Life sentences: Australia's rabbits

NICOLE MCLENNAN, PhD '98 goes down the rabbit hole on an unexpected adventure.

In the fledgling colony of New South Wales, Reverend Samuel Marsden (1765-1838) quarrelled with naturalist George Caley (1770-1829) after the latter's dog had "worried the chaplain's pet rabbits".

Intrigued by the early mention of bunnies in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, I wondered how the story of Australia's rabbits began.

Marsden was not Australia's first rabbit owner. Five rabbits were part of the livestock brought on the First Fleet.

Perhaps one of the earliest commercial ventures involving rabbits was initiated by merchant James King (1800-1857) who, in 1825, applied for a land grant to establish rabbit breeding on Betsy's Island, Tasmania.

His interest was bought by Captain John Bell (1790-1841), who bred silver-haired rabbits and exported their skins to China.

However, it is Thomas Austin (1815-1871) who is 'credited' with releasing wild rabbits on the grounds of his Victorian estate, Barwon Park, in 1859.

He, like fellow landowner Thomas Holt (1811-1888), had imported the rabbits for sport.

Austin's decision had devastating consequences as the rabbits quickly adapted to their new environment, spreading across south-eastern Australia.