Skip to content

The devastating impact of rabbits

Published 12 Nov 2021

The Conversation recently published an important article about the devastating impact that rabbits have had and continue to exert on Australia plants, wildlife and landscapes. The article summarises the findings of a review paper published in the Journal Restoration Ecology, the lead author of which is Bush Heritage's ecologist Graeme Finlayson.

The review highlights the impact of rabbits on our precious landscapes, as well as the tremendous impact that biological control has had on the invasive rodent, benefiting Australian natives.

Recovering Australia's arid-zone ecosystems: learning from continental-scale rabbit control experiments
Graeme Finlayson, Patrick Taggart & Brian Cooke (2021)
Restoration Ecology

Rabbits are a key threat to 322 species of Australia’s at-risk plants and animals — more than twice the number of species threatened by cats or foxes. They efficiently strip vegetation and prevent regeneration. Being prey to the feral predators they allow them to greatly increase in number.

In arid and semi-arid regions, even very low densities of rabbits are able to eliminate every seedling of species such as she-oaks. Over time, many plant species are eliminated from landscapes, habitats are greatly altered, and animals species such as the Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat decline and are lost.

This has implications for our approach to landscape restoration.

The review assessed the ecological benefits of rabbit bio-control across Australia, and drew on documented cases of species recovery supporting the theory that rabbit control is fundamental to the sustained recovery of species in various landscapes across Australia.

Rabbits form part of an intricate ecological web in many Australian ecosystems. They prevent vegetation recovery, they provide a food source for introduced predators (cats and foxes), and they cause significant damage through their digging to soil nutrients, leading to erosion and the spread of weeds. They also survive the extreme weather by residing in a burrow and can rapidly breed following significant rainfall. In the early 1900s rabbit plagues were a feature of outback Australia and many areas have not recovered completely after these events.

Three main bio-control events were assessed in the review, the release of myxomatosis in 1950, European rabbit fleas that helped spread ‘myxo’ in 1968, and Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHDV; calicivirus) in 1995. These events alone have led to a broad range of environmental benefits, however they require on-going efforts to continue in a fight against rabbits and to ensure landscape restoration.

It was clear that each bio-control release provided environmental benefits.

For example, just two months after the release of Myxomatosis, sheoak regeneration was able to occur after a long period of having been suppressed. And there was a significant increase in the number of native herbivores, such as Red Kangaroos. The introduction of European Rabbit Fleas aided the spread of myxomatosis in winter when mosquitoes were inactive. One study highlighted the expansion of native species including Southern Hairy-nosed Wombats and Swamp Wallabies following the release.

More recently, with research focussing on environment and conservation and not just agricultural benefits, the spread of rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus has been found to have led to the recovery of a range of native plant species including native pines, needle bush, umbrella wattle, witchetty bush and twin-leaved emu bush. In addition, Dusky Hopping Mice, Spinifex Hopping Mice, Plains Rats and the Crest-tailed Mulgara have been found to benefit, all of which had declined dramatically since rabbits spread to arid Australia.

The review also highlighted that although there is some suggestion that prey-switching occurs when rabbits are removed (i.e. foxes and cats switch from a diet of rabbits to native species), the long-term benefits far outweigh these initial impacts. We can rely on bio-controls to some degree, but traditional methods must also be a priority.

On Boolcoomatta Reserve between 2009 and 2011, 7400 rabbit warrens were mapped and then 6800 were either ripped or fumigated. Very few of these warrens have been re-opened since then. On Bon Bon Reserve prior to 2014, 3252 warrens were mapped and then 863 were ripped and a further 159 fumigated.

We are now a generation of land managers who haven’t experienced rabbits in plague proportions, thanks mainly to these three bio-control methods that have been effective at reducing rabbits across much of Australia. However, even at low densities, rabbits are a key threat to our efforts to restore the country to good health. Effective rabbit control is undeniably essential to arid-zone restoration and must be considered of equal importance to predator control.

Thank you to Rabbit Free Australia for supporting the publication of this research

Rabbits can denude a landscape of vegetation. Rabbits can denude a landscape of vegetation.
Photo by John Schilling. (CC) Some rights reserved.
The Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat is a species that has expanded its range following the release of rabbit biocontrols. The Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat is a species that has expanded its range following the release of rabbit biocontrols.
Photo by Graeme Finlayson

Feral animal stories

BLOG 12/11/2021

The devastating impact of rabbits

The Conversation recently published an article about the devastating impact that rabbits have had and continue to exert on Australia plants, wildlife and landscapes.

Read More
Feral cat.


The challenge of cats

Sarah Legge (Professor at ANU and a Principal Research Fellow with The University of Queensland) discusses the urgent need for species protection from the impact of cats.

Read More

BLOG 31/05/2021

Tarcutta Hills rabbit survey

Volunteers Tom O'Hara and Georgie McManus recently complete a rabbit survey on our Tarcutta Hills Reserve, including the recently purchased neighbouring block.

Read More
A feral cat in the scrub. Photo Annette Ruzicka.

BUSHTRACKS 15/04/2021

The problem with cats

Feral cats kill an estimated 2 billion animals in Australia every year, but nuanced solutions on Bush Heritage reserves and partnership properties across Australia are helping to turn the tide.

Read More

BLOG 18/02/2021

Great Southern cat cull

An article in WA Today: "One of the nation’s biggest conservation groups has started working with the West Australian government’s fox baiting program in the south and levelled it up to target cats and rabbits too in an effort to restore native animals to their traditional domain."

Read More
Wildflowers on Monjebup Reserve. Photo Jessica Wyld Photography.

BUSHTRACKS 25/09/2020

From tin whistles to tinsel

As we prepare to start a first-of-its-kind feral control program in the Fitz-Stirling, Noongar Traditional Custodian Aunty Carol Petterson reflects on the changes seen in her lifetime.

Read More

BLOG 16/08/2020

The problem with goats

Feral goats are a major threat to our rangeland vegetation throughout Australia, where they roam the countryside largely unmanaged.

Read More

BLOG 07/07/2020

Counting bunnies

European Rabbits have a high impact on our conservation targets at Bon Bon. They compete with native herbivores for resources, supress native vegetation and provide a reliable food source for foxes and cats.

Read More

BLOG 19/12/2019

Feral fish & fencing at Yourka

I have a personal interest in fish and wetlands. Yourka has beautiful Eastern Rainbowfish, Purple Spotted Gudgeons, and Spangled Perch throughout its waterways, as well as Flyspecked Hardyheads, Olive Perchlets,  Midgley's Carp Gudgeons, Sooty Granters, Hyrtl's Tandan and probably others in some locations.

Read More

BLOG 06/08/2019

Felixers: a tool to help save Alwal?

Olkola and Bush Heritage may have a new tool in our battle to protect the endangered Golden-shouldered Parrot (Alwal) from feral cats.

Read More

BLOG 01/05/2019

Cat tracking from the air

It's encouraging to see increasing recognition of the terrible toll feral cats are exacting on our native wildlife, and increasing concern to do something about it. Early Monday morning I headed out to Red Moort to get up in the air with feral cat researcher Sarah Comer and her Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions colleague, Abby, to locate the feral cats Sarah has collared across our Fitz-Stirling landscape on the South Coast of Western Australia.

Read More

BUSHTRACKS 22/03/2019

Battle for the bite sized

A landmark restoration project on Bon Bon is helping native species to bounce back.

Read More

BUSHTRACKS 22/03/2019

Feral focus

How we’re working beyond our boundaries to control foxes and feral cats in south-west Western Australia.

Read More

BLOG 22/01/2019

The invasive species war

A recent Guardian article highlighted how invasive species are the most significant threat to, and cause of, species decline and loss in Australia - and more destructive than climate change at present. It's a sobering assessment; and a sad reflection on the early attitude to our native species. Bush Heritage Australia, through its reserve and partnership network is at the battlefront of this war on feral plants and animals.

Read More

BLOG 14/12/2018

Feral cats caught on camera

We've been testing the use of burn lines as a way to draw cats towards our new Felixer cat traps at Ethabuka Reserve. The results so far are super encouraging.

Read More

BLOG 23/08/2018

Predators! Keep calm, just carrion

Have you ever stopped to think, how does the provision of resources in the landscape affect wildlife patterns in general? If you add a heap of additional unexpected food resources, what then happens to the array of carrion eaters and predators, and how does this affect other smaller animals?

Read More

BLOG 12/06/2018

That tricksy Felixy

It's well known that cats have a huge and often catastrophic impact on native species and are notoriously difficult to control. The Felixer cat trap might be the solution.

Read More

BLOG 27/06/2017

Volunteers help combat cats

Keith Gooley and Peter Caulder are Bush Heritage volunteers with expertise in electronics and a passion for conservation. Keith and Peter are using these skills to help us address one of the biggest threats to Australian wildlife on Boolcoomatta Reserve - feral cats.

Read More

BLOG 27/04/2017

Mapping cats at Boolcoomatta

Hi! I'm Emily and I'm a science intern here at Boolcoomatta Reserve in the arid rangelands of South Australia. My primary focus over the next two months is to collect data on the distribution of feral cats here.

Read More

BUSHTRACKS 20/03/2017

Feral instincts

From the saltbush plains of Boolcoomatta in South Australia, to the sandy dunes of Ethabuka in Queensland, our staff are working hard to implement science-based methods to combat feral cats.

Read More

BLOG 11/06/2015

Carp trapping trial

The carp trapping program at Bush Heritage Australia's Scottsdale Reserve is moving into its next phase, with a small team of inventors on board to design a heating system for the trap. What? Sounds like we are really trying hard to make those pesky carp just a little too comfortable? Perfectly correct!

Read More

BUSHTRACKS 20/03/2015

New feral monitoring data

A new long-term monitoring program using remote infra-red cameras on both Boolcoomatta and our Bon Bon Reserve will help protect vulnerable natives such as the plains wanderer from feral foxes and cats.

Read More
{{itemsInCart}} Items - {{formatCurrency(grandTotal)}}