European settlement of the new world is almost invariably portrayed as a purely human occupation or “conquest”. In ecological terms, however, the real conquerors of Australia were not humans.

Brian Coman, Tooth and Nail: The Story of the Rabbit in Australia

One of my earliest memories is helping my parents lay out poisoned carrots. I wasn’t allowed to handle the poison, but I like to imagine I provided some help finding the burrows. That was in the late 1980s, a few years before the RHD virus – or calicivirus – had its devastating effect on Australia’s rabbit population. By the time Brian Coman’s Tooth and Nail was originally published in 1999, RHD had all but wiped out the rabbit in much of the country. Poisoning rabbits was no longer a standard part of Australian childhood, and for any number of reasons – environmental, economic, animal welfare – this was a very good thing. The publication of a revised edition ten years on is timely; rabbit numbers in Australia are again are on the rise.

Coman has spent half a lifetime involved in rabbit control in this country, mostly as a research scientist for the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment.  He knows this material and is passionate about it. Tooth and Nail makes a compelling case that the rabbit is a major force in Australian social, economic and – perhaps most violently of all – environmental history.

Rabbits were first brought to Australia with the First Fleet, but it wasn’t until the 1860s, when rabbits were deliberately released for hunting – most notably by Thomas Austin in Geelong – that a sustainable population could be found in the wild. Within a couple of decades, rabbits were to be found in large numbers across virtually the whole of south-east Australia and were making significant inroads into Queensland. Along the way they were eating new growth shoots of native flora (which would eventually lead to deforestation), eroding the soil with warrens and competing directly for resources with Australia’s farming industry. Tooth and Nail is the story of how we have been fighting to control them ever since.

Just as academic history has a propensity to be dry as dust, so called ‘popular history’ writing has a tendency to be as light as candy floss. They can both be equally as dull. Coman walks the middle ground, bringing a serious and scholarly approach to Tooth and Nail, without being afraid to be entertaining. Actually, I imagine it might be hard for Coman to restrain himself from being enjoyable company. As someone with a long professional relationship with his subject, Coman may be expected to bring a personal perspective to much of the story. But his improbable stories, from ferreting for rabbits as a boy in Kyneton, to his uncle having to be taken home by a passing cream cart after getting ‘crook’ from distributing chloropicrin poison with a dessertspoon are surprising. It is these personal remembrances, accompanied by an evident passion for the subject that elevate Tooth and Nail above a moral tale.

Although this is a ostensibly a general history of the rabbit in Australia, Tooth and Nail makes no secret that it is also about the future. Rabbits still pose an enormous threat to our environment and agriculture. As Coman says, ‘in the case of planning for the future of rabbit control in Australia, there are only two certainties: there will be rabbits and they will cause damage.’ To a large degree, this revised edition of Tooth and Nail is a call to arms. Coman is explicit about history’s message: the time to act is now, before rabbits again get out of our control.

Publisher: Text Publishing

RRP: $25.95

ISBN: 9781921656385

Rafiq Copeland is an itinerant television researcher.