Think rabbits are just cute, fluffy and harmless? Think again. Here’s why the feral type needs to be managed.
If you’ve ever encased your home crop of seasonal fruit in layers of netting, or lovingly tended to a row of vegies with hopes that the snails stay away, you’ll know how the famous fictional gardener Mr McGregor felt in his enduring battle to keep the rascally Peter Rabbit out of his beloved garden.
While European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) may be considered cute by some, with their fluffy white tails, since their introduction into the Australian wild they have become a blight on the landscape.
So why exactly are feral rabbits a problem?
Introduced into the Australian wild so that they could be hunted recreationally, rabbits are a common pest in South Australia and have devastated the natural Australian environment.
As Mr McGregor knew all too well, they cause extensive damage to agricultural land and the natural environment, and can even cause damage to the family home when they establish burrows underneath foundations.
They have changed ecosystems by eating native plants, out-competing native animals and causing erosion by digging warrens.
And rabbits also breed, like, well, rabbits.
How often do rabbits breed?
Females can breed at any time of the year if there is sufficient feed available. They can begin breeding at four months old and may produce five or more litters in a year, with up to five young per litter.
In less favourable conditions they can still produce one or two litters each year.
That’s not great news for conservation areas or the agriculture sector as rabbit populations can reach plague proportions quickly with the right conditions, with 2011 the most recent plague experienced in SA.
What impact have feral rabbits had in Australia?
Rabbits cost Australian agriculture $600 million in production losses each year, and directly compete with native wildlife for food and shelter.
They also impact on native plants by ringbarking, grazing and browsing, and preventing regeneration of seedlings. There are at least 156 threatened species of plants and animals adversely affected by competition and land degradation by rabbits.
Their digging and browsing leads to a loss of vegetation cover, which in turn can result in slope instability and soil erosion.
How are rabbits controlled in South Australia?
Over the years, governments and landowners have applied multiple strategies to keep rabbit numbers under control including introducing viruses into feral rabbit populations, baiting, fumigation and warren destruction.
With this summer’s cooler temperatures and higher rainfall, rabbits are in concerning numbers in many locations through the Adelaide Hills and Fleurieu Peninsula.
Over the past few years, rabbit numbers have been building up and we now have rabbit numbers as high as they have been in many decades.
South Australia’s landscape boards are playing a key role in supporting landholders in managing rabbit infestations on their properties.
If you have land in the Adelaide Hills and Fleurieu regions in particular, now is the time to act. Contact your nearest landscape board office for more information (Hills and Fleurieu Landscape Board offices at Mount Barker 8391 7500 or Willunga 8550 3400).
Did you know that wild blackberries are also a problem in South Australia? Learn more about this thorny weed and what you need to know if you stumble across some on your next bushwalk: Everything you need to know about blackberries in national parks.
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