Rabbits eat a wide range of food including native grasses and seedlings. In combination with grazing stock, rabbits can increase the risk of soil erosion. They directly compete with grazing stock for food, and contribute to the increase of unpalatable weed species. Rabbit grazing also impacts on amenity plantings, commercial gardens and forestry seedlings. Grazing and burrowing can lead to the loss of vegetation cover and soil erosion in native flora and fauna habitats.
Rabbits are grey/brown in colour, sometimes black, and are less than half the size of a hare. Rabbits run with their white fluffy tail held up, moving in a distinctive bobbing motion. Ground sign of rabbits include burrows and scratchings, and piles of small round droppings in a heap. Rabbits are often found living in piles of cut vegetation, or ground hugging shrubs. They prefer short grass for browsing, and often found on well grazed sheep or horse paddocks. Rabbits live in pairs, or larger colonies, and can usually be found in the same spot.
Rabbits were introduced into New Zealand from Europe in the 1840s and 1850s to establish a meat and fur industry. They quickly became abundant and destructive to pastoral farming. Since the introduction of rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD), rabbit numbers have decreased, but are still a problem in favourable habitat.
There are a number of options for rabbit control; shooting, poisoning, fumigation, repellents and exclusion fencing.
Nightshooting using a spotlight is a good control option in rural areas, using a .22 rifle or shotgun.
Pindone carrot bait is a slow-acting anti-coagulant poison. It is laid on the ground in areas where rabbits have been grazing and scratching. Greater Wellington can undertake seasonal poisoning operations at cost to the landowner.
Magtoxin gas is a fumigant that can be used to control rabbits hiding in burrows. Using Magtoxin is methodical work, requiring all entrances to a burrow to be sealed with the rabbits inside.
For orchard or amenity plantings, chemical repellents can be sprayed or painted on trees and shrubs to discourage rabbit browsing. Vegetation must continue to be sprayed as the plant grows and weathers.
For urban areas, excluding rabbits from accessing your property or garden is the best long term method of control. Exclusion fences must be a minimum of one metre high and meet the ground securely.
The rabbit haemorrhagic disease (also known as the rabbit calicivirus disease) has been active across our region and New Zealand since it was released in 1997.
The disease is caused by a naturally spreading virus (RHDV1) that helps us to control wild rabbit populations. It affects European rabbits, is highly contagious and spreads between susceptible and infected rabbits. Once a rabbit shows symptoms of the virus, it dies quickly.
This April (2018) we’ll be releasing a new Korean variation of the Virus called RHDV1 K5. This is because in the twenty years since the virus was released, New Zealand's feral rabbits have become increasingly immune to the RHDV1 strain.
The new strain (RHDV1 K5) may assist in overcoming the resistance to the existing virus. It should help us reduce rabbit numbers to the level where they are manageable – especially in areas where traditional/other methods of control aren’t possible or sustainable.
RHDV1 K5 will be released at 30 sites across Greater Wellington. In most instances the release will be on private land or in areas where there is minimal public access.
The virus only affects rabbits, and doesn’t present danger to cats, dogs or any other animal.
The good news is that there’s a vaccine (Cylap®) that will protect pet rabbits from both the RHDV1 and the RHDV1 K5 virus. If you are a pet rabbit owner, we strongly encourage you to protect your pet by vaccinating. Contact your veterinarian for more information about the vaccine and other measures to help you protect pet rabbits.
Pet rabbits should be vaccinated from 10 weeks of age, and boosters given according to your veterinarian's recommendation.
You can find more information on the vaccine on the Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research website.
Contact Greater Wellington for more information on any of these control options.