Native to Portugal and Spain, the Oryctolagus
cuniculus or common European rabbit has adjusted to
that area’s irregular Mediterranean weather. Rabbits
have the ability to make full use of the good
seasons and multiply fast with the availability of
They can also thrive during long periods of
droughts, often digesting their own feces in order
to absorb added nutrients.
Rabbits are especially well adjusted to the drier
regions of New Zealand, where rates of survival of
the offspring are high.
Rabbits were imported to New Zealand and freed for
both sport and food at various areas as even as far
back as the 1830s.
As soon as the rabbits had adapted to their new environment,
their numbers increased to uncontrollable proportions many
times over. The first plague caused by rabbits began in the
beginning of the 1870s and slowly died out at around 1895.
Another growth happened in the beginning of the 1920s. In
the 1940s there was a major outbreak, and again more
recently in the latter part of the 1980s.
Millions of New Zealand dollars have been spent on the
control of rabbits and more has been lost because of damage
to farms. Their affect on the South Island’s drier areas can
be best described as an ecological disaster, as the grazed
off vegetation by rabbits has never recuperated.
The biggest affected regions were
once abundantly covered with grasses, tussock, and
small shrubs which are now sparsely covered with
vegetation. This has led to wearing away by rain and
wind. The soil loss has resulted in areas where only
the sturdiest plants will grow. Rabbit burrows in
some types of soil and on steep slopes have also
resulted in soil erosion.
A rabbit population was established in the inshore
sand hills between Riverton and Invercargill in the
1860s. In the start of the 1870s, this area’s
rabbits started migrating up the nearby river banks
right into the inland plains. In 1875 they were well
established in Central Otago. In the beginning of
the 1880s, rabbits had infested all parts of
Southland and Otago and had started to overrun
Canterbury. By the 1890s they had invaded the
In 1858, rabbits were introduced inland from Blenheim and
yet again 7 years later. At the start of the 1870s they
spread out up the Awatere and Wairau rivers into domestic
Marlborough. Simultaneously, silver-grey rabbits that had
been introduced near Kaikōura and approximately 1862
migrated into the drier inland regions. By 1887 both of
these species began trespassing in North Canterbury on the
district of Amuri.
The first plague brought by rabbits reached an all time high
in the South Island by 1895. Afterwards, the population of
rabbits stayed high in the semi-dry area of Central Otago,
but fell noticeably in other areas. A majority of central
Canterbury stayed relatively free of the vermin.
Nevertheless, in later rabbit outbreaks the area did not
The dynamics and timing of the rabbit infestation in the
North Island was different from that of the South Island.
The wide areas of forest and heavier rainfall stymied their