Rabbits and Governors

Omeo, 1984.
The banking crisis of 1893 that saw several of the commercial banks within Australia collapse, was over.
Many settlers at Omeo, unable to meet their bank’s demands, had walked off their land, resulting in the Commercial and Colonial Banks being the largest landholders in the Shire.
The farmers of Omeo Plains and Benambra were the most fortunate, having managed to hold on to their land.
A flour mill, established in Omeo, provided a ready market for their produce, its flour and by-products being far cheaper than Melbourne products that had to be hauled over vast and difficult terrain to Omeo and surrounds.

The winter of 1894 saw heavy flooding with extensive damage to roads and bridges throughout Omeo Shire.
Heavy rains had made the Tambo Valley road impassable. Flooding had resulted in Omeo being entirely isolated for ten days. The telegraph line was cut, and mail unable to be delivered. Bridges were completely washed away.
The council fought hard to finally secure funds from the State Government to make necessary and vital repairs and improvements to roads throughout the Shire.
With the economic crisis behind them, and a harsh winter over, conditions seemingly appeared to be on the improve.

Unfortunately, a new element was about to enter the picture.

Approximately fifty kilometres west of Omeo, and just north of what is now the Great Alpine Road, lay Brandy Creek Mine.
The mining operation worked an area of about twenty acres, both with deep mines and later, hydraulic sluicing.
Over its lifetime, the mine produced an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 ounces of gold.

However, it was not gold that was to be of concern in 1894.
In June of that year, it was reported to the council, that rabbits had been seen at the mine.
Two had been shot at Bindi, approximately twenty kilometres east of Omeo.

A new crisis was about to begin.

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The release of twenty-four wild rabbits by Thomas Austin for hunting purposes in October 1859, on his property, Barwon Park, near Winchelsea, Victoria, was about to impact on Omeo.

Experience in other parts of Victoria, had made the Omeo council realize that if the rabbits were not checked, the vast majority of land in the Shire would become useless.

It was a complex problem. Most properties had been fenced with logs, providing a perfect haven for the rabbits, and no netting was readily available for vermin-proof fencing. The banks, who owned large tracts of land, were reluctant to fund any purchasing of wire netting.

In 1896, the council, desperate to control the growing rabbit menace, requested people from as far away as Dargo to report any rabbit sightings.
It appointed a rabbit inspector, Mr W Hollonds, and offered a reward to anyone finding and reporting a rabbit burrow.
Over the next few months, Inspector Hollonds, armed with traps supplied by the council, tackled rabbits at Boucher’s property at Uplands, and Gilmore’s holding at Omeo.
Despite much enthusiasm and gusto, he faced a man-sized job.

In 1897, rabbits were on the increase in the Tambo Valley.

In 1898, a well supported public meeting was held at Omeo to form a Rabbit Suppression League, and that year, the bonus on rabbits was discontinued.

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The following year, 1899, the Omeo Rabbit League was formed, with the council ordering two cases of poisoned jam and two cases of phosphorus for use by its members.
Applications called for a rabbit destructor to destroy rabbits in the Omeo riding.

The turn of the century saw the gradual unyielding advance of the rabbits.
There was a general disquiet throughout the region, as the realization that these pests could render the grazing and farming areas of the Shire useless, began to take hold.

The council rescinded all previous bonuses paid on rabbits and a bonus of one penny per scalp was substituted, and the secretary was instructed to keep landholders supplied with poison.

The rabbit invasion was not only effecting grazing and agriculture.
Rabbits, along with hares and foxes were having a detrimental effect on native marsupials.
Native koalas, native cats, bandicoots, wombats, and opossums began to decline.
Once numerous monkey bears, who gave their name to Monkey Creek, began to disappear.
Over a very short period the native animals became almost extinct as rabbits, foxes, and hares, all pests, began to take their place.

In 1902, men employed in rabbit suppression in the Hinnomunjie council riding were dispensed with. It was deemed that the rabbit plague was beyond the capabilities of a few men, and that each individual land holder had better start to look after his own property.
The council purchased two poison carts that could be hired by farmers to poison rabbits with pollard and phosphorus. This method was partly successful in very dry weather, but had very little effect in average seasons.
The Omeo Shire, as well as the shires of Orbost and Towong, began to float special loans to buy rabbit-proof wire netting that could be resold to landholders, on long repayment terms.
By this stage, farmers and graziers were seriously concerned and alarmed.
Rabbits were now appearing in the Shire in their millions.

Rabbits around a waterhole during myxomatosis trials at Wardang

 

In 1904, the Government advanced much-needed funds in the form of a loan, enabling the council to purchase all the wire netting they could afford.
At this stage, the rabbits were winning, attacking not only pastures, but crops as well.
In March of 1905, the people of the Shire of Omeo were provided with a slight reprieve from the battle with the rabbits, when the Governor of Victoria, Sir Reginald Talbot paid a visit.
Sir Reginald was sworn in as Governor of Victoria on 25 April 1904. He was born into English aristocracy in 1841, and after being educated at Harrow, pursued a career in the British army, as well as serving as a politician. He served in the Zulu War, led the British army of occupation in Egypt, and also served as a military attache in Paris.
The Governor attended the Omeo races on Thursday, March 06, and was entertained at luncheon by the president of the club, Councillor Brumley.

In January of 1906, the Sir Reginald Talbot again visited Omeo, this time arriving over the Alps from Bright.

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Equipped with tents and camping gear, the vice-regal was on a two weeks fishing trip that would take in Omeo and Jindabyne, New South Wales.

The good Governor drove via Harrietville and St Bernard’s Hospice, arriving in Omeo on January 24.

 

 

 

 

He visited the state schools at Omeo Plain and Benambra, had lunch at Mount Leinster with the Pendergasts, spent the night camped by the Benambra Creek, and then on the morning of the 26th, pushed on through the bush toward Mt Bogong, and eventually Jindabyne.
The Governor may well have had a good time, but not so the people of Omeo and throughout the Shire.

The rabbits were in control, invading even the township.

In the evening, thousands of rabbits would move from the cover of blackberries and of fences, and advance on the town to cause great destruction to gardens.
Vegetable gardens and fruit trees were destroyed and pastures were cleaned out.
Dogs would not bother to chase them; they were content to catch and eat one or two and leave the rest alone.
Eventually half the houses in Omeo had a rabbit warren under the floor.

Hunting rabbits had become a part of life.
Even on this Sunday outing in the picture below, one of the men has brought along a rifle.

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Many people who had struggled through the land boom now abandoned their properties.
All the land from Hinnomungie to Tongio, with the exception of a few blocks in the Upper Livingstone and Dry Hill areas, was held by the banks.

In an effort to turn the tide, the council ordered 20,000 pounds of wire netting for resale.
Wire netting was the only solution to the problem but, unfortunately, was hard to obtain.
The demand was so great, manufacturers simply could keep up.

The Governor Sir Thomas Gibson-Carmichael visited the Omeo region in 1911, among other things, ski-ing on Mt St Bernard.

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Meanwhile, the fight against the rabbits continued.
They had infested the grazing areas of the Shire to the extent that the productive value of the land had been reduced by at least sixty percent.
Some of the best properties were now almost of no value.

The river flats at Hinnomungie Station were one huge rabbit warren, and land at Bindi and the Tambo Valley was literally crawling with rabbits.

The council had no choice but to continually write off rate assessments as land owners abandoned their properties.
At Omeo, at least seventy-five percent of original selectors had walked off their land.
The banks,now holders of thousands of acres of rabbit infested land, had done a lot of netting fencing, but were not attempting to eliminate the trapped rabbits.

Rabbit drives were frequently held.
This social occasion involved netting-in a paddock, then driving the rabbits towards an enclosure or trap in a corner of the property.
The event saw men on horseback, yelling and cracking stock whips, all the while assisted by numerous barking and yelping dogs.As many as 15,000 rabbits were often slaughtered in these drives.

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Many men worked as rabbit trappers, selling their skins to local dealers.
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Prices were low, about three pence in the summer months, and nine pence to one shilling in the winter.

 

Despite the work of the trappers, and the poisoning attempts by the rabbit inspectors, the vermin continued to breed, the only successful method of containment being the long and ardous task of netting-in, paddock after paddock.

 

 

 

 

By 1912, the population of the Omeo Shire had declined by twelve hundred people in three years.
The decline in mining, and the effects of the rabbit plague produced a steady stream of people vacating the district.
An attempt by the rabbit inspector to have the council clear the Lake Omeo Common of rabbits fell on deaf ears, as councillors had enough on their plate, trying to clear their own properties of the menace.

In the midst of struggle and despondency, Omeo was again visited by the Governor, this time, Sir John Michael Fleetwood Fuller, who described himself as ‘just an ordinary type of English country gentleman and a good sportsman – fond of hunting, shooting, stalking and the rest’.
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He was a British Liberal Party politician and colonial administrator, and along with Lady Fuller and an entourage visited Omeo as part of a trip that took in the Buchan Caves and Bruthen.

They arrived by motor-car on Thursday November 21, after travelling a distance of sixty miles and were met by Councillor J.W. Brumley and a large number of councillors and residents amid much ado.

 

 

 

The vice-Regal party enjoyed a lunch, then drove to Omeo Plains where they were entertained at afternoon tea, before returning to Omeo for dinner. An address by Councillor Brumley was given at a well attended function at the shire hall.

 

In January of 1918, amid the rabbit battle, Omeo was visited by the Governor, Sir Arthur Stanley.
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After spending a couple of days at Bindi Station, Sir Stanley arrived on Saturday, January 12, at 10 oçlock at which time he visited the hospital where he was shown the recent additions and was entertained at morning tea by Matron Cameron.

At 11 oçlock he attended the Shire Hall where he was welcomed by council dignitaries and many towns folk, before heading off to Hinnomungie Station for afternoon tea, and then on to Angler’s Rest for the night.

 

 

 
The Governor returned to Omeo Sunday evening in time for dined off to Bairnsdale to catch the train back to Melbourne.

 

 

Later in the year, Omeo was visited by the Governor-General of Australia, Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson, arriving on Saturday , November 4, via Swift Creek, Bindi Station, and Tongio. Much needed heavy rain accompanied the Governor-General as he paid his visits.
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A dinner was held at the Golden Age Hotel, followed by a well-attended function at the Shire Hall that involved music, singing, and speeches.

Sunday morning saw Sir Ronald visit the Plains before returning to Omeo for lunch, and then departing for Bairnsdale.

 

 

 

Throughout the following years, the battle against the rabbits continued unabated.

In 1927, bridge and culvert heads were invaded and government inspectors were continually demanding that the council eradicate the vermin.

In 1936, unemployed persons were given some relief, by being engaged to trap the still numerous rabbits for their skins. Rabbit carcasses at this stage had no commercial value.

In 1944, the Department of Army was urged to release men to expedite the manufacture of wire netting.

The rabbit pest was hard to cope with in the steep hill country that exists in the Swift’s Creek, Cassilis, Tongio and Bindi localities, but by 1948, the grazing industry of Swift’s Creek was showing  progress, albeit slow.

In 1959, the Soil Conservation Authority held a Field Day at Bindi Station, which for many years had been infested with rabbits. Extensive sheet and gully erosion had taken a heavy toll of its soil surface, yet implementation of control measures showed that badly eroded land could be successfully reclaimed.

Progress against the rabbit menace was slowly being made.

Myxomatosis, a virus disease of rabbits, was eventually used in Australia to control the population.
The initial release of the myxoma virus led to a dramatic reduction of the rabbit population and within two years of the virus’s release in 1950 Australia’s wool and meat production recovered from the rabbit onslaught to the tune of $68 million.

The impact of myxomatosis gradually declined over time as both the myxoma virus and the rabbit population changed genetically and a new rabbit control agent, calicivirus, was introduced in the 1980s.
Its impact has generally been greatest in arid and semi-arid zones, with a lesser effect in   wetter areas.
Scientists are also aware that because myxomatosis was only effective for 15 to 20 years, rabbits could also become resistant to calicivirus.

Whether it was a solemn duty or a passion for fishing that motivated Governors to visit the remote and isolated regions of Omeo is unknown.
It is also unknown as to whether the vice-regals and their parties hunted, shot, or even saw any rabbits, or were even aware of the desperate struggle that was being undertaken.

One thing is for certain, however.
The rabbit war continues.

 

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References and photographic acknowledgement:
“Echoes from the Mountains” by A.M.Pearson
Trove: http://trove.nla.gov.au/

The producer supports the intellectual property rights of others and every reasonable effort has been made to respect the historical significance of images used.

Where the attempt to locate copyright owners has not been successful, the producer apologises for any accidental infringement where copyright has proved untraceable, and has made every attempt to respect the historical significance of images used.

 

 

 

 

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