Friday, 2 April 2010

Queensland - Close Encounters of the Easter Bunny kind

I thought it might have been an April Fool's prank when I read the article in yesterday's Courier-Mail reminding all good landowners to kill as many rabbits as possible this Easter. I guess it's a bit of a culture shock, for a reader in the UK, but the article was deadly serious and, judging by the raging debate in the Comments section, controlling Queensland's rabbit population seems to be a very emotive and divisive issue.

There also seems to be a real city/country divide in this debate. On one side are the concerned housewives of Brisbane, totally appaled by the bad taste of the article and the recommendations to rip up the rabbit warrens, a cruel but effective way of dealing with overpopulation. On the other side are the farmers, struggling to eke an existence out of an already quite challenging soil.

Being a rabbit myself (according to my Chinese horoscope) my instinct is to side with the bunnies and their, very natural, desire to breed and prosper. Europeans (well, one Victorian settler in particular) created this problem, right? Maybe we need to live with the consequences and let Mother Nature find a solution?

If this was just a question of rabbits eating up human profits, then I'd probably stick to this, however (apologies to my fellow bunnies) rabbits are a pest that have caused untold devastation to the fragile ecology of Australia, outeating native mammals (like the incredibly cute Bilby), destroying native plants and causing major soil erosion. It might cause some mirth to people here in the UK, as we're tucking in to our chocolate bunnies and eggs this weekend, but it's an incredibly serious issue for people in Queensland and one that may be difficult to resolve.

I was genuinely surprised to find out that owning pet rabbits is banned in Queensland and you can be fined up to 30,000 Aussie dollars if you contravene this ban. Although plagues of rabbit were first reported in Victoria and Tasmania, the year-round warmth in Queensland has encouraged rabbits to breed more than they would in Europe, where they seem to 'take a break' during the winter.

If only they'd had time to evolve in the way native mammals like the Antechinus has done.  The male Antechinus (a type of rodent) only lives for 11 months, the first ten of which are spent eating and growing.  Like many male mammals, the Antechinus' thoughts eventually turn to reproduction and males spend their eleventh month engaged in this noble pursuit, dying with exhaustion as they literally shag themselves to death.  A lack of male Antechinus after the 11th month, means the female of the species has less competition in terms of feeding herself and a new generation.

Ironically, it's highly likely that the rabbit populations only survive in Australia because people do. I'm sure that the Australian outback is an incredibly hostile environment for rabbits and it's only human interaction with the Australian soil that has created suitable conditions for farming which, as well as feeding the human population, has also sustained the 400 million rabbits that are estimated to live in Australia.

Of course (European) spring is an apt time to talk about rabbits and it's no coincidence that rabbits appear, in chocolate form, as part of our Easter celebrations. In many cultures rabbits are associated with fertility and survival instincts. In some cases, like Israel, this is interpreted as cowardice, rabbits being the Hebrew equivalent of 'chicken' in English, eg 'to chicken out' of doing something.

In other cultures, like the myths of West Africa and the Cherokee tribes of North America, rabbits are considered to be extremely clever tricksters. This mythology has been handed down to us through the Br'er Rabbit stories and, ultimately, cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny.

The playfulness of rabbits has been applied to human sexuality, especially in advertising products for women, so that everywhere from an Argos catalogue to a hen party in Blackpool, you will see that supreme icon of rabbit mythology, the Playboy bunny.

Interestingly, Oriental mythologies, such as those in Japan and Korea, associate rabbits with the moon and, I can't help wondering if indeed it's our entire planet, not just Australia, that has been taken over by these furry fiends!

Image credits:

The image of the Queensland flag has been created for Wikimedia Commons by user Denelson83 who is male and comes from Vancouver Island. He has contributed a lot of flag images to Wikimedia Commons, so thanks Denelson83 for sharing these with the world!

The image of the rabbit is from flickruser Wolfpix a.k.a. Jack Wolf.  Jack is from Albany in California and is an incredibly talented wildlife photographer - you can see more of his images on his commercial website
The image of the Playboy Bunny Tattoo was provided copyright free by flickruser cwalker71 a.k.a. Chuck Walker - Chuck is a freelance photographer from Pitman, New Jersey and you can also visit his site
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