Rabbit proof fence

Map of Western Australia, showing Rabbit-proof fences No.1, No.2 and No.3.In 1896, Arthur Gregory Mason reported that rabbits were at least two hundred miles past the South Australian border and inside Western Australia at the town of Eucla. His recommendation to the government was to build a rabbit proof fence.

After much debate and a Royal Commission, the government eventually adopted the idea of a barrier fence. In 1901 the Government Surveyor, AW Canning surveyed a route for the fence and its construction began in December the same year.

Seven years of hard work followed - gangs of men, teams of horses, mules, camels, wagons, carts, picks and shovels, and a lot of sweat and tired muscles. When the fence was completed it was the longest fence in the world, stretching from Starvation Boat Harbour, just west of Esperance in the south, to Wallal on the 80 Mile Beach in the north west.

The rabbit-proof fence today. Photographed near Pernjori, by Tony and Karolyn Mason. Even before completion, the rabbits were past the fence and work had begun on Fences No.2 and 3. By 1908 the three fences were complete, over 3,000km of fenceline in total!

Although the construction of the fences was finished, someone was needed to patrol and maintain them. Alex Crawford was appointed the first Chief Inspector of Rabbits and was required to inspect and maintain the fences. Everything inside the fence became known, jokingly, as Crawford's Paddock. Inspecting the fence was an immense task. Crawford had many work parties to assist him, but the country was rough and in many areas water was scarce or non-existent.

Without water, the use of horses to carry out the fence inspection was difficult. When camels were used, it was found that inspection of the fence was unsatisfactory from atop a beast, so bicycles were given a go - a short lived experiment due to the rough conditions and many flat tyres!

In 1910, a motor vehicle was purchased to carry out the inspection, but was also to prove unsatisfactory. After many punctures and broken springs it had to be towed slowly back to camp by camels! In the end the only workable solution for the inspection teams were buckboard buggies pulled by pairs of camels.

Despite the best efforts to stop the rabbits at the barrier fence, all was to fail. Erosion under the fences, holes in the wire and gates left open allowed rabbits to continue their movement west into the fertile agricultural areas. Ten rabbits could eat as much as one sheep. In their hundreds of thousands they ate out pasture, ring-barked trees and devoured crops.