“Are you going to eat them?’Asked the surprised farmer who had let us onto his property. He assumed we were just shooting for sport, which was only part of the fun we had mind. For him, culling rabbits is an important task on its own. These fluffy mammals are despised Otago because they voraciously munch through grassy fields which would otherwise be turned into sheep and cows.
The earliest plan to control rabbits was the introduction of Stoats in the 1880s. Unfortunately, these ferret-like predators found plenty of better things on the menu, native birds included. Huge amounts of time and money are now spent on suppressing stoat populations, but they have only been eradicated from small, remote islands.
A more recent biological control plan for rabbits involved the Calicivirus. Though, can it really be called a plan? Back in 1997 the government considered importing a virus from Australia, but decided against it. Calicivirus had established itself their only because it jumped the fence of its testing lab, and while it was certainly doing a job of felling rabbits, the offical decision was that not enough was known about its effects on the rest of the Kiwi biota.
But a group of farmers in the Mackenzie country decided to take matters into their own hands. They flew accross a sample of the virus, before running a clandestine operation to establish the virus. This meant blending up the organs of dead bunnies, dunking carrots in into this slurry and spreading them accross the landscape.
Within a couple of week, rabbit carcasses were strewn across the landscape, authorities started asking questions, but by this point the virus could no longer be contained. It was a case of Farmers: 1, Government: 0. As for rabbits, about 10% of their initial population was still hopping.
Unfortunately for the farmers, most rabbits are now immune. For this reason, a new strain has been developed specifically to bypass this immunity and it may soon be introduced to New Zealand, this time through official agencies. (Or not).
But what does all this have to do with eating them? Well, some people will say that rabbits might be infected, and so cant be eaten. On the first point they are spot on, however Calicivirus doesn’t infect humans. Rabbits are perfectly good food, subject only to the normal precautions you would take when eating any animal flesh – if it looks or smells bad, leave it alone. But most often you’ll be heading home with enough meat for a dinner party and more to freeze for later.
I shot three rabbits (to Andrews’s four), and turned them into a massive batch of slow cooked Maltese Stew, stuffat tal-fenek. The rabbit’s hard working muscles are something like lean and less tender version of chicken, even after 12 hours in the slow cooker. But apart from the cooking time, yon can easily swap it out for another meat in a pie, curry, pasta sauce or burger. It good for farmers and good for you.