Geelong and the rabbit invasion
The Geelong region has the notoriety of introducing one of the greatest environmental catastrophes onto Australia; the rabbit. The story of the rabbit in Australia is a little more twisted and complex than it first appears.
History tells the story of Thomas Austin who developed land just outside of Winchelsea for sheep and horse training that he first named Austin’s Ford and later Barwon Park. Austin wanted his large estate to feel a little more like his hometown in Somerset, England. Austin also wanted something familiar to shoot, so in 1859 he decided to import and introduce a collection of exotic English birds and animals onto his property.
It was a great idea at the time, with hares, blackbirds, partridges, sparrows and 24 breeding pairs of rabbits let loose on his expansive Barwon Park; what could possibly go wrong.
Austin did not introduce the first rabbits into Australia, as popular folk law often tells. There is evidence that rabbits were in fact introduced into Australia in 1788. They were on board the voyage of the first fleet that arrived with the first white settlers. Rabbits were kept and bred for food, but never in large numbers as they did not really agree with Australia’s hot and harsh conditions, being more a domestic rabbit. The rabbit did much better in Tasmania where conditions were a little more like England and by even as early as 1827 were common in some areas of the island.
Some say what went wrong on the mainland was the mixing of the two breeds. Austin topped up his wild English rabbits with some local domesticated rabbits, resulting in the breeding of a hybrid that was much more suited to Australian conditions. This stronger hybrid rabbit very quickly adapted to the land and bred, well like rabbits. Within ten years of release the rabbits were in their millions, and there are estimates of 10 billion by 1920 on an eating and erosion spree across Australia.
Austin wasn’t the only person to think letting rabbits loose on their property was a great idea, many pastoralists and farmers did the same around this time also for hunting and to make Australia that little bit more English.
Today the CSIRO in Geelong has a bio-control research facility looking for ways to better control this pest at their large East Geelong based Australian Animal Health Laboratory. The Geelong region will hopefully go into the history books for not only starting the rabbit plague in Australia but also finding the scientific solutions to controlling it.
Austin’s magnificent Barwon Park property with the 42 room bluestone mansion is today one of the most beautiful properties and pieces of architecture in our region. Built in 1869 and finished only months before Austin died, today the mansion is in almost original condition with fine fittings and furnishing. The home is managed by the National Trust and open to visitors on Wednesdays and Sundays 11:00 AM – 4:00 PM. It can be found in Winchelsea, 30 minutes south west from central Geelong on Inverleigh Road, just off the Princes Highway.
For more information on Barwon Park: http://www.nationaltrust.org.au/vic/barwon-park