When I was a child growing up in Geelong, we had a fine Victorian mahogany sideboard with a history at the back of our large dining room. A huge and magnificent thing it was, topped in the centre of its ornate mirror back with a realistic fox's head, and each side bearing two life sized pineapples. I say that the sideboard had a history, because it had come from Barwon Park, a name infamous in the Geelong region as the home of Thomas Austin, the man who had introduced rabbits into Australia. At the time, the rabbits and other game he bred were much acclaimed; today that praise has turned to blame.
Because of the fox's head, we always wondered whether the Austins might also have introduced the fox. The spread of the two species throughout the land was in fact similar, but a quick search of my good friend google this afternoon failed to either prove nor disprove our theory. At any rate, the fox head atop the sideboard had rather a sad ending when one day my brother and I, playing at cricket in the dining room, (what - you mean to say that you didn't have a dining room big enough to play at cricket?) mis-hit a cricket ball straight into the sideboard, and the head tumbled to the ground. Well. Ahem. We looked much like the Pevensey kids at the beginning of the Narnia movie, and in shame I'm afraid that we behaved rather the same way. We propped that there head back onto that sideboard as if it had never gone anywhere at all, and like Elvis we left the building. It was only in the last very few years that we actually admitted our deed to Mum and Dad, and until that day they'd never even known.
But I digress (down a rabbit trail) as usual. I believe we were talking about Thomas Austin and the rabbit.
In 1831, 16 yo Thomas Austin arrived with his family in Van Diemen's Land from his home in England. Six years later, along with his brother, he crossed Bass Strait and settled as a pioneer pastoralist in the Western District of the Port Phillip District, where he was to live for the rest of his life.
Austin came from a country where fox hunting and the shooting of rabbits, deer, pheasant and grouse were the preferred leisure activities of the privileged class, and he had arrived in a country lacking anything but kangaroos. Thomas quickly set about altering this situation, and joined the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria to help introduce these species from England. In April of 1861 he wrote this to the Society:
I may add, that I have done a little myself towards introducing game birds. I brought out in the Yorkshire nine hares and thirty-four black- birds and thrushes, which I am going to turn out here ; and my man, this last season, has reared about seventy pheasants : some have bred out in their natural way ; and I have seen two coveys of partridges, one of six young ones, the other eight; and the English wild rabbit I have in thousands.These thousands of rabbits were the progeny of 24 rabbits that Austin had released in October of 1959. From 24 to thousands in 16 months. Of course, the saying "they breed like rabbits" doesn't exist for nothing, and for the next few years, Austin and his friends enjoyed their favourite sporting activity, rabbit-hunting. Other landowners released rabbits on their properties in Victoria and NSW, where they also spread like rabbits. As they do.
In 37 short years, from 1859 to 1896 those pesky wabbits (oh, I am having fun here) had bred and spread up through Queensland, over to South Australia and even right across the continent to the colony of Western Australia.
The authorities realised that something would have to be done.
The success of the film, Follow the Rabbit-proof Fence, has been responsible for many people knowing what happened in Western Australia. In 1901 they started building a muckle big fence, the Rabbit-proof Fence, stretching all the way across the country from Starvation Boat Harbour, just west of Esperance in the south, to Wallal on the 80 Mile Beach in the north west.
Seven years later the fence was completed - the longest fence in the world. Of course, even before completion, the rabbits had passed the fence and work had begun on Fences No.2 and 3. By 1908 the three fences were complete, over 3,000km of fenceline in total!
What many Aussies are not aware of is that these were not the only fences. Queensland began building its fence in 1884, spreading from Jimbour on the Darling Downs near Dalby down to Cameron Corner where New South Wales, SA and Queensland join. It also was unsuccessful, although later found life controlling dingos and today forms part of the Dingo Fence spreading all the way to the Great Australian Bight.
Back closer to the Austins in Victoria, a fence was also begun in the 1880s. Designed to keep out both rabbits and wild dogs, it was known as the Dog Netting Fence, and stretched from Tyntynder Homestead on the Murray River near Swan Hill to the South Australian border. Plans were then made by South Australia to extend this fence down the border.
Every time we travel to the dentist, or to do a bit of shopping in a local city, we pass a section of this fence, completed in 1885. We stopped to see it for the first time back in 1996. Jemimah was four years old, and I'd just discovered Charlotte Mason. It was our very first official nature study picnic, and you can see how cute we were here.
Sadly, 4 year old memories are not all retained, and six years later Jemimah couldn't remember visiting the fence at all.
So today after our dentist checkup we made a repeat visit. Coming as it did only a few weeks after reading Doris Pilkington's Follow the Rabbit-proof Fence, this visit made a much greater impression. We discussed the fact that if it were all intact we could have followed the fence from Swan Hill back to the main road that takes us straight back home. We talked about the spread of rabbits, and I told the story of the sideboard. I also reminded my student of this poem, which is a relic of my schooldays, back when I played cricket in the dining room, and which I thought I'd told you before on A Peaceful Day, but can't find now if I did. Anyhow,I thought it was hillarious as a kid - probably because it is a little bit naughty. I still like it today. Here goes:
Differential calculus may seem a simple thing to us,Ah, yes. And I think, dear friends, that I'll leave this post just like that. What a lot of waffle. Perhaps I should delete the whole lot and replace it with this: Today we went to see a fence.
Yet rabbits, on the other hand, find it hard to understand,
Though they can add and multiply more rapidly than you or I
An aptitude, which in the rabbit, comes less from sex-appeal than habit!