As we approach Easter and lots of Easter Bunnies fill the shops I thought I might explain the Easter Bunny versus Bilby debate that happens every year in Australia.
Rabbits were brought with the first fleet in 1788 when Australia was colonised as a convict settlement by the British and were kept captive for food.
Sailors stocked islands with rabbits to supply them with fresh meat.
Both of these sound reasonable things to do when you are trying to survive in what was a totally foreign environment.
Unfortunately ( for the Australian environment ) , in 1859, a man called Thomas Austin compounded the problem. Thomas was a landholder in Victoria who released 24 rabbits, 5 hares, and 72 partridges so that he could continue his favourite sport of hunting while in the colonies.
By 1900, the rabbits had reached plague proportions and were causing extreme environmental damage. They ring-barked trees, ate fields to oblivion and caused massive soil erosion by digging burrows.
The rabbit population exploded with few real predators (and those predators were feral animals too !!) and soon reached plague proportions.
An enormous rabbit proof fence was constructed to try to prevent the spread of the rabbit into the rich grazing lands of Western Australia but it was too late.
By 1950, there were an estimated 600 million of the beasts spread across Australia. They ate the grass the sheep should have had and the very squatters that released the pests suffered from denuded paddocks.
At first, the CSIRO's myxomatosis virus, introduced in the 1950s, killed up to 99 per cent of rabbits without infecting any other species, but as is the way with these things, the rabbits gradually became immune to the virus and the rabbit population began to increase once again. Another attempt at rabbit control was the introduction of a poison called 1080.
Unfortunately, when the rabbit is rapidly removed by poisoning or viral regimes, the predators that were feeding upon them need to find an alternative food source. Small marsupials, such as bilbies, are then hunted into extinction before the predators also see their numbers decline as well.
When this is coupled with loss of habitat it means the native animal, the Bilby, is in deep trouble.
Bilbies, the largest of our native bandicoots, used to live in habitats that covered 70% of Australia. Sadly that has been reduced to 20% and in South Australia bilbies were wiped out altogether in the 1930s, failing in a battle with foxes, cats and habitat loss.
In recent years there has been an enormous effort to save the bilby from extinction. Research and a successful captive breeding campaign plus the setting aside of a huge tract of land in south western Queensland has provided the bilby with a huge enclosure which is fenced to keep out predators and allow bilby numbers to grow once again in the wild.
( You can read more about the fight to save the bilby HERE )
Part of this campaign to save the Bilby involved trying to supplant the rabbit as the symbol of Easter with the Bilby and many children now receive a chocolate Easter Bilby instead of an Easter Bunny with a percentage of the profits going to aid Bilby conservation.
So there you have it .
A brief explanation of just one of the problems Australia has with introduced feral species and how we are trying to overcome the problem. ( with inspiring leadership from two amazing men )
PS. All photos today from the Internet