Rabbits arrive in Australia

'The First Fleet in Sydney Cove, January 27, 1788' by John Alcott. By permission of the National Library of Australia.In 1788, the colony of New South Wales was founded. Rabbits were amongst the first European arrivals to Australia, travelling by ship from England with the First Fleet.

Rabbits were mainly held in captivity to provide food for the settlers in NSW, but they were also present on islands off the coast of Western Australia as early as 1827. Whaling ships worked off the southern and western coasts of Australia and the men would leave rabbits on small islands as a food supply for later visits or in case of shipwreck. It is possible that rabbits may have been introduced onto the mainland from these islands between 1839 and 1900.

'Merri Hunt Club and locals' by Arthur Esam. By permission of the National Library of Australia Meanwhile, on the eastern side of the continent, twenty four rabbits were imported from England by Mr Thomas Austin in 1859. These rabbits were not for food, but sport. Austin had arrived in the colony of Victoria and wished to continue his practise of hunting. He released the rabbits on his property near Geelong. For the next few years, Austin and other landowners enjoyed their pastime of rabbit-hunting. They released rabbits on other properties in Victoria and NSW and even asked for legislation to protect rabbits!

Camp site dioramaJust how plentiful rabbits would become, no one could have anticipated. The saying 'breed like rabbits' must be the understatement of European settlement in Australia. In 37 short years, from 1859 to 1896 these pesky lagomorphs had bred and fled up to Queensland, over to South Australia and across the continent to the fledgling colony of Western Australia. (The lagomorph family includes rabbits and hares.)

Rabbits received much assistance in their spread across the country. In addition to landowners releasing them for sport, trappers and shooters would also release rabbits so they would be hired to get rid of them. During the gold rush of the mid 1800s, the movement of people around the goldfields and major centres also propelled the rabbits westward - they would often receive a free ride in a miner's billycan!