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Rabbits: Turning the tables

Newsroom logo Newsroom 10/05/2021 Melanie Reid
a group of people in a field with a mountain in the background © Provided by Newsroom

Since Newsroom’s investigation into the rabbit plague hitting parts of the South Island, we have had many suggestions on ways to extract value from rabbits. Melanie Reid reports on the enterprising small businesses that have sprung up in Otago and Southland aiming to make money out rabbit meat and skins.

Aaron Horrell is a rabbit musterer, regularly heading up into the bony, dry, Central Otago hills, to round up the pests in their hundreds.

It’s what the Gore-based pest controller does afterwards however, that’s the clever part, as it’s not just a bit of southern-man style entertainment, it’s a serious business.

Parts of Otago are being decimated at present, the pests thriving on mild weather, the availability of feed and on some blocks, a lack of control.

The hill country of Central Otago is something of a breeding ground for rabbits of the south. It suits them and Horrell says they often reside on these denuded slopes and come down into paddocks at night to feed. Some drift on further and take hold in any environment that will sustain them.

For Horrell's musters to be effective, barrier fencing covered in rabbit-netting - common on farms here - was essential. Often the work is done in the paddocks, rather than in their hillside home blocks where burrows provide a hiding place.

Preparation for a rabbit muster or “drive”, involved adding temporary fencing in blocks to be mustered, creating a bottle-neck to herd the rabbits through. The fencing would be pulled around behind the pests to keep them in the confined area.

“If you've got good rabbit fences you can set up a trap system, like you're rounding up ewes and lambs for tailing. That's exactly what it's like.”

Musters could be done with three or four people depending on the size of the paddock and the type of vegetation although more often there would be about six, he says.

“They'll get a health and safety briefing and they'll actually get a demonstration on how we kill the rabbits up to the MPI[Ministry of Primary Industry] standard so that everything we do is by the book.”

Rabbit-herders, some paid others just there for outing, then spread out across the paddock and drive any rabbits in their path into the trap. Here the pests are quickly and humanely killed, then carcasses are cleaned, packed into crates and taken to Horrell’s chiller to be sold for human consumption.

“We’re just trying to make a return income from a pest. The old-timers did it but no-one else has for a long time since.”

His wild game supply business is certified and registered to process not only rabbits but hares and deer as well. Little is wasted and the farmer often has to feed about 500 less rabbit-sized stock-units after each night’s kill.

Tallies vary, Horrell says, with badly infested blocks sometimes yielding over a thousand rabbits a night on the first few musters.

“When the human consumption outfit don't want any rabbits or don't need any rabbits because they haven't sold them all, then I just take it to pet food.”

There’s plenty of costs involved and skills required that would preclude the inexperienced person from making money, but for Horrell it’s a good living as well as often being an enjoyable social gathering.

He’s got another source of rabbit meat to top up the chillers too – Bevan Todd from Bannockburn is also harvesting rabbits off Central’s high country.

He’s installed traps know as drop-boxes under rabbit-netted fences and entices the pests in by providing a ready-built tunnel right over them.

The tunnels are opened for the rabbits to use and gain confidence in for a few weeks while any holes being dug along other parts of the fence are constantly monitored and blocked up.

“We maintain the fence line, so we don't give them any alternative. They will dig under the fence if we give them a chance, but if we persevere, they just get used to these tunnels and we'll give him about three weeks and then we'll come and set them.“

It seems once the rabbits catch on that they don’t need to go to the trouble of digging their own tunnels, volumes of traffic through the ready-built ones increases, with 30 or 40 rabbits often filing through each night.

Once the drop-box is activated, a trapdoor opens as the rabbit’s weight lands on it, and in it goes. Each box along the fence line holds about 20 rabbits and all are cleared once full.

The pests thrived living on the dry, chewed-out hill country near Arrowtown and all over Central Otago and if they were hungry there was no stopping them coming down under fencing onto better pickings at night.

At high volumes, he says, there’s no time to go back to bed for a nap, with the traps needing to be constantly emptied all night.

“We were getting around 800 near Arrowtown and it was just all night killing, gutting and filling the chiller.”

For around seven months of the year, the pests would continuously be producing litters but hitting them hard over winter could get numbers down.

At the Arrow Junction farm where he showed Newsroom the system in action, it was a long-term effort.

“We'll just keep trapping. We'll go down to maybe 200 to 300 a night now out of those string of traps and we’ll probably go down over the winter down to a hundred. If we can achieve that we're starting to get there, then you've just got to keep on them if you want to get them down to a tolerable population.”

The traps can be permanent fixtures and by leasing them to farmers during quiet times the business was able to keep a return coming in.

“It’s an evolving business model. You can initially be getting good hauls and doing well but then you might not be able to get into a block for six weeks like on the deer farm in the roar where there’s stags and then you can’t get a return.”

Both rabbit harvesting methods saved on having to use poisons and spend hundreds of dollars on ammunition for shooting. By moving to different areas, harvesters could generally keep a supply going and lower pest numbers for farmers, with no need to let the pests build up to gain better tallies. They also provided meat to provide variation for diners on dozens of restaurant menus.

Callum Hughes has been supplying rabbit meat to restaurants and specialty stores from his Invercargill-based business Fare Game, for 16 years. He employs nine workers and owns one of only two such businesses in New Zealand, the other being based in Blenheim.

“We send it all around the country. It’s a curiosity thing now for people where as back in the old days rabbit was more of a staple.”

He reckons rabbit and hare dishes were growing in popularity and if Kiwis and visitors alike saw it on a menu they often wanted to try it.

All three men agree that yes, it does taste like chicken. A crumbed leg of rabbit could pass for its poultry doppelganger but if you’re more into the dark, dense meat found on a duck, then Callum reckons a meal of hare might be more your thing.

Bespoke Rabbit for Your Interiors

Meanwhile over in Queenstown, Charlotte Mill has created a business around harvesting rabbits to create luxury furnishings as well as a meal.

“We work with landowners in the district to provide a rabbit control service by ‘harvesting’ wild rabbits from their property on a regular rotation -much like lawn mowing. All the ‘harvested’ rabbits are removed from the site and where possible, and we use the pelts to create bespoke eco-fur soft furnishings and gourmet free-range rabbit meat for sale to restaurants and supermarkets.”

After the pandemic halted business at the small hotel she was running, Mill won a Crux Media challenge aimed at inspiring new business ideas that helped solve a problem. She didn’t have to look far for inspiration.

“We are on a hectare here between Arrowtown and Queenstown and we’re fairly inundated. I woke up one day and there were about 40 rabbits on the lawn.”

The fur side of the venture was going well with harvesting services provided by professional hunting guides - also now with time on their hands due to the lack of international clients.

Cracking the meat market was proving more difficult, however, due to time consuming and expensive processes involved with gaining compliance through the Ministry of Primary Industry’s regulations.

Rangi Nui Rabbits operates as a collective involving lots of people, Mill says, and she’s determined to persevere as restaurants were keen for raw meat and gourmet supermarkets waiting to stock pre-prepared, slow-cooked Rangi Nui rabbit.

“We want to do the most we can with that little rabbit, we don’t want to waste anything. It’s very sustainable, lean, interesting and different so we’ve got to be able to do something with it.”

Armed with a concept plan to further a co-ordinated effort in beating the problem and benefiting as many people as possible, Mill planned to attend an Otago Regional Council open day at Lake Hayes this week.

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