Thursday, December 7, 2023

ORC gears up for all-out war on rabbits

Neal Wallace
Subdivisions and other smaller properties targeted after summer ‘plague’.
Bunnies are bugging Otago, with more than 200 properties found to be non-compliant last year.
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The Otago Regional Council is dedicating more staff and new initiatives to battle what is thought to have been a summer rabbit (rapēti) plague in parts of Otago.

Rabbit control is the land occupiers’ responsibility, but the ORC is ramping up community programmes to assist with monitoring, education and targeting of assistance for smaller property owners. 

In the year to January 2023, 332 Otago properties were inspected by council staff for rabbit infestation, with 209 found to be non-compliant. These received follow-up visits.

Progress was made on most Otago high country properties, but the council found issues in the spread of subdivisions and peri-urban areas with densities of up to 16 rabbits per square kilometre.

The council’s manager of environmental implementation, Libby Caldwell, said two staff will manage the community-led rabbit programmes and implement new initiatives for the Rabbit Action Plan, developed following two 2022 external reports.

It requires increased monitoring, visits and night counts – especially on smaller properties – thermal imagery, community surveys and engagement.

“The action plan addresses the need for ORC to assess the feasibility of using various monitoring methods effectively on smaller properties, when historically monitoring was developed and targeted to larger rural properties,” Caldwell said.

There is no quick fix but rabbit numbers can be reduced and maintained at manageable levels, she said.

The traditional approach is using a primary knockdown poison followed by secondary controls such as shooting, fumigation and burrow destruction, along with rabbit fencing.

Caldwell said while some larger landholders are “very much on top” of their rabbit control, this is being countered where rabbits are not declining, such as in some new lifestyle blocks, subdivisions and peri-urban areas.

“For some landowners, particularly those on smaller holdings, rabbits are still very much a big challenge,” she said.

A common complaint is that peri-urban land occupiers are not allowed to shoot rabbits or use poison because of the risk to pets.

Caldwell said peri-urban land occupiers need to co-ordinate rabbit management activities.

Residual rabbit haemorrhagic disease is detected in isolated pockets and, while effective in initial knockdown when immunity to the virus levels are low, it is not an effective long-term management solution.

The disease is on the official New Zealand Pest Register as an unwanted organism and Caldwell said the council is currently investigating the viability of removing it from the list.

This could pave the way for its reintroduction into areas where it may not be present in Otago.

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