Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Rabbit Proof Fence

In 1859, a man in Victoria imported 24 wild rabbits from England so that he could have something to hunt on his property.  As rabbits breed, well, like rabbits, the little ones got busy bumping and grinding and reproduced quickly.  Conditions in Australia were just right for rabbit procreation:  warm weather yielding a year-round breeding season, lots of low grasses and shrubbery for them to eat, and no natural predators on the continent… anywhere.  As the rabbits increased in numbers, they moved beyond the original property into neighbouring lands, then across Victoria and the whole of Australia.

The rabbits have had a devastating effect on Australia and they are widely considered to be the biggest contributing factor to species loss in this country.  Rabbits compete with native species for food and burrows.  The bilby is the most notable example.  The Lesser Bilby is believed to be already extinct due to competition from rabbits, and the Greater Bilby is vulnerable.  This is one of the main drivers of switching the Easter Bunny to the Easter Bilby in Australia.  Rabbits also cause soil erosion as they devour plants and this can have harmful effects for agriculture, livestock, and the economy.

Over the years, the government has implemented a wide variety of measures to either control or eradicate the rabbits, including shooting, trapping, poisoning, fumigating, or ripping, a process where bulldozers drag spikes through the ground to dismember rabbits and/or destroy their burrows, thus burying the little critters alive.  Viruses have also been introduced with much success.  One virus, myxomatosis, was introduced in 1950 and quickly killed off hundreds of millions of rabbits.  Those that survived were the most immune to the disease and passed that immunity onto their offspring.  With myxomatosis becoming less and less effective over time, the rabbit calicivirus was introduced in 1996.  This new virus caused an epidemic of rabbit haemorrhagic disease.  The virus was 95% effective, though as with the first introduction, survivors are now showing some resistance to the disease.

Before modern science yielded viruses as a rabbit control method, one state decided to try something a bit more rudimentary.  In an effort to try to stop rabbits from entering most of its territory, Western Australia decided to build a fence.  So, in 1901 construction began on what is known as the No. 1 Rabbit Proof Fence.

For those of you who are avid movie-goers, you probably know of a 2002 film titled Rabbit-Proof Fence.  The movie is based on the true story of three half-Aboriginal girls who are forcibly taken from their homes to be assimilated into white culture, then escape and follow the Rabbit Proof Fence over 1,000 kilometres back to their home.  That whole story is another blog for another day…

Aside from the fact that rabbits may have been able to jump over the fence, burrow under the fence, or simply hop through it when motorists or farmers accidentally left a gate open, the Rabbit Proof Fence is a feat of engineering.  Now, I reckon it’s difficult to imagine a fence as a feat of engineering, especially since you probably have one in your back yard and could maybe even build one yourself given enough time and the help of a handy lesbian or two.  In this case, however, the fence was the longest fence in the world.  The single fence stretched the entire length of Western Australia from top to bottom, and in case you are forgetting, Western Australia is massive – roughly the size of Alaska, Texas, and California combined.  In all, the main part of the fence stretched 1,139 miles or 1,837 kilometres.  For those of you in America, and specifically for my friends back in Seattle, imagine a fence starting in downtown Seattle.  That fence will run south through Tacoma, Olympia, Portland, Medford… all the way down to Los Angeles.  That’s right: this fence stretched longer than the distance between Seattle and LA.  For those of you on the East Coast, try the same thing but with New York City and Tampa instead.

Back in the day, rabbits would hop along the fences until they were caught by traps that were placed at regular intervals.  Nowadays, the traps are often seen as inhumane and have been banned in most places, but it doesn’t matter anyway.  With the introduction of the semi-successful myxomatosis virus in 1950, the state began to rely less on the fence and more on modern methods of control.  Today, the No. 1 Rabbit Proof Fence and the shorter No. 2 and No. 3 fences do not exist in their original forms, though a portion of each runs with the current 1,170 kilometre State Barrier Fence of Western Australia.  The current fence surrounds much of the agricultural areas in the southwest of the state, acting as a corridor for trapping feral animals and preventing disease from infiltrating or escaping the area.

While the world’s longest fence is no longer intact, remnants remain.  We pulled off to a historical marker on the side of the road and were delighted to find the spot where construction of the No. 1 Rabbit Proof Fence began in 1901.

Notice the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme pipeline in the background.  This is where the longest fence in the world crossed over the longest pipeline in the world.  An engineering geek’s orgasm.

More impressive was what we found two days earlier while visiting the Inside Australia sculptures on Lake Ballard:

Remnants of the No. 1 Rabbit Proof Fence – the real deal!

To clarify:  I’m not an engineering geek.  And this isn’t orgasmic…

But I am a nerd.  And this was pretty exciting.

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