Australian Screen

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Life on a Sheep Farm (1965)

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clip The rabbit plague education content clip 2

This clip chosen to be PG

Clip description

Farmers employ various methods to control the rabbit population that is a threat to the available feed for the sheep.

Curator’s notes

This clip contains some footage from the CSIRO production The War Against the Rabbit (1954).

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This clip shows a jackeroo riding around a sheep farm at Ruffy in central Victoria and repairing a rabbit-proof fence to keep rabbits out of the grazing paddocks. A long shot shows the property overrun by rabbits. The clip ends with a farmer fumigating a rabbit warren and a shot of a huge mound of dead rabbits, while the narrator points out that control of the rabbit population is a constant job for farmers.

Educational value points

  • Wild European rabbits are a pest on farms. They compete with livestock for available pasture and kill young shrubs, and their extensive warrens contribute to soil erosion by removing vegetation and disturbing soil. In 2006, it was estimated that the cost of controlling rabbits, and the production losses that they cause, amount to $600 million annually (not taking environmental damage into account).
  • The clip provides clear evidence of overgrazing and soil erosion caused by rabbits. Rabbits ringbark trees and shrubs and prevent regeneration by eating seeds and seedlings. The loss of vegetation from rabbit grazing has led to the extinction of some native species and continues to threaten the survival of native birds, mammals and insects that rely on plants for food and shelter.
  • Rabbits were brought to Australia by the First Fleet in 1788 and were later deliberately introduced to mainland Australia to devastating effect in 1859 by a wealthy Victorian grazier who was a hunting enthusiast. Within 30 years they reached plague proportions, with an estimated 600 million rabbits throughout the country by 1950. By the 1960s, when this documentary was made, rabbits were regarded as Australia’s most serious animal pest and sometimes referred to as 'public enemy number one’.
  • Fumigation of rabbit warrens was an ineffective, costly and labour intensive method of destroying rabbits. The fumigation method shown in the clip involved pumping toxic fumes into the warren. Another method known as 'diffusion fumigation’ involved using tablets that gave off fumes. Fumigation was normally used in combination with other control methods such as poison and the destruction of warrens.
  • Rabbit-proof fencing was expensive to install and maintain and, as shown in the clip, had to be checked regularly for damage caused by stock, falling trees or wildlife. The fence usually consisted of thick netting that was attached to posts and either buried beneath the ground or bent over and secured by pegs or rocks.
  • In the 1950s the myxoma virus was released in Australia to control the rabbit population. It was carried by bloodsucking insects such as fleas and caused myxomatosis, which was only fatal to rabbits. The disease reduced the rabbit population by an incredible 90 per cent. However, some rabbits developed a genetic resistance and by 1991 rabbit numbers had recovered to between 200 and 300 million. A second virus, 'rabbit calicivirus’, first detected in China in 1984, was introduced in 1996 and by 2005 the rabbit population was estimated to have decreased to 100 million. Recent research indicates that the rabbit population is, once more, increasing.
  • The clip shows an aspect of a sheep farm in central Victoria in the 1960s, at a time when the sale of wool accounted for one-third of Australia’s export income. Ruffy is a small rural community that was originally settled as a sheep-farming area. Today, the downturn in wool prices has forced many farmers to look to more diverse forms of livelihood.
  • The narration is typical of documentaries made in this period. The narrator, sometimes referred to as 'the voice of God’ because the speaker is heard but not seen, always sounds confident and authoritative, like a newsreader, and this reinforces the impression of the film’s objectivity and credibility. Until the 1970s, documentary and newsreel narrators, and radio newsreaders and announcers, were expected to adopt a 'cultivated’ Australian English or English accent, based on the accent of announcers working for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

This clip starts approximately 4 minutes into the documentary.

We see old footage of the farm’s owner riding a horse around his property.
Narrator And the whole area is enclosed with a boundary fence and it is divided up into several paddocks. To ride right around the farm on horseback, the rider covers almost 16 miles and a jackeroo must patrol this fence regularly, several times a week, repairing the breakages and blocking up holes in the rabbit-proof netting. The rabbits must be kept out of the grazing land.

We see a shot of one of the rabbits.
Narrator This is a familiar little fellow. Most people think he is quite harmless and do not realise how destructive he can be. In only one year, two rabbits can multiply into hundreds and seven rabbits can eat as much grass as one sheep. It is a constant job for the farmer to keep down the rabbit population on his land.

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