CANBERRA Aug 11 (Reuters Life) - With rabbit numbers on the rise across Australia, conservationists are seeking to educate a new generation about the dangers posed by one of the country's worst pests and rally support for a third, nationwide assault.
Rabbits were introduced to Australia in 1859 when a farmer let 24 loose in the state of Victoria as a shooting sport but the fast-breeding animals quickly spread with a pair of rabbits able to produce up to 184 rabbits in 18 months.
By 1890 rabbits were at plague numbers and by the 1920s their numbers had reached an estimated 10 billion.
In the 1950s Australian scientists released the disease Myxomatosis to bring numbers under control and in the mid-1990s followed up with the Calicivirus that again cut rabbit numbers.
But Jenny Quealy, a community conservationist who has just written a book about rabbits in Australia, said numbers were rising again and it was time to prepare a new assault.
Figures show rabbits cause an estimated $206 million of damage a year to agriculture, threaten native animals by eating their food and bringing predators to their areas, and degrade the environment by causing soil erosion and water pollution.
"There is an element of success in our battle of the rabbits and so the issue really went off the radar," Quealy told Reuters.
"But any viral control only has a shelf life of 10 to 12 years and if you don't keep the research going and work on the next viral update you'll find the rabbits fight back and there is another major growth. We're getting into the critical zone now."
Most Australians recognize rabbits as a pest with a recent survey by the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Center ranking them third public enemy after cane toads and feral cats.
Rounding out the top five were carp and feral pigs.
"But older Australians have a greater concern about the rabbit than younger Australians, some of whom just see them as cute and cuddly and nibbling at grass," said Quealy.
"Anybody who was around in the 1950s probably remembers rabbits as they would have been well aware of the stink of rabbits across the country and the massive effort to get rid of them and the heartache and financial losses with that."
To ensure these memories are not lost, Quealy has collected 187 stories from Australians at the frontline in battles against rabbits in her book "Great Australian Rabbit Stories."
These include the heartbreaking story of a farmer who went out to cull rabbits but his horse came back alone. The horse had tripped in a warren, tumbling the rider who died in the fall. His wife, in her grief, went out and killed 100 rabbits herself.
The book also contains stories of fathers and sons going shooting rabbits together, bonding in the process, and of families who lost their farms when they were overrun by rabbits.
"The rabbit has had such an impact on how regions have developed and how farms have come and gone out of families' hands," said Quealy.
"The amount of effort and work that communities had to do at the height of the plague was amazing. Everyone had to be engaged in rabbit killing and it was pretty gruesome."
Quealy said she respected the rabbit and how it survived.
"But my biggest feeling is that the rabbit has been an absolute disaster for Australia and we can't do enough to get the numbers down and reduce its impact," she said.
(Editing by Paul Casciato)