• The Rabbit Problem

    James Selwood arrived in New Zealand having previously worked as a gamekeeper and agricultural labourer on the Buscot Estate in Berkshire.  In English terms, a gamekeeper is:  “A person who manages an area of countryside to make sure there is enough game for shooting, or fish for angling, and who manages areas of woodland, moorland, waterway or farmland for the benefit of game birds, deer, fish, and other wildlife in general.”

    It was a far different situation that James entered into on arriving in Southland.  He was not employed to protect and manage the pasturelands for the benefit of landlord hunters and fishers.  Rather he was being employed to eradicate, or at least reduce, the impact of a major developing pest in New Zealand – the rabbit.

    Three years before, in 1874, some 671 Southland farmers and others signed a petition expressing their “consternation” at the rapid increase and spread of rabbits in Southland.  The petition stated:  “The number of rabbits scattered over the District of Southland is so great that the pasturage of the country has been greatly diminished the cultivation of land seriously interfered with and thereby a large area of land which is daily increasing will be unfit for settlement or unfit for settlement or even pastoral purposes.”  The petition requested the Provincial Council to take “… nothing short of legislation and speedy combined action to abate the nuisance”.

    Dealing with a parliamentary council, of course, seldom leads to speedy action.  Two years later, and a year before the Selwood family arrived in New Zealand, a Commission was established to determine the extent of the rabbit problem in Southland.  Two experienced individuals, Sir John Richardson and Mr. W. Pearson, travelled over 300 miles on horseback extensively through the Southland Province and traversed from the lowlands to many of the high country sheep runs.  Rabbits had made their first appearance in Southland in the early 1860s in the Riverton to Invercargill coastal strip.  They had moved scarcely perceptibly at first but within 12 years rabbits had extended their territory northward, swarming in suitable places up on the highest ranges and to the far north and beyond Lake Wakatipu and the Greenstone River.

    In the words of the Commission:  “A run where three years scarcely a rabbit was to be seen, there are now sixteen men with 120 dogs employed, costing the lessee two pence for each rabbit skin and ten shillings a week for each man.  On this run the average number of rabbits killed weekly is between four and five thousand, and though thirty-six thousand were killed last year yet the report is that there is no appreciable decrease.  On another run we learn that close on sixteen thousand rabbits were killed during the first three months of the present year (1876) at a cost of two pence a skin.  On a third the expense each week averaged £27, and fifty thousand rabbits had been killed since last year.  On a fourth we find nine men employed with sixty dogs killing at the rate of two thousand per week.”

    In their 1876 report, the Commissioners found that rabbits had defiled and destroyed vast amounts of farmland:  “In well grassed and sheltered areas rabbits can be seen in vast numbers.”   They reported a decrease in the quantity of wool over the previous year in Southland with one sheep-run’s output reduced from 9,000 bales to 7,500.  There were also decreases in the quality of wool, lamb numbers, and carrying capacity.  The Commissioners found a reduction in carrying capacity from 13 percent to 69 percent for run holders over recent years.

    A Rabbit Nuisance Act was introduced in late 1876, putting the onus on landowners to control their own rabbit problems.  But even now, after many revisions and updates, rabbit legislation in New Zealand has not been particularly successful.  Government inspectors have provided some oversight, but the problem continues.

    As a legislator and as a high country sheep farmer, Robert Campbell was well aware of the need to take urgent control of the expanding rabbit problem.  It was with this knowledge that, on his visit to England in 1876, he explained the situation to his father and business partner Robert Tertius Campbell of Buscot Estate.  It apparently led to the recruitment of James Selwood, the Buscot Estate gamekeeper.

    In the 1870s and 1880s there were a number of ways employed to control rabbits, including:

    • Hunting with dogs
    • Poison – sometimes mixed with grain, carrots, apples or jam
    • Pumping poison gas into burrows
    • Trapping
    • Building fences from wire netting to keep rabbits out of selected cropping areas
    • Using predators such as ferrets, stoats and weasels

    There were other novel ways of killing rabbits.  For instance, Mr Benjamin Dickson, a rabbiter at Burwood Station, developed a rabbit killing machine which he planned to patent in 1878.  Unfortunately no more information was found as to the success of his patent or machine.

    Hunting with dogs, digging out warrens, trapping and shooting were the most common ways for individual rabbiters.  Many young farm hands made as much money as in the whole day’s work by going out in the early morning with a dog and a rifle.

    Rabbiters at campsite with their success

    Poisoning operations were well organised events.  Sheep were first cleared from the targeted area, and the rabbiters went in small gangs, with provisions for some weeks and a tent.  Two or three tons of carrots and strychnine poison were supplied by a wagon, often drawn by bullocks.  The carrots then had to be washed, as rabbits were quite discriminating and would not touch dirty bait.  A plough line was dug by hand with a mattock if the ground was too hard or too steep – because rabbits are attracted to freshly turned dirt.  This line was seeded with unpoisoned carrots for three days so that the rabbits became used to the entrée.  A day was missed to allow them to get hungry in anticipation, and the line was then sowed with poisoned carrots.

    In contrast to neighbouring sheep stations, Burwood’s rabbit control methods were quite intense.  A news item in October 1878 gives an idea of how Burwood controlled rabbits:  “The war is still waged against the rabbits on the Burwood Station, north of Invercargill.  Large numbers of the young were drowned upon the melting of the snow lately.  Wheat, saturated with phosphorus, and flavoured with oil of rhodium, has been found very effective.  The phosphorus is dissolved in boiling water.  Men and dogs are still employed in driving the rabbits into nets, the pay being 2.1d per head.  The proceeds of last sales in London were 2¼d per head.  There are now over 80,000 skins on hand.”

    In a letter to the editor of the Otago Witness in November 1883, a writer called “One Who Knows” from Burwood wrote:  “… on one station (Burwood run) there are 16 or 17 rabbiters employed at this the breeding season, but on two other stations in the neighbourhood, both large runs, of 30,000 and 70,000 acres respectively, there is only one rabbiter employed.  With the exception of Burwood there is very little chance of employment for rabbiters, although the rabbits are more numerous on the adjoining stations.  Of course there is an inspector, but his duty seems to be to preserve the rabbits, as he has never laid an information, or summoned anyone.  In the opinion of most practical men from 5000 to 8000 acres is the limit for one rabbiter to keep clear, and until such time as the Government fix an acreage per rabbiter, and hold it, the rabbits will continue to have the best of it.”

    We know that James Selwood lost 32 breeding ferrets from the April 1889 fire that destroyed the Selwood home at Windley.  He was using ferrets in the catching of rabbits.  It would be a technique that James would be very familiar with as a gamekeeper-warrener at Buscot.  Hunting, catching and killing rabbits using domesticated ferrets dates back to Roman times.

    With the burgeoning rabbit problem there were calls through the 1870-80s for the introduction of mustelids – ferrets, stoats and weasels – for rabbit control.  The concerns expressed by scientists, bird-lovers and naturalists were outweighed by demands for urgency from pastoralists and politicians (the likes of the Hon. Robert Campbell), and these animals were introduced in the early 1880s.  Ferrets were introduced, not for the purpose of domesticated control, but rather for free range release.  Rabbits were known to be the main diet for ferrets and it was hoped that they would have an immediate impact in controlling the rabbit population.

    However, in just six years after ferrets and stoats were introduced to New Zealand in 1884, people started noticing that there were fewer birds to be seen.  New Zealand now has the largest known population of feral ferrets in the world.

    Hand-managed ferreting is still one of the most effective ways of clearing rabbits from an area, both in terms of cost and efficiency.  Handling ferrets requires real skill.  They get very excited and want to search out rabbits, but they need to be trained and held carefully.  They need to be talked to, calmed, and do not like being grabbed at, otherwise they will respond with a nasty bite.  Obviously with his Buscot gamekeeper knowledge and his Burwood ferret handling and breeding skills, James Selwood was one of the few rabbiters in New Zealand practicing this method of rabbit control.

    The process of using ferrets for rabbit control is quite simple:


    • Clear the rabbit burrow of debris
    • Place a purse net over the hole
    • Put one or two ferrets in the burrow
    • Stand back and keep quiet
    • Dive on the rabbits when the ferrets “bolt” them out of the burrow
    • Kill the rabbit, re-net the hole and repeat until there are no more rabbits in the burrow

    Some people do not bother with nets and use shotguns or hunting dogs to catch the escaping rabbits.  The onset of the autumn and winter months is an ideal time to deal with rabbit control using ferrets.  Rabbits will move from the scrub and bush on summer runs to winter burrows in the ground.

    Rabbit pelts hung out to dry in Central Otago

    The increasing size of the rabbit problem in New Zealand led to an export trade in skins from the 1870s onwards.  By 1893 over 17 million skins were exported, and this figure was maintained for many years.  Over 20 million were sent overseas in 1919, and there was also a trade in frozen rabbit meat at the turn of the century.

    Today the ongoing accumulating cost of rabbit control and pasture damage has cost billions of dollars to the agricultural sector.  It is surpassed by the incalculable cost to New Zealand and New Zealanders with the severe damage, loss of habitat, and extinction to New Zealand’s indigenous bird species.  It has led to the decline of native birds like the kiwi, weka and blue duck, and to the extinction of kakapo on the mainland.  Kakapo are now only found on mustelid-free islands.  Sadly, several bird species are endangered and under threat of extinction.

    The breeding, farming, selling and exporting of ferrets is now under strict control, but the damage continues to be done by feral ferrets, stoats and weasels.

    In completing this chapter on Windley and the Burwood Station a look at the nearest town, Mossburn, is appropriate.