Dick Hunt's Blog

January 2, 2010

A Rabbit Plague

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A Rabbit Plague
by Dick Hunt, May, 2008.
In 1936, when I was 16 years of age in east central Alberta there was a severe shortage of feed for livestock  and at the same time a very  unusual influx of Jack Rabbits.  You may have heard of the same conditions in Australia some time ago.   It is something that has to be seen to be appreciated.
Normally in my young days there were always rabbits to be seen with their distinctive long bounding gait with which they could attain some pretty amazing speeds.  It was a speedy coyote or farm dog which could catch one for a meal and coyotes used to work together to head off the prey and run it to earth.
In the fall of 1935 we had carefully cut and stacked our green oats, having cut the crop with a grain binder and stacked it in round stacks, somewhat reminiscent of a bee hive, but much larger.  My Father taught me how to build that type of stack and he was a great teacher.  It  was essential  to build them in such a way that they would not fall apart or tip over and so that they would readily shed the moisture from snow or rain.
The same winter we had a herd of around sixty work horses, trained and ready to put to work when spring rolled around.  Dad raised a distinctive breed of heavy horses called the Shires for many years and had brought out the seed stock from England shortly before the 1914 to 1918 World War.  They were magnificent animals and he built up the herd and  supplied them to a  lively market in our community.  We also used up to 36 head for farming purposes during the spring to fall months, preparing them for the days’ work in the early mornings each week day.
In order to make sure they were in prime condition as we neared the time of spring land work, each evening just before sundown two or three of us men, (yes I was easily doing a man’s work at that age) took  two bushel sacks of oat grain on our shoulders and carefully fed little piles of grain at intervals on the packed snow down the  slope of the winter pasture where the horses were conditioned to  meet us at that hour.  The long string of horses was joined each evening with a massive influx of Jack Rabbits, also conditioned to come  for their evening meal.  The horses and rabbits competed very vigorously for their go at the oats, the rabbits being so hungry that they were quite unafraid of men or horses.
The condition of our remaining oat bundle stacks in the stockyard, a fenced area designed to keep out cattle and horses, did not keep out rabbits.  They were so famished that they fought with each other to get what food they could.  They had eaten the bundles, straw and all as far in and up as they could reach around the stacks until they looked something like toad stools. They were so numerous that we  could walk among them and they took no notice of   us, being in fact inclined to be belligerent.
The closer the spring season approached, the more hungry the rabbits became. We decided to do whatever we could to cope with the sheer numbers. Two plans took shape. In the late twenty’s my Father had a grass tennis court erected in the farmyard.  It had a ten foot high chicken wire fence with a two by four railing around the tops of the posts. We opened a small entrance in the wire on the west  end of the court and hung a light weight gate on the wire, to be held open by a stick of wood.  A  long length of binder twine  (sissal twine) was stretched from the house to the top of the stick.
We then scattered a trail of green oat bundles from the area where  the  horses were fed in the evening to the gate in the chicken wire and on into the court and around the perimeter inside.  Before bedtime, someone tripped the gate and trapped whatever was in the tennis court.  We went in and exterminated the rabbits with our small calibre rifle. and they were numerous.  The other plan was to build a trap on the hill south of the buildings, made of page wire but smaller and with a vee shaped entrance which the rabbits easily discovered because again we made a trail of green oats into and around the interior.  That  one was equally succesful in reducing the number of rabbits but really, we were only making a small dent in the numbers.
As spring came, nature took it’s course and a plague of some sort struck the rabbit population and naturally destroyed the rabbits almost to the point of extinction.  They died out rapidly and all around ranch there were dead rabbits in great numbers.  As far as we were able to discover, the disease did not affect any other species although the returning crows and other species of wildlife undoubtedly feasted upon the dead carcasses.  For a number of  years after that, there were very few rabbits to be seen and never were we to see great numbers of them again.
This account would not be complete without an incident that appeared in the local papers during that winter.  A local trucker decided to capitalize on the rabbit availability and devised ways of “harvesting” them in great numbers and freezing them until he  had a large truckload.  He found a market for them with the fox and mink farms near Calgary and one fine day he started off to deliver them.  His route included the winding, descending road down into the Drumheller Valley, now famous for it’s Dinosaur discoveries and the magnificent Natural Museum in the badlands.  It is also becoming famous for it’s Badlands Passion Play, staged in an adjacent community in a near vicinity.
But Billy had bad brakes on his truck and they failed him on the way down the hill, spilling an entire truckload of rabbits all around the accident area.  That took some time to clean up, after the  truck was restored to service. We were given to understand that the rabbits eventually reached their destination before the spring thaw added  to Billy’s problems.

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