Stretching from north to south across Western Australia, dividing the entire continent into two unequal parts, is a flimsy barbed-wire fence that runs for a total length of 3,256 km. The fence was erected in the early 1900s to keep wild rabbits out of farm lands on the western side of the continent. Today, the Rabbit Proof fence, now called the State Barrier Fence, stands as a barrier to entry against all invasive species such as dingoes, kangaroos and emus, which damage crops, as well as wild dogs which attack livestock.
Rabbits were first introduced in Australia in 1788 for their meat, and originally bred in rabbit farms and enclosures, until one October morning in 1859, when an English settler by the name of Thomas Austin released twenty-four wild rabbits on his property so that his guest could entertain themselves by hunting. At that time he had stated that "the introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting."
Photo credit: matt pounsett/Flickr
By good fortune, for the rabbits, Australia was the ideal place for rabbit procreation. Rabbits usually stop breeding in winter because baby bunnies are born without fur and hence susceptible to cold. But winters in Australia are mild so rabbits could breed all throughout the year. Also, thanks to extensive farming, food was everywhere. And by sheer luck, interbreeding between two distinct types of rabbits introduced by Thomas Austin resulted in a particularly hardy and vigorous variety. Within ten years, their numbers reached such high figures that even after trapping and shooting up to two million rabbits a year, no noticeable effect was seen in their population. In 1887, loses from rabbit damage were so great that the Inter-Colonial Rabbit Commission offered a £25,000 prize “to anyone who could demonstrate a new and effective way of exterminating rabbits.”
In 1896 the Western Australian Undersecretary for Lands dispatched surveyor Arthur Mason into the south-east towards the border with South Australia to report on the rabbit population. Mason suggested that a series of fences, one along the border with South Australia and another further west, should be constructed. A Royal Commission in 1901 resulted in a decision to build a barrier fence across the State.
Construction of the fence started that very year, and over the next six years, a 1,824-km-long barrier was erected that stretched from the south coast to the northwest coast, along a line north of Burracoppon, 230 kilometers east of Perth. When completed in 1907, it was the longest unbroken fence in the world.
Map of the Rabbit-Proof Fences in Western Australia. Image credit: The People & Environment Blog
Unfortunately, even while construction was underway, rabbits were hopping into regions the fences were intended to protect. To contain these rabbits, a second fence designated Fence No.2 was erected a little to the west of Fence No.1. The second fence runs for 1,166 km from Point Ann on the southern coastline, roughly parallel to Fence No.1, which it joins at Gum Creek. Eventually, a third fence, Fence No.3, was built running a short distance of 257 km from its junction with No.2 to meet the coast.
Nowadays, rabbit population is kept in check by deliberately releasing certain viruses into the wild. When first introduced in 1950, rabbit population dropped from an estimated 600 million to around 100 million. However, genetic resistance in the remaining rabbits allowed the population to recover to 200-300 million by 1991.
Despite the adoption of new technology and modern agricultural production, the Rabbit Proof fence continues to play an important role in protecting farmers’ livelihoods. Today, sections of the fence are maintained by individual landholders and regional councils.
Photo credit: Jon Sullivan/Flickr
Photo credit: Erika Stotz/Panoramio
A rabbit trap along the Rabbit Proof Fence. Photo credit: ron_n_beths pics/Flickr
Photo credit: www.auspostalhistory.com
Thomas Austin can almost be forgiven for thinking rabbits were harmless. Photo credit: drburtoni/Flickr
A cartoon published in the weekly magazine “The Queensland Figaro and Punch” in 1884 in response to Mr Stevenson's (M.L.A.) suggestion for the erection of a rabbit fence between New South Wales and Queensland to check the invasion of rabbits. Photo credit: Queensland Figaro and Punch
A Rabbit-proof fence boundary rider who patrol the fence identifying and fixing breaks. Circa 1926. Photo credit: State Library of Western Australia
Photo credit: Stephan Ridgway/Flickr
Photo credit: www.australiaforeveryone.com.au
Photo credit: The People & Environment Blog
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