Rabbits are Australian agricultures most costly pest vertebrate animal, inhabiting 70% of Australia’s landmass (5.3 million km2). Rabbits impact 75 commonwealth listed threatened plant species and five threatened ecological communities.
Under the Rural Lands Protection Act, 1998 (Section 155 and 156) private and public land managers are required to control rabbits on the land they occupy by any lawful method.
As a result the Urban Feral Animal Action Group (UFAAG) network was formed to coordinate feral animal control programs.
Mosman Council is part of a Sydney north region-wide program conducted by 13 councils and other major landholders with four significant land managers working together to control feral rabbits on Middle Head, including National Parks and Wildlife Service, Sydney Harbour Federation Trust and Taronga Zoo.
Rabbits occupy a range of habitats, with individuals moving from areas of high density populations to low ones or areas where they were previously absent. They are predominantly on the Middle Head and Sydney Harbour foreshore lands but making their way around the Middle Harbour foreshore.
As herbivores, rabbits graze on a range of vegetation. Grazing by feral rabbits can alter the species and structural composition of vegetation communities. Rabbit grazing has a severe impact on post-fire regeneration where there is an abundance of fresh green regrowth. Species that are not normally rabbit fodder, namely shrubs and trees, have their seedlings eaten. This reduces the diversity and profusion of regrowth, diminishing biodiversity outcomes. This has been scientifically proven on North Head and has been observed here in Mosman at Bradleys Bushland Reserve and Curraghbeena.
In urban environments rabbits have a range of impacts. In Mosman this ranges from damage to residential gardens and vegetable patches; grazing of nature strips, verges and playing fields and loss of amenity due to digging and scats.
Damage to turf in our parks and sporting fields causes a loss of amenity and creates trip hazards, opening council up for liability. Council is responsible for maintaining the playing fields to a certain standard for the sporting groups that use them year round and for the general public. Repairing the damage caused by rabbits is costing council approximately $20,000 each year with an additional $2,000 for soil.
The Rabbit Management Plan (RMP) is an integrated pest management plan that utilises legal techniques to control feral rabbits on public lands. As a highly urbanised area, Mosman is limited in the control methods available and is often restricted in how they may be applied. The prime method used by Mosman Council is a biological method known as The Rabbit Haemorrhaging Disease Virus (RHDV). Limited shooting is also used. Cage traps are provided to residents for use on private property. The Rabbit Management Plan (RMP) is based on the current science and is revised every five years.
The methods outlined in the Rabbit Control Plan 2013 – 2017, approved by the Cumberland Livestock Health and Pest Authority, have been selected by merit as a result of research and debate to produce Model Codes of Practice (COP) and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to ensure efficient, effective and humane control of vertebrate pests including rabbits.
These COPs and SOPs resulted from a model for assessing the relative humaneness of pest animal control methods developed under the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy (AAWS). The Humaneness Assessment Panel was based on expertise and independence and comprised of representatives of the Department of Primary Industries NSW, Biosecurity Queensland, the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre, Department of Veterinary Science Melbourne University, a CSIRO veterinarian and the Chief Scientist of the RSPCA Australia. The RSPCA Australia acknowledges that “it is necessary to manage populations of wild animals in order to reduce adverse impacts” and provides links to the COP and SOPS on their website.
Biological control is considered a valuable tool to control a pest species because it is targeted specific, transmissible and can persist in the environment providing prolonged exposure.
RHDV – The Rabbit Haemorrhaging Disease Virus is considered a more humane biological control agent with a sudden death about 24 hours after exposure. Most animals show no signs of illness, whilst others express signs of elevated temperature, anorexia, lethargy and reddened eyes. Domestic Rabbits can be inoculated against RHDV.
The UFAAG network, including Mosman Council, utilise this control method. The ideal time for release is early autumn to coincide with high mosquito populations. It costs Mosman approximately $500 to implement the program.
Shooting is the most humane control technique as it results in instant death with little to no suffering to the animal beforehand. Non-target animals cannot be affected. In an urban context, the close proximity of dwellings limits the application of this control method due to a perceived risk to humans. In Mosman, we are limited to shooting on only the most open Parks and Reserves and only between the hours of 10pm and 2am. With rabbits active primarily during the hours of twilight, this limits the scope of this technique.
This method is labour intensive and requires contractors to maintain numerous permits, licenses and qualifications. As a result it is costly, with each night’s shoot costing approximately $600.
Mosman Council provides cage traps for use to residents for use on private property. Residents are instructed in their use and must sign a Memorandum of Understanding saying they will comply with Council policy and animal welfare constraints. In the last 6 months, residents using cage traps have failed to catch any rabbits most likely to the high availability of food in the wild.
Mosman Council does not use lethal baiting or fumigation.
There is no scientific evidence, here or overseas, that RHDV infects other animals. Australia has tested for RHDV virus in at least 33 representative animal species, domesticated and wild, native and feral. They were all given large doses of the virus and there was no sign of infection. Worldwide 43 different species have been tested and the virus did not grow in any of them.
Yes. Effective vaccines to protect rabbits from RHDV have been developed in Europe and are applied through local veterinary clinics. The vaccine released in Australia is known commercially as Cylap HVD and is made in Spain by Cyanamid.
Pet rabbit owners should consult their local vet about vaccination. The RHDV vaccine is safe to use on pet and farmed rabbits. As with any vaccine for animals or humans, only vaccinate your rabbit when it is healthy. Veterinarians can advise on other issues to be aware of when having your pet vaccinated.
Mosman Council provides cage traps to residents for use on private property. Residents are instructed in their use and must sign a Memorandum of Understanding saying they will comply with Council policy and animal welfare constraints. In the last 6 months, residents using cage traps have failed to catch any rabbits most likely due to the high availability of food in the wild.