of Munda’s book is that it reveals aspects of our history never touched on in classrooms. The book tells its readers much more than a tale about the depredations of rabbits and their ultimate limited control; it tells the history of a very important group of the Australian population.
The inability to remove the rabbit completely following the success of myxomatosis and the Celici virus is a tragedy that has its explanation in the greed and self-interest of man. The inability to see beyond the next hedge, to work together despite individual claims, has meant that the job of controlling the rabbit population has not been successful. On that sour note Munday finishes his memoir.
Those Wild Rabbits is a thorough treatment of the menace the rabbit populations presented and a comprehensive history of the hardships our pioneering families faced. Rabbits were killed in their millions, industries sprang up to make use of rabbit flesh or skins, exporting to the mother country grew extensive – but the rabbit laughed at all that, and just kept on breeding.
Hats off to Bruce Munday. This book has met a great need, and addressed it with the scholarship of a professional researcher. Highly recommended.
By Bruce Munday