Page 7 – The role of government
Rabbit Nuisance legislation
The first Rabbit Nuisance Act was passed in 1867, and there have been many more acts since. The 1881 Act established a system of rabbit inspectors, and the 1882 Act increased their powers. Inspectors came under the authority of the Department of Agriculture after it was set up in 1892. Rabbit control was one of the department’s major functions, accounting for a quarter of its budget in 1895.
Rabbit Nuisance Amendment Act 1947
By 1946, there were over 100 rabbit boards, administering rabbit control over 7.3 million hectares. The Rabbit Nuisance Amendment Act 1947 was a landmark in the attempt to control rabbits. It required all rabbit boards to adopt a ‘killer policy’ – their priority was to kill rabbits, almost regardless of cost. The Act restructured the rabbit control system:
- It set up a central advisory body, the Rabbit Destruction Council, consisting of farmer and government representatives.
- Rabbit board staff were made responsible for all organisation and operation of rabbit destruction.
- Funding came from rates charged to landholders, based on the area of their properties or the number of stock carried. This was paid to locally elected rabbit boards.
- Central government subsidised rates on a pound-for-pound basis.
- Rabbits were to be progressively de-commercialised.
From state subsidies to user pays
The changes brought in by the 1947 Act, along with aerial poisoning and 1080 poison, were highly successful in controlling rabbits from the 1950s to the 1970s. But despite the drop in numbers, the cost of control remained high. In 1980 the government changed its funding from a dollar-for-dollar subsidy to a lump sum payment, to be reviewed annually. Then in 1984 a ‘user pays’ policy was adopted, and the government’s contribution was progressively withdrawn.
The administration of rabbit control was completely restructured in 1989. The newly formed regional councils took over the role of the Agricultural Pest Destruction Council (which had replaced the Rabbit Destruction Council in 1967) and rabbit boards were disbanded. Coincidentally, at the very time that funding for rabbit control declined and its administration changed, a long drought in Marlborough, Canterbury, and North and Central Otago led to an explosion in rabbit numbers.