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Underground mutton

Rabbits in Australia

Underground mutton

Rita Wilson’s rabbit recollections

Mrs Rita Wilson of Mildura, Victoria, contributed this letter to the National Museum’s 1992 research project about rabbits in Australia. Her story highlights how rabbits created opportunities as well as frustrations for those who lived and worked on the land. Mrs Wilson wrote:

Dear Madam,

Letters to the Editor, in Sunraysia Daily Feb. 22nd ’92 – re rabbits.

My recollections start 1930 depression & maybe a few years before, in the Mallee region – north west Victoria. No doubt many families would have starved, but for the ‘underground mutton’ – as it was often called, to eat & sell.

My mother had many ways of cooking same. First remove tailbone (this was supposed to take away rabbit taste) – then soak in salt & water for an hour or so, then dissect for stew, etc. Our favourite was, boil to near cooked – then roast in oven, seasoned & wrapped in bacon – home cured of course. The water would be used for soup and stock later. Too poor to buy bullets, traps were set & visited twice daily. It was very heavy work walking with traps over shoulders across sandy areas (where rabbits liked mainly to burrow) – to begin with only skins could be sold – at 4 pence up to 1/- for bucks. Rabbits were also used to feed to pigs as another avenue of income.

Skinned & rejected rabbits would be boiled up in kerosene tins – maybe with wheat added & fed to pigs. Once rabbits were well cooked, the bones came free & would be taken out before feeding to pigs.

As more rabbiters made more volume of rabbits – pickup trucks entered most areas (rabbits were checked for bruising, paired and hung across a f[ence] wire after being gutted. They then went to closest ice works – as problems presented there – eventually refrigerated trucks stopped along the highway. Rabbiters given time usually very early a.m. so it was a[n] early start to go around traps. Refrigerated trucks would then go to a major centre, such a[s] Mildura.

Approx. 1950 my husband & I purchased a farm next to big desert in the mallee. It was a very dry period & rabbits had to come into our one small dam for water. We netted the dam with a few entrances for the rabbit to get through a funnel shaped hole. The rabbit could find [the] entrance, but as it was so narrow at the other end of [the] funnel, they were trapped in the enclosure.

Our first try netted 250 & husband (a city boy back from [the] RAAF) bravely faced the task. As told, he grabbed one & rung its neck and threw it outside the enclosure, then a second one. Imagine his dismay when each dazed bunny jumped up & ran away. After that, he made sure of the ghastly deed by putting boot on head first, to get stronger pull. To start with, we netted every 2nd night. Had to remove enclosure daily for stock to water. Usually 200 to 200 a night.

The trappers were very diligent, would ask permission, then ‘work it’ until most rabbits were caught. Farmer would then rip burrows up – maybe first ferreting or fumigating same. A close watch would be kept of the areas to see no fresh openings. Greyhound dogs were also used, but they caused bruising. 

Trappers would gut & pair rabbits – then hang over a wire, or mallee stick, suspended between forked sticks – then would cover all with a hessian sleeve, or screen, to keep out flies, while waiting for pickup trucks.

These are some of my recollections.

Yours sincerely,

(Mrs) Rita Wilson

Scan of first page of handwritten letter by Rita Wilson
Scan of second page of handwritten letter by Rita Wilson
Scan of third page of handwritten letter by Rita Wilson
Rita Wilson's rabbit recollections, February 1992. Courtesy Rita Wilson.
Explore the letter in detail: page 1page 2 and page 3

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Jack Hyland
10 Apr 2017 10:21am

On a dry sunny summers day we had just finished "muckin' a byre" (cleaning out a cowshed) and the manure was piled on the back of a flattop trailer and we were riding on top of the Shi'ite to the manure dump when I spotted a lone rabbit. John was slowed the tractor to allow me to jump off and dive at this rabbit but when I grabbed the creature it must have got a fright but not nearly as bad as the fright I got because it was riddled with mixed mitosis (Wikipedia: Myxomatosis (sometimes shortened to "myxo" or "myxy") is a disease that affects rabbits, caused by the myxoma virus. It was first observed in Uruguay in laboratory rabbits in the late 19th century. It was introduced into Australia in 1950 in an attempt to control the rabbit population (see Rabbits in Australia). Affected rabbits develop skin tumors, and in some cases blindness, followed by fatigue and fever; they usually die within 14 days of contracting the disease.)