Battling with the bunnies

Skin deep: Bert Mann of Tia in 1925 with a load that includes a large number of rabbit skins together with a pair of freshly caught rabbits hanging just above the rear wheel of his wagon.
Skin deep: Bert Mann of Tia in 1925 with a load that includes a large number of rabbit skins together with a pair of freshly caught rabbits hanging just above the rear wheel of his wagon.

Rabbits had already devastated vast areas of Australia prior to arriving in Walcha.

There were a few sightings in the early 1900s but rabbits did not become prevalent until after heavy rain in late December 1902 broke the seven-year long Federation Drought.

Ray Kitcher said in his story of early Walcha: “By 1908 rabbits had taken over our Lymington property at Glen Morrison. It remained infested until 1925 when the boundaries were netted.”

The late John Fenwicke recalled his father saying: “Europambela was alive with rabbits in the early 1920s.

In some places there were so many it looked as though the ground was moving while in other places the rabbits had eaten everything and were starving.”

A Sydney group, which owned freezers in several towns in New South Wales, opened one at Woolbrook in December 1916.  

By February 1917 the freezer was processing 12,000 rabbits per week with the Federal Government acquiring the whole of the output, perhaps for the war effort.

The Woolbrook Freezing Company had trappers working locally and regularly sent its vans out to towns within a 30-mile radius buying rabbits for cash; Walcha contributed its first vanload in March 1917.

By 1930 the eight men employed at the freezer were processing 4,000 rabbits per day, with carcases coming from as far afield as Kingstown, Yarrowyck, Tia, Campfire, The Flags and Swamp Oak.

Most of the product was shipped to Great Britain with small amounts going to America and other countries.

The Walcha News of May 8, 1936 said: “Take a look around the various skin-buying establishments in our town of a Saturday afternoon and you will be surprised to see the constant flow of skins pouring into the buying rooms from the man with his large catch to the child with his two or three.

The price being paid at Walcha for skins is in the vicinity of four shillings per pound weight; good money despite the hard work.”

An August 1958 report claimed 5,000 rabbits had gone into the Walcha chiller on one recent Saturday, and a truck running between Gloucester and Uralla was collecting 8,000 to 10,000 per week.

Other trucks were bringing in substantial loads from Bingara, Bundarra and Tingha.

However, by August 1959 professional trappers were beginning to report low catches as a result of a reduction in rabbit numbers in the Walcha district.

This change of circumstances was due to a combination of the effects of the myxomatosis virus, which was released in 1950, the ripping up of warrens, poisoning, trapping and the destruction of habitat.