Exporting rabbit skins
A commercial industry began with the first attempts to control rabbits. In 1873 over 36,000 rabbit skins were exported. In 1883 nearly 10 million were shipped to Britain, in 1893 just over 17 million were exported, and in 1924 the number of rabbit skin exports peaked at 20 million. Most were taken from poisoned rabbits where the carcass was of no value.
A golden egg?
The Liberal Government was opposed to rabbit trapping as a commercial venture. The minister of lands, John McKenzie, claimed that the ‘professional rabbiter will not kill the goose that lays the golden egg’ 1, while the secretary of agriculture, J. D. Ritchie, argued that if ‘the same energy were exercised in thoroughly poisoning the ground as in trapping, the results would be more permanent’. 2
Some entrepreneurs thought large-scale poisoning without using the carcasses was wasteful. They thought that exporting rabbit meat could be both a successful industry and a solution to the rabbit problem. In 1881 and 1890 meat-preserving plants were set up in Southland to can rabbit meat. The 1881 plant soon failed, and production from the other plants was so low as to have little impact on rabbit control. However, in 1894 25,000 frozen rabbit carcasses were exported to Britain. The business grew quickly, and 6.5 million carcasses were exported in 1900. Over 99% of this trade came from Otago and Southland.
Meat trade debate
Outside the far south, trapping for meat was seen as counter-productive to the aim of exterminating rabbits. Within Otago and Southland there was a bitter debate over the meat trade. Proponents claimed that rabbits could never be exterminated, but could be controlled by trapping and at the same time provide a valuable income for rural workers. Opponents of trapping for meat argued that ‘preserving rabbits preserved the rabbit’ 3 and that trappers would never kill all the rabbits and destroy their livelihoods. Despite the obvious failure of the meat and skin industries to control rabbits, the trade continued until 1956.