Rabbits have caused widespread environmental and economic devastation in Australia since their introduction in the 1850s.
This is the story of how Broughton Island near Port Stephens played a part toward developing a vaccine to eradicate them from Australia.
By the 1880s, New South Wales farmers were experiencing a rabbit plague that threatened their very livelihood.
Over the years since then, governments have spent millions of dollars fighting these pests.
In 1906, Broughton Island became the scene of one such attempt. Polish microbiologist, Dr Jean Danysz, from the Pasteur Institute in Paris came to Australia by invitation of The Council of the Pastures Protection Board to begin rabbit elimination trials.
He had developed an inoculation that would destroy rabbits without harming humans or other animals. Broughton Island was the chosen site. Over £6000 was raised to fund the experiment and 600 rabbits were initially resettled on the island.
Dr Paul Danysz (right) and Mr Paul Wenz travelling to Broughton Island in 1906.
Who was responsible for the great Australian Rabbit Plague?
Rabbits have been in Australia since the First Fleet arrived at Sydney Cove and since then many others were introduced. But Scientists have studied the genetics and sources of Australia rabbits and have traced the source of the plague to one man.
In July 1906, the Pastoralists Review reported:
“The study of rabbit diseases will be the prime object at first but all diseases in stock, grains or fruit will possibly be studied as well.
Buildings have been erected and the laboratory is now being fitted with the most modern appliances. Rabbits are breeding rapidly and sheep, horses and cattle for experimental work are doing well.
Broughton Island is an ideal spot for the work proposed and Dr Danysz, of the Pasteur Institute, expressed himself as being delighted.”
The report proved to be rather inaccurate as the experiment only involved rabbits – no sheep, horses or cattle ever set foot on the island. The results of the research proved to be a failure, with the rabbits remaining on the island and Dr Danysz returning to Paris.
In 1908, the government purchased the buildings and moved them to Milson Island and the experiment was officially closed. Fourteen years later a crew who were briefly wrecked on the island commented that the island still abounded with rabbits!
In 2009 efforts began to finally clear the island of the feral pests, in order to protect the sea-bird population which was losing habitat and being forced off the island.
The eradication program was part of a long-term Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water island sanctuaries program to eradicate vertebrate pests from NSW offshore islands to restore seabird habitat.
The $60,000 program involved two years’ planning, a calicivirus release in April 2009, and two aerial-baiting programs in August 2009.
In November 2009, the National Parks and Wildlife Service officially declared Broughton Island pest-free.
More than 1000 wild rabbits and about 5000 rats were wiped out on the nature reserve, ending a tenure spanning almost a century.
The benefits are now evident right across the small island, with seabird monitoring showing there are now more than 55,000 breeding pairs of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters using the island.
The threatened Gould’s Petrel is also nesting again, and two orchid species have also been found for the first time in the island’s recorded history.
The National Parks and Wildlife Service continue to monitor the island.
Huts on Broughton Island today.