Rabbit shooters c.1900 R. Milligan on left

Part one of the Trappings of Home blog series: The Great Rabbit Plague

In 1863 the Helenslea arrived in Bluff carrying a cargo of Scottish settlers and, perhaps more importantly, four wide-eyed, innocent little rabbits. They were let out to run free and the success of their journey was cause for celebration. One onlooker recalled:

“There was a liberation ceremony with speeches and toasts drunk in champagne. But … an old Highlander named Mitchell … stood on a sandhill and cursed the rabbits in Gaelic, saying they would ruin the country. No one paid much attention at the time … but many of those present must have lived to see the day [when Mitchell was proved right] … and remember his words.”[1]

This apocryphal tale with its air of Gaelic mysticism is a fitting origin story to what is an almost biblical environmental catastrophe; the Great Rabbit Plague.

The transition to pastoralism that had taken place in the 1850s had also accidentally transformed the New Zealand bush into a rabbit’s paradise. Gone were the wet forests alien to these European invaders, in their place were loamy soils broken up by the hooves of sheep and covered in European grasses, the traditional foodstuff of rabbit kind.

This was a halcyon period for these pastoralists. With no substantial herbivores present on the land, sheep had free reign to gorge themselves on the productive European grasses recently replacing the native scrub land.

Down in Southland these days were coming to an end. Rabbits, in a period of a little more than 12 years since their first appearance, had turned what had been rolling sward into an expanse of barren dunes.

Runholders strongly advocated for support in curtailing this issue, the reports of pastoral leases of the last two years from 1873-1875 provided evidence for their fear that the rabbit problem had become more than they could handle and a significant threat to the farming operations in the district. Their positions as large land holders often resulted in their promotion to political appointments in Provincial Councils and as such, their demands were often promptly responded to.

A Commission of Enquiry was formed, and they were stunned to find that rabbits had caused a lamb loss rate of more than 20% due to malnutrition of ewes deprived of pasture by hungry rabbits. The situation had become so dire that one local reported to the Otago Witness that ‘the plague of rabbits has become so formidable, that it is now a struggle for existence between” fur v. wool”’.[2]

The rabbits did not stick to council borders and the inexorable tide progressed up the South Island. Town after town fell to the horde, reaching Waitaki by 1880.

The Honourable Robert Campbell, MP for Oamaru and owner of swathes of land including Benmore and Otekaieke stations, was one of the most vocal advocates for rabbit control measures. His vast runs suffered at their paws. Thomas Middleton, his station manager, begged Robert in 1880 to do something regarding the issue:

‘Now, if ever, is the time to prevent them becoming a nuisance … I can’t help dreading the fate of Southland for the Waitaki unless we stir ourselves and combat the vermin before it is in their power to do us harm.’[3]

To put this problem into financial terms, the rental income that the government had earned dropped from £2288 a year to £619 in the worst affected areas. Some of the runs owned by Robert Campbell were crippled by the problem. Burwood station in Southland carried initially 80,000 sheep but fell to only 24,000. Robert eventually gave up on seven of his runs, four let at a reduced rate, and three simply abandoned. The national flock fell by 1.5 million to 11.5 million in one year in 1878.

Charles De Vere Teschemaker tried to account for the damage of rabbits in 1883:

‘The public pastoral estate of Otago and Southland alone consists of some 8,000,000 acres [3,237,485 ha]. In 1873, this land was worth from 5s to 40s an acre, say an average of 15s, and would have been readily purchased at that price. Total value, £6,000,000. Today [29 September 1883], solely on account of the rabbit, the public estate of Otago and Southland has depreciated fully 50 per cent … our loss … so far as the capital value of the country is concerned, up to the present amounts to £3,000,000; [plus] an annual loss [of income from reductions in lambing percentages and wool clip] of £1,700,000.’[4]


Thus, the scene is set for what is to come: ferrets, fur, and firearms, the next chapter in the saga of rabbits in the Waitaki.

1 Hamilton, G. A. (1952). History of Northern Southland. Invercargill: Southland Times. P. 34.

2 Weazels for New Zealand. (1876). Otago Witness, 9 December p. 21

3 Pinney, R. (Unpublished). Notebook M1: Extracts from Benmore Letter Books, 1877– 1887. Dunedin: Hocken Library MS-3178/013.

4 Teschemaker, C. d. V. (1883). The Rabbit Nuisance. In. Auckland: Auckland City Library, Sir George Grey Special Collection 636.9 T33.

5 Holland, Peter and Guil Figgins. “Environmental Disturbance Triggering Infestations of Gorse, Rabbits, and Thistles in Southern New Zealand: 1850 to 1980.” International Review of Environmental History, 1 (2015): 41-79

A special mention of King, Carolyn M.. Invasive Predators in New Zealand : Disaster on Four Small Paws, Springer International Publishing AG, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central. Upon which much of this article is based.



Henry Buckenham