Rabbits and the Fence Built to Stop Them

It is generally accepted that the spread of rabbits in Australia originated from the property of Thomas Austin, near Geelong in Victoria. Within three years they had reached pest proportions.

Only 30 years after rabbits were introduced for sport in Victoria in 1859, they had crossed the Nullarbor and were in plague numbers in the eastern part of Western Australia.

The government acted quickly, building what was then the longest fence in the world (3,256 kilometres) in an attempt to stop the spread of the rabbit. (Fence No 1). This attempt at what today is known as biosecurity was less than successful.

The rabbits breached the Fence before it was finished, and two more fences were ordered. These barriers kept rabbits out until the 1920s, when the line of demarcation was again breached. Eventually biological control methods (myxomatosis 1950s, calicivirus 1980s) were used to control rabbit populations. For much of its southern length, No 1 Fence delineates the sharp boundary between the Great Western Woodlands and the Wheatbelt.

Today the fence is maintained by the State Government against the impact of wild dogs on pastoral and agricultural properties.

Back in 1883 the WA Parliament of the day passed the Destruction of Rabbits Act. By 1895, the “Rabbit Question” was a major issue.

In June 1896, Lands and Surveys Department Surveyor Mason left on an expedition to investigate the rabbit position. He travelled generally north easterly from Kalgoorlie via Kurnalpi to Boundary Dam, some 720 kilometres.

Here, his camels, most of his stores and water were stolen by aboriginals and he and his hired hand, were forced to walk 260 kilometres south to Eucla, suffering acute privations enroute. On the completion of his expedition, Mason recommended that a rabbit proof fence about 300-500 kilometres in length be constructed along the State boundary and a second fence be constructed some 350 kilometres west of the border, thus fencing in the rabbits. This was to be followed up by liberating a few hundred cats to clean up the rabbits therein.

A further two expeditions were sent out to assess the advance of the rabbits. A Mr Page carried out a six months expedition in January, 1898. In 1900, Stock and Rabbit Inspector White investigated east of Esperance and north of Norseman. Both men recommended barrier fences be constructed.

Royal Commission 1901

The penetration of the rabbits into the State was sufficiently disturbing that a Royal Commission to “Enquire into the Rabbit Question” was appointed in February 1901.

The Commission found that rabbits were invading Western Australia in plague numbers and was very critical of the apathy of responsible authorities, and their utter want of appreciation of the danger the State was incurring through the rabbit invasion. It advocated the construction of a barrier fence and concluded “This national loss [of pastoral country] would, in all probability have been obviated had steps been taken in reasonable time to check the incursion in its early stages”.

Survey of No. 1 Fence

Between 1901 and 1905, Surveyor A.W. Canning (of Canning Stock Route fame) completed the survey of what was to be known as the No. 1 Rabbit Proof Fence.

This stretched from Starvation Boat Harbour on the south coast to Cape Keraudren north of Port Hedland a distance of 1833 kilometres, then being the longest unbroken fence in the world.

Building the Fence

Owing to the absence of suitable timber for posts the style of fencing between the Southern Ocean and the Perth to Kalgoorlie railway was a combination of all wooden posts, one wooden post to every four iron standards, and all iron standards except for strainers. The bulk of the iron materials and other requisites for the fence were railed to Burracoppin and delivered there to the contractors.

The inhospitable nature of the country through which the fence passed and the exaggerated reports circulated as to the prevalence of poison along the routes, were responsible for a good deal of trouble and delays in the completion of this section of barrier fence.

There was a reluctance by contractors to do the work, or even tender. For clearing the line of the fence, tenders ranged from £6 to £32 per mile. For erecting a four wired fence, the prices tendered were from £29 to £72 per mile.

Fence Reserves

Reserves were required for various purposes such as for water conservation and sinking of wells, camel and horse breeding purposes, and stop over hut sites. Along the 1833 kilometres of the No. 1 Fence there were some 83 surveyed reserves, ranging in areas from four acres to 33,000 acres at Dromedary Hills, held for camel and horse breeding purposes. These were cropped for chaff to feed the animals, used in teams, and for pulling the boundary riders carts.

Maintenance of the Fence

Section 1 comprised No. 1 fence from Starvation Boat Harbour to Lake Nabberu, 685 kilometres north of Burracoppin and totalling 1030 kilometres. Headquarters were at Burracoppin.

Section 4 extended north from Lake Nabberu to Cape Keraudren north of Port Hedland, a total of 800 kilometres. Headquarters were at Jigalong.

Sections 2 and 3 were for other Fences.

Many of the boundary riders used camels. Those working in the far north travelled in pairs because of the possible danger from aboriginals. Those using camels had patrol lengths of about 110 kilometres, which were covered every sixth day. Other boundary riders used specially sprung bicycles, fitted with 3 speed gears, and their patrol lengths averaged around 50 kilometres, and were covered twice a week.

Huts or water sheds were constructed at frequent intervals along the fences. Chained to one of the upright posts of such structures, would be a galvanised iron drum having a hinged lid and hasp and staple riveted that could be locked. In these drums were stored the boundary rider’s stores and groceries for safe keeping.

Supply wagons travelled the fences about every two months, bringing out supplies, clothing and other items that had been ordered on the last trip. Men riding camels, and bicycles could not be expected to cart supplies with them to cover the days out on patrol. As a safety measure, the boundary riders were to meet each other at the end of their respective lengths on pre-determined dates. If they did not meet, then the boundary rider arriving at the appointed place would continue on until the other man was contacted.

The Difficulties of Maintenance

  1. Floods

The pastoral areas are subjected to drought, and during these periods the leaves of trees and scrub dry and fall to the ground. Much of these areas are practically flat. When the floods came they carried accumulated debris along, to bank up against the netting, with the ultimate result that the fence was being pushed down flat or completely washed away. Often these floods extended for many kilometres over the almost flat rangelands. In the southern areas, the many creeks and watercourses caused havoc to the fences during floods.

  1. Sand Drifts

Much trouble was experienced in the far north where the fence had to be constructed over or near sand dunes. Much sand drift damage resulted from over cultivation of light, sandy soils in the paddocks adjacent to the fence in the agricultural areas.

  1. Bush Fires

Over the years much damage to the fences has resulted from bush fires, a preponderance of which originated from settlers burning off, perhaps many kilometres away from the actual fences. From time to time, serious bush fire damage is still experienced, but danger from this source has been largely reduced through a policy of progressively constructing firebreaks 10m or more wide.

  1. Gates

These had to be erected in the fences. They were spaced not more than 16 kilometres apart and in some sections, such as in the more developed areas, 8 kilometres apart. More gates had to be added as local authorities opened up new roads. Gates proved a tremendous weakness in the fence systems, as the big majority of the people using them – the travelling public, the local inhabitants who found the shutting of gates bothersome, and so on, – left them open. In the northern areas, some of the gates were broken when both aboriginal adults and juveniles, discovered that swinging on the gates was “plurry good fun”.

  1. Landholders

In the early days when the rabbits were coming up against the fences, they banked back in their hundreds onto the adjoining farm properties situated to the east of the fences. To ease the pressure these settlers often lifted the netting out of the ground and enabled the rabbits to move westwards through the fence.

Often the settlers, who were short of water for their stock, would raid the water tanks along the fence and empty them. A boundary rider under such circumstances, faced serious trouble on arriving to the camp during the night only to find the water gone. As a consequence he would be forced to proceed on his bike until he found water, sometimes as much as 40 kilometres further on. The fences would be damaged through settlers illegally using the fence tracks for carting materials or dragging farm machinery along. This resulted in smashed posts, torn netting and badly rutted tracks, or leaving morasses where vehicles had been dug out of bogs.

  1. Hunters

Hunters were responsible for much damage to the fences caused by kangaroos and emus smashing into the netting and wires and tearing or breaking them. Also, the bullets fired along the fences would often miss the intended mark and rip the netting. The vehicles used to chase down the game often ended up hitting the fence, ripping the netting, breaking the wires and posts.

  1. Dingoes and Foxes

The fences initially had just the one barbed wire above the netting. Around 1911/12 it was reported that foxes had been seen around Esperance. Dingo ravaging of sheep was increasing on properties to the west and it was alleged the animals were getting over the No. 1 fence. Extra barbed wires were added above the netting on the No. 1 Fence from the south coast and to a point about 1000 kilometres north of Burracoppin, over a considerable period.

Mechanisation – A Beginning

During the 1940s the buck board, drawn either by horses or camels, had given way to a motor vehicle capable of carrying a 1400kg load for the use of the sub-inspectors with headquarters at Burracoppin, and Yalgoo. Later this was followed up with a similar load capacity truck for each of the gangs employed on the fences. A few of the boundary riders purchased their own vehicles for use in patrolling their lengths. In such cases an extra £1 a week was paid to them as a vehicle allowance. Under these conditions the boundary riders lengths varied from 160 to 320 kilometres, and usually took about a month for the round journey.

Specification of the No. 1 Rabbit Proof Fence, 1904

ALIGNMENT:

The fence to be erected 2 feet on the eastern side of the pegged line. The fence reserve was one chain wide.

FENCE POSTS:

Timber: Mulga, jam, white gum, blood wood, cypress pine or black oak. Ordinary Posts, not less than 4 inches diameter of solid wood at the small end and sawn square, top and bottom. Posts 4 feet above ground level and 1’9” below, except in loose sand when depth to be 2’ 6”. Posts to be bored at 4” above the ground, 16” above that, 16” above that and 10” above that; the last hole for tying the barbed wire (3’10” above ground level). However, the top wire of the No. 2 Fence, south Cunderdin was a plain one, except where cattle were run on adjoining properties.

STRAINING AND ANGLE POSTS:

Not less that 8” diameter of solid wood at the small end, and sawn square at top and bottom. To be 8’ long, 4’ above ground level and 4’ below. All strainer posts shall be charred or dipped in hot coal tar up 4’6” from the bottom; to be 32 posts between successive strainer posts.

STAYS:

All angles to be stayed with at least 6 ply wire. The supporting stump pile to be 3’ in the ground, sunk at a batter of 1 in 6 away from the fence. The top of the pile being level with the ground, and 8’ clear of the angle post.

NETTING:

To be 42” x 11⁄4” x 17 gauge having two ply selvage and breaking strain of not less than 200lbs. Netting to be hung perpendicularly, 3’ above ground level and 6” below except in loose sand when extra netting shall be attached to make it one foot below ground level. Over rock outcrops the netting to be turned to lay flat and stone or ballast packed over it. The netting to be dipped to a height of 18” from the bottom selvage in a hot solution of two parts coal tar to one part kerosene. Joins of netting to overlap 6” and to be laced with the wire in and out of each mesh, up one side and down the other. All cut ends of the meshes to be well hooked and twisted in.

PLAIN WIRE:

To be 121⁄2 gauge galvanised steel wire, with breaking strain not less than 1,000lbs.

BARBED WIRE:

Two ply 14 gauge galvanised steel wire, having four barbs every 3 inches.

TYING WIRE:

Tough pliable 16 gauge galvanised wire.

CLEARING:

Full width 20 feet, with 14 feet on the east side of the pegged line, to be cleared and grubbed to at least 6 inches below ground level and all holes filled and rammed. The western 6 feet to be cleared of all trees and other growths, including ant heaps, down to a height of not more than 6 inches from the ground, etc.

TRAPS:

One to be erected on the eastern side of the fence not less than 5 miles apart. The traps were 12’ long, 7’ wide and 3’6” high, and entirely enclosed in rabbit netting, including the bottom. A panel of the main fence formed one side of the trap. At each end, and hard up against the main fence, wire netting funnels 6” diameter and 21” long lead into the trap. Leading out from the funnels at each end of the trap and at 45° angle to the main fence were two wing fences, each 60 feet long.

TOP ATTACHMENTS:

Where from any cause such as depressions or rises in the ground, the top plain wire is less than 3 feet above ground level, a strip of netting shall be attached to the barbed wire and meet the top plain wire. For one panel on each side of each gate and for one panel along the main fence and one panel of the wing fence on each side of each trap, the netting shall be carried up (by a strip) and attached to the barbed wire.

GATEWAYS:

Gateways to be placed at least every 10 miles. The gates 11’ 10” long and 4’ 2” wide overall, and covered with netting were made of 13⁄4” x 13⁄4” x 5/16ths angle iron and riveted, with bar type latches. Gate posts were 9’6” in length and not less than 9” in diameter at the small end. The posts were sunk 4’ below ground level, with the hinge post being silled and structured four ways at the base and the other gate post two ways. The gates to be open on the east side only. The main fence post on either side to be a strainer post. The netting to extend past the strainer posts and be fastened securely by staples to the gate posts.

FLOOD GATES:

The frames of the gates to be made of five continuous twisted fence wires, and stayed with five vertical twisted wires the same as the frames. The gates were 12’ long and 3’ wide, attached with five fly hooks of tie wire to the top plain wire. A five wire twisted cable to be stretched from post to post, level with the surface of the ground, and on the down stream side. To this the floodgates were secured. When under the pressure of debris laden flood waters, the fly hooks were supposed to straighten out, thus allowing the gates to fall flat down on the bed of the water course, and permit unrestricted passage of the flood waters.

Alf Canning’s Survey of the No. 1 Fence – Interview

“I went first from Burracoppin to Starvation Boat Harbour, on the south coast, just east of Ravensthorpe. The line I marked out there was 215 miles in extent. I then went north for 369 miles to a point opposite the Kimberley Ranges, on the stock route, and permanently marked the line for the rabbit-proof fence all through. On the southerly portion the line is a very excellent one for fencing, considering the country right through, the great obstacles being the want of permanent water and of food, fencing timber. To a great extent there will be trouble with regard to the water on the northern portion. For 60 miles north of Burracoppin there are sufficient wells to enable the fence to be erected without any great trouble, but thence onwards for 230 miles there are no wells at all, and the contractors have to depend for water on the rockholes. On a great deal of that country wells could be got by sinking, but probably in parts the water would only be struck at a considerable depth. There would certainly be a great difficulty in getting permanent water at all. Some of the rock holes are the finest I have ever seen. We had some difficulty in making the survey, as water had to be found, and as the weather was very dry many of the rock holes had dried up. However, by searching continually, I managed to get through without any great hardship.”

“From the White Well, on the Lawlers-Magnet road, there are wells for a short distance, but thence for 80 miles I found no water, although there would be no difficulty in getting it by sinking. There are also some very good rock holes there, but they had dried up owing to the extremely hot weather. That part was fairly difficult to negotiate for at times we had to send 40 miles back for water. We managed to get through without being stopped, and never lost a day, as when the camels went back for water we continued working on. Running from Brown’s Soak in a north easterly direction towards the Kimberley Ranges, we came to the Gum Creek well, on the Nannine-Lake Way road. There was excellent water there, as there was also at Brown’s Soak. The line runs quite close to these wells. Thence up to the stock route for some 47 miles there is no surface water, but I do not think that even there there would be difficulty in getting supplies. On the stock route the water is very shallow; at a place where it is only 4 ft deep we saw stockmen watering 3,000 sheep and about 400 bullocks. After being emptied the soak fills again when left for a quarter of an hour. There is excellent country there both for cattle and sheep.”

“On all the northern trip we found a very fair supply of timber for fencing purposes, especially for the last 230 miles, where there is ample timber quite close to the line. It is the mulga which I regard as the best of all timbers for the work, even better than the jam wood. We passed through a good deal of poor country in the first 200 miles, but after that it improves. Although the land is patchy, there is some good country. Right through I have endeavoured to keep just on the edge of the squatting country and have avoided the sand dunes”.

“To show the difficulty we had to encounter owing to the lack of water, on one occasion the camels went for 14 days on three buckets of, water apiece and they all lived through it. Some of the camels were poisoned with ‘poison bush’ and one of the animals went completely mad, but they all recovered after a time. We could never get a spell, as we had to push on in case the water gave out.”

“On one occasion we went for about three weeks with only the merest wash. The larder was not replenished much with fresh food. We got a few kangaroos and turkeys, but there is very little game through the country, this being probably due to the lack of water. Indications which had been left by the blacks, evidently many years ago, were the means of our finding water on many occasions. I learnt to know these indications, which were piling up of stones, and in every case I saw them we eventually found water in the direction towards which these pointed.”

“I saw no rabbits on the trip at all, and on the northern route I do not think there are any near the line. The farthest place north we heard of them was at Leonora, and I was told that several had been caught there. There is nothing to stop rabbits from getting up in that country, especially in a north westerly direction, where there is a good quantity of pastoral country, much of which has been taken up lately. There are patches of desert, but in between them there is the pastoral country. I think that the fence will be such a check to the rabbits that they will not get through in any great numbers, and if they push on with the fence they can stop the rabbits now.

“We came across very few blacks, and, in fact, I could not get one to accompany the party. All of them have gone into the mining towns, and we did not go far enough north to find them in any numbers. The heat while we were in the north was terrific. During the last two months it has ranged from 110 deg to 118 deg in the shade. We have not had any rain during the last three months. The carriage of the material for the fencing will be pretty difficult, for the nearest railway station to the line is distant 60 miles. The line for a considerable distance runs along a sort of valley between the cliffs, and I think I have gone about the best route. The northern part of the country is broken considerably.”

“With regard to the extension of the line further north, I think that it should be pushed on with as soon as possible, for the barrier will have to be put up right along, at all events within the next few years, if the rabbits are to be kept out. To protect the Gascoyne and North-West it will be absolutely necessary to fence that country. The authorities must not wait until the rabbits get round the top end of the fence before continuing it. There seems no reason to me why the rabbits should not thrive there. Indeed the country is particularly suitable for them.”

“THE RABBIT INVASION”
 Surveyor R.J. Anketell’s Report

Extract from Journal of Agriculture, 1907: No. 15

How many of us can, in any way, envisage the privations the men on the job must have experienced. Working in such out-back areas with little or no contact with the outside world, no radios, no refrigerators, no motor vehicles, and dependent on teams of camels travelling about 16-20 kilometres a day. An average of 185 kilometres from the nearest rail head or coastal point. The longest haul was from Nannine, the then rail head, northwards a distance of 470 kilometres. What of the incessant presence of flies, constant heat of summer, the biting easterly winds and frosts of winter and spring, the interaction of human emotions and relationships after weeks and months of unbroken association with one another.

Surveyor R.J. Anketell gives a resume of interesting facts, and some of the problems encountered and overcome, during the construction of the No. 1 Fence.

Mr Anketell states that in the North-West the fence is erected on angle iron standards with wood posts as strainers, the two reasons for this being the absence of sufficient suitable timber and the white ants.

Naturally this means that all the material has to be transported from the coast – a task of some magnitude. All the netting and the iron is landed at Condon, and is carted 400 miles to the fence. Forty camel teams, each wagon having 14 animals, are being used, and it takes anything up to two months for a team to carry 5 tons of material from the coast to the fence, the camels travelling from 10 to 12 miles a day. For this the Government has to pay 2 shilling per ton per mile – about £25 a ton. Over the sand dunes, through the spinifex and out along the fringe of the desert, these teams have been crawling along for the last two years, dragging hundreds of tons of expensive materials with which the State is fighting the mild-eyed rabbit.

The camel is no epicure – fortunately and unfortunately. He is quite capable of feeding himself from whatever grows along his track, but he swallows young spinifex, which is good, and the narrow leaf poison, which isn’t with a total disregard for their respective stomachic properties. When he fills himself up with poison he resigns his mission on the fence. If he is caught in time with only a modicum of poison in him, he waits for a dose of permanganate of potash, which the driver pours into him to the accompaniment of many oaths, while the beast froths at the mouth and looks as sick as only a poisoned camel can.

“We used to lose a lot of camels this way until Mr Mann, the Government Analysts, discovered that permanganate of potash was a good antidote for the poison. Up there we have to be very careful still. The country is covered with poison bush. We hand feed the horses, but we have to tie the camels up at night and muzzle them by day when we are working along the fence where there is poison. That cure is a great thing though, and lately we have not lost a beast. I have tried it in horses, too, and it has cured every time.

“We have 400 camels on the job, in addition to 150 horses, 50 donkeys and 5 bullock teams – enough to stock a station. The natives? There are hundreds up there, but they never interfere with us. We have as many as 80 or 100 men in the camps and there’s not likely to be any danger. No, the natives don’t hurt this fence and I have never heard of any cases of wanton destruction, so that’s one trouble we haven’t to contend with”.

“I did not hear of any of them [rabbits] being about and the first traces I saw were at the Oakover River. No, the rabbit has made very little progress along the fence to the north during the last twelve months.”

“The only difference in the construction of the fence up there and the sections lower down is that we use the iron standards and over the sand ridges we use 48 inch netting and sink it a foot in the sand. The fence is not stable as the timbered sections – it has more elasticity, but it will last longer, I think.”

“The present is the best season the pastoralists in the North-West have ever had. Right through the country, so the reports say, there is plenty of feed, and even out in the desert the spinifex is six and eight feet high. There is plenty of water about, and that is one thing we have never been troubled about. There are wells all along the fence at intervals of about 12 miles, and good water is being drawn from an average depth of 50 feet.”

Precised by Kim Epton January 2015 from Crawford, J.S., History of the State Vermin Barrier Fences, http://archive.agric.wa.gov.au/objtwr/imported_assets/content/pw/vp/barrier_crawford.pdf, 1969. [accessed 12 January 2015].

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