European wild rabbits are an introduced pest to the environment and primary production.
- Even at low densities rabbits can prevent plant recruitment.
- Rabbits compete with native animals for feed and burrows.
- Rabbits help sustain feral predators.
- Rabbits invite weeds and soil erosion.
- Rabbits compete with livestock and degrade pastures.
- Rabbits impact vineyards, horticulture and revegetation.
- Rabbits undermine infrastructure and invade gardens.
Arrival and distribution
Rabbits are not native to Australia. They are the nation’s worst vertebrate pest.
- The European wild rabbit was introduced by colonial settlers, often as ‘game’ for hunting.
- Rabbits are prolific breeders. A single doe can produce 50-60 offspring per year.
- By 1910 rabbits were found throughout 2/3rds of Australia. There were 10 billion of them by 1920.
A risk to native flora, fauna and the environment
European wild rabbits are a risk to 322 threatened native species in Australia, including plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, invertebrates, and even fish and amphibians.
- Even at very low densities – 1 rabbit per 2 hectares (0.5 rabbits : 1 hectare) – rabbits can prevent the recruitment of entire species of plants, changing the composition of vegetation communities and the fauna within.
- Rabbits compete aggressively for burrows and contributed to the decline of burrowing native animals like the lesser bilby and the lesser stick-nest rat.
- Rabbits are a popular food source for feral cats and foxes and sustain their populations – and hence their predation of native fauna.
- Rabbits are ‘ecosystem engineers’ – they cause changes with far-reaching impact, affecting other animals and whole ecosystems.
- At medium to high densities rabbits severely retard vegetation growth and lead to soil erosion and off-site degradation, e.g. to wetlands and watercourses.
- Once rabbits are controlled, native vegetation can flourish and native fauna thrive.
A risk to production and infrastructure
Rabbits were a $206 million cost per annum to Australia in the early 2000s, due to lost beef, lamb and wool production and expenditure on control measures.
- Rabbits compete with livestock for feed and are attracted to seedlings and new growth in annual and perennial horticulture, vineyards, forestry and revegetation plantings.
- Rabbits create conditions suitable for weeds and reduce the chance of successful establishment by native plants and commercial pastures.
- Rabbits are a risk to infrastructure, (ranging from roads and railways, to golf courses or lawns in suburban back yards), and to sensitive cultural heritage sites.
- The social impacts of wild rabbits include psychological stress, trauma, and dilemmas associated with difficult management decisions. A ‘Code of practice for the humane control of rabbits’ is available as a guide.
Effective integrated control programs
Effective rabbit control requires the ongoing development of new biological controls, integration with physical controls, and collaboration across boundaries and with predator control programs.
- Biological controls have been incredibly effective in lowering rabbit numbers – stimulating increased production and the regeneration of native flora and fauna – but their effectiveness wanes over time. New controls must be continually under development.
- Existing biological controls alone will not reduce rabbit numbers to the level where all plant species will successfully regenerate. Biological controls need supplementing by physical controls.
- Rabbit control programs should include pest predator control, to minimise the risk of temporary prey-switching affecting native fauna, and involve neighbouring properties to avoid reinfestation.