Otago rabbit numbers set to explode

By John Gibb

Otago regional councillor Gary Kelliher yesterday warned rabbits were "going to explode" in Central Otago this year after three successive dry winters.

He was commenting at a regional council regulatory committee meeting at which a report on rabbit monitoring was tabled.

The relatively dry, mild winter had allowed more rabbits to survive, rather than being killed in their burrows by rising water levels in wetter conditions, Mr Kelliher said.

This higher survival rate, combined with an expected dry summer, was likely to result in a further big rise in rabbit numbers, and he noted reports of increased rabbit numbers.

Council environmental monitoring and operations director Scott MacLean said 25 follow-up audits and inspections had taken place in the most recent reporting period, in the Gibbston, Bannockburn, Cromwell and Upper Clutha area.

Rabbit poisoning operations with carrot had been under way in recent weeks in the Roxburgh and Upper Clutha areas.

Climatic conditions were ''favouring rabbits'', particularly in some areas of Central Otago.

"Some toxin operations did not proceed as there was poor uptake of the pre-feed carrot due to the availability of young grass throughout much of the relatively mild winter season," he wrote in the report.

The committee also heard expectations were generally positive that a fresh imported strain of a lethal calicivirus already in New Zealand would be available next year.

Mr MacLean later emphasised all property owners had a responsibility to control rabbits on their properties, and that rabbit-proof fencing could also prove helpful.

Cr Graeme Bell was also concerned about growing rabbit numbers and later said several rabbits were seen running through a street at Albert Town at 9am on a recent Sunday.

Cr Gerry Eckhoff said rabbits remained the "old enemy" and should never be underestimated. He commented later that some people who owned smaller lifestyle blocks did not relish the idea of shooting or poisoning rabbits.

Rabbits were living under houses in some parts of Central Otago, he said. Unless the pests were properly controlled, they could inflict major economic damage.

Council chairman Stephen Woodhead later said there was "absolutely" no room for complacency and every landowner, including people with lifestyle blocks, had a legal responsibility to control rabbits.

There was evidence rabbit numbers had ''greatly increased'' and landowners ''need to be proactive and ensure they undertake'' rabbit control activities.

A focus on controlling rabbits needed to be maintained throughout the year and working collaboratively with rural neighbours was crucial.

''Land owners need to be aware,'' he said. ''It's not something that can be left to chance.''

- The Country

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