Clint Taylor, who works for Bush Heritage Australia at Bon Bon Station — a former sheep property that is almost the size of Sydney — is all too familiar with the destruction rabbits can cause.

Key points:

  • About 450 rabbit warrens were found on a property near Roxby Downs in SA
  • Experts say there has been a surge in rabbit populations amid La Niña’s affects
  • Researchers are investigating ways to combat genetic rabbit resistance to biocontrol measures

In 2019 the organisation and the station, based near Roxby Downs in South Australia’s far north, was awarded a $10,000 grant through the local Natural Resource Management Board to undertake rabbit mapping and control.

“We’ve prioritised about 10,000 hectares to get mapped as part of that project and engaged the local traditional owners to do the mapping,” Mr Taylor said.

“They were out on motorbikes with GPSes and they basically rode transect lines across the property … and any rabbit warrens they came across they marked them with GPSes.

“Having about half of those warrens active after the drought of 2018 and 2019 was pretty surprising.”

Bush Heritage Australia have engaged with traditional owners to map rabbit warrens.(Supplied: Bush Heritage Australia)

Mr Taylor said about 100 of the warrens had been fumigated.

“The reason it’s important to focus on rabbit control is that rabbit populations can support populations of foxes and cats as well,” he said.

“History has shown us that rabbit warren ripping is the best method.

“If there are areas with a lot of rabbit activity and it’s a smaller area, then sending out people with fumigation equipment at the right time of the year can be very effective.”

La Niña and the rabbit surge

Centre for Invasive Species Solutions chief executive Andreas Glanznig said Australia was about to see a rabbit “surge”.

“Because we’re in a La Niña cycle there’s more rainfall, therefore more vegetation and therefore more rabbits,” Mr Glanznig said.

Andreas Glanznig says just one rabbit per hectare is enough to stop the regrowth of some native species.(Supplied: Centre for Invasive Species Solutions)

He said rabbits remained “the most costly feral pest in Australia”, financially and environmentally.

“They impact agriculture to the tune of over $216 million per year in lost agricultural productivity,” Mr Glanznig said.

“On the environment side … one rabbit per hectare is enough to stop the regrowth of some native species.

“They impact over 321 nationally listed plants and animals and that includes 24 critically endangered and threatened species such as the pygmy possum, the orange-bellied parrot and the ballerina orchard.”

Rabbits in SA’s far north-east at Quinyambie in 1991 prior to the release of calicivirus, RHDV.(Supplied: Rabbit Free Australia)

Race against time

Mr Glanznig said it was important to always try and be on the front foot.

“The real opportunity is looking at how we can capitalise and maintain the gains made through the continent-wide release of myxomatosis in the ’50s and the calicivirus in the ’90s,” he said.

“Those two biocontrol measures alone have had a result of over $70 billion of agricultural benefits over the last 60 years and now the real challenge is looking at how we can maintain that benefit.

Battle against genetic resistance

Genetic resistance is not uncommon, but Mr Glanznig says this is “inevitable” among rabbits, which is why the impact of biocontrol agents reduces over time, and new ones are frequently required.

“If you don’t put out a new agent every eight to 10 years, inevitably you’ll start to see rabbit numbers increase and therefore rabbit impacts increase,” he said.

One of the viruses released to reduce rabbit populations was RHDV.(Supplied: Centre for Invasive Species Solutions)

“To deliver that, we’ve brought together a range of top-notch researchers from the CSIRO and state governments such as NSW and South Australia and also key universities.”

In a bid to combat genetic resistance, Mr Glanznig’s team has started to look at new genetic biocontrol technologies. But it could be a decade or two before it’s available.

“Then over time, you can then drive a rabbit population to low numbers or even potentially like functional extinction.”


Neighbourhood approach

Committee member with the Foundation for Rabbit Free Australia Carolyn Ireland said alongside viruses, a coordinated neighbourhood rabbit control approach was being used.

“That’s best done when there are coordinated programs across a region, with all the neighbours working together with a mix of biological and physical controls, which means digging up rabbit warrens and destroying them.”