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This article was written for the
Rare Breeds NewZ, August 2003.
Bob Whitman died in June 2009.

The Enderby Island Rabbit
– A Remarkable Story

by Bob Whitman

Bob Whitman
Bob Whitman

While researching early modes of rabbit keeping on 2 February 2003, I came across a tidbit of information that caught my fancy. The more I researched, the more fascinated I became, as the story unfolded before my eyes. Be prepared to take a remarkable journey of hope, survival, fortitude, lifesaving, rescue, destruction and preservation. This story is like no other in the world of domestic rabbits.

You are all aware of the history of the Subantarctic Auckland Islands, so there is no need to dwell on their discovery. Whales were plentiful in the waters that surrounded the Aucklands and the shores would prove to be rich with sea lions, but at the same time shipwrecks were abundant in the rough and dangerous waters around these six volcanic islands. Castaways would attempt to survive for weeks and months, in hopes of a rescue ship finding them. Back in Australia, the Acclimatization Society of Victoria was formed in 1861, with the aim of introducing exotic plants and animals to suitable parts of the colony and to procure animals from Great Britain and other countries. Shortly after the organization was founded, a gift of four silver-grey rabbits were presented to the Society in 1864.

H.M.C.S. Victoria I
Victoria I – the ship that took rabbits to Enderby Island in 1865

In a letter dated 3 October 1865 Jas. G. Francis, Commissioner of Trade and Customs, advised Commander William Henry Norman, of the H.M.C.S. Victoria I to search the Auckland Islands for possible persons in distress and “With the view of making provisions, to a certain extent, for any persons who may hereafter be wrecked or in distress upon these islands, the Acclimatization Society have put on board a number of animals, which will be good enough to let loose on the island.” There would be 12 rabbits on board the ship that set sail on Wednesday, 4 October 1865. (It is here that I must mention, that through a complete chance of luck I was able to locate Mrs Margaret Levin, of Queensland, Australia, who is the great-great-granddaughter of Commander Norman. She became fascinated with my research project and has provided pictures of the ship, the Commander, her crew, and best of all, copies of the journal and log books of this historic voyage. It should be noted that Margaret was also a rabbit breeder while living in Victoria.)

H.M.C.S. Victoria I
HMCS Victoria I looking aft, c.1865. Commander Norman with telescope

From Commander Norman’s Journals: “Saturday, 14th. – No traces of pigs or other animals being observed near here; landed four goats, sent by the Acclimatization Society. Some small patches of English grass growing about the old settlement. Later in the day, one of the men reported having seen a dog. This deterred me from landing some rabbits and fowls as I had intended.”   There is an error in his journal as he writes Monday, 18th and this would have actually be Wednesday, 18th “At 4:30 a.m. started for Enderby Island, and anchored in the sandy bay referred to yesterday, at 5 a.m. Sent on shore ten goats and twelve rabbits; these at once took to the English grass, on which I have no doubt they will thrive well. Weighed again at 7:30 a.m., and steamed slowly round the island.” The H.M.C.S. Victoria I returned to its home port, Hobson’s Bay, at 1:30 p.m. on Monday, 27 November, 1865, having found no castaways. Now it should be noted that this was not the first time that rabbits were released on the Auckland Islands. In 1840 rabbits were among the livestock introduced by the British Erebus and Terror expedition of Sir James Clark Ross. These rabbits were killed off by the Maoris who did not leave the Islands until March 1856.

H.M.C.S. Victoria I
Crew of the HMCS Victoria I circa 1865. Note what appears to be a crate at the bottom right (12 silver-grey rabbits?)

Enderby Island [one of the Auckland Islands] is 1,700 acres (688 hectares) in area, cold, windy and with high humidity. Except for the coastal cliffs and rocks, along with a few acres of sandhills, the island is pretty much covered with a dense blanket of peat. The 12 rabbits would thrive and multiply, burrowing into the sandy hillsides and dry peat. In 1867, the survivors of the General Grant caught many rabbits, as did the survivors of the Derry Castle in March of 1887.

During the next hundred years, the rabbits of Enderby would be up and down in population. In 1874, H.M.S. Blanche found the island “over-run with black rabbits”. In 1886, in a report to the Royal Society of Victoria, it was reported that the rabbits were fast dying out, or rather being starved out, having eaten most all the grass and reverting to eating thickly-set mossy plants. By 1894 the Hinemoa reported “rabbits swarm, and greatly reduce the value of the pasturage ... one of the party shot over twenty in the course of short excursion.”

H.M.C.S. Victoria I
Feral rabbits on Enderby Island 1995

Twenty-five head of cattle and many rabbits were reported by Oliver in 1927. In 1932 the pastoral lease of the island ended and in 1934 the New Zealand Government made the island a reserve for the preservation of native flora and fauna.

The New Zealand National Parks and Reserves Authority approved the Auckland Island Management Plan on 12 January 1987, to eliminate all introduced animals from the islands. A study by B. W. Glentworth in 1991, showed a rabbit population of between 5,000 and 6,000. Rabbits were destroying the native vegetation at an alarming rate and playing havoc with the Hooker sea lion pup population. Sandy Bay is an important breeding ground for this threatened sea lion species, and pups became trapped in the numerous rabbit burrows and died.

The Canterbury Section of the Rare Breeds Conservation Society of New Zealand, having heard of the rabbit eradication plan, began setting up a project to rescue a breeding population of the Enderby Island rabbit. Michael Willis and Dave Matheson of the Rare Breeds Society along with Wayne Costello (expedition leader) and Trevor Tidy from the New Zealand Department of Conservation would travel on board the naval diving ship Manawanui, arriving on Enderby on Tuesday 15 September, 1992, at 11:30 p.m. A permit was secured to trap 50 rabbits in just a very few days. Various modes of trapping were used, baffle traps and funnel nets at the warren entrances, soft-jaw leg hold traps (which proved to be of little use), and 200 metres of wing netting which would be the most successful. Rabbits were trapped from four locations, which were given warren names: Enderby, Stella, Rata and Base. By 19 September, 50 rabbits had been captured, 15 does (females) and 35 bucks (males). Dive teams ferried the rabbits on inflatable Zodiacs back to the main ship in rather difficult swell conditions.

Capture of Lady
The capture of Lady the cow in 1993. In the background is Sandy Bay (with Hooker sea lions on the beach) where the rabbits were were released in 1865

Of special note, it was during this recovery, that the last two surviving members of the Enderby Island cattle breed were discovered. The cow, named Lady (her calf soon died), would make world history, as Lady became the largest mammal ever cloned, first cow cloned, the first cattle clones to calve, and the first attempt at cloning to save a rare breed – well it’s a story all to its own. [See Enderby Cattle.]

The 49 rabbits (one died of a back injury) would arrive at Somes Island in Wellington Harbour on 25 September at 6 p.m. to begin a one-month quarantine period, which ended on 28 October 1992. There would be three kits (young) born during this period. Each rabbit was carefully inspected, handled, identified with an eartag and given a permanent tattoo. Rabbits were split into three different destination groups, one for Wairarapa, another for New Plymouth and the rest for Christchurch. All rabbits born were carefully recorded in the stud book by Mrs Catreona Kelly. All rabbits were the property of the Department of Conservation; however ten dedicated caregivers would be entrusted with the rabbits, under contract, with the Rare Breeds Society. In 1998 private ownership of the Enderby Island rabbits would begin as the numbers of rabbits increased.

The eradication programme on Enderby took place from 9 February thru 8 May, 1993, with a team of four people and a specially trained rabbit tracking dog named Boss. The rabbits would be killed with a green dyed cereal pellet containing Brodifacoum, which was sowed using a helicopter – five tons was dropped in five hours. The last rabbit on Enderby Island would be caught and destroyed on 12 April 1993 ending a 127 year period of natural selection.

Through the determined and dedicated efforts by Sitereh and Chris Schouten of Nature’s Pace near Christchurch to keep the breed alive, the Enderby Island rabbit was given breed status by the Rabbit Council of New Zealand in April, 2002, when it was accepted into their book of Standards.

Enderby Island rabbits are the world’s rarest breed of rabbit, with only a hundred plus animals in existence [in 2003]. Most are black, there are but seven known cream coloured ones and even fewer blues. The breed evolved from the English Silver Greys, and not the Argente de Champagne as previously reported in various papers and scientific journals. This author has been a collector of old rabbit books for 30 years. In my research some of the earliest works state that the Silver came from Siam and brought to England by traders, other works say that Silver Greys existed thousands of years ago in India and were brought to Europe by Portuguese sailors early in the 17th century. Gervase Markham in 1631 wrote that rabbits with silver tips to their hairs were being kept in warrens in England. It is well documented that Silver appeared in the warrens of Lincolnshire, England, amongst wild rabbit and were known as Sprigs, Millers, Lincolnshire Silver Greys, Chinchilla Silver Greys, Riche and more simply put Silver Greys. The breed was first shown in England in 1860. A buff coloured Silver Grey doe took first honours at the Crystal Palace Poultry Show in the “Foreign Class” in 1863.

Mature weight at the time was 6 to 9 pounds (2.7 – 4 kilograms). Thousands of them were being raised in the warrens of 1850s for table purposes in the larger cities, and the skins were bought up for exportation to Russia and China. The first English breed standard was set up in 1880. The Argente de Champagne was not introduced into Britain until 1920 and weighed a hefty 9 to 11 pounds.

Silver Grey

English breeders have perfected the Silver breed to have an even silvering over the entire body, including the head, feet and tail. The fur is sleek, with a fly back coat. In one of my early books, Manuals For The Many The Rabbit Book, circa 1855, which I have just acquired, there is a wood engraving of a Silver Grey that screams Enderby Island Rabbit (see left). I quote, “The head and ears are nearly all black with a few white hairs. These white hairs are more numerous on the neck, shoulders, and back; but on all the lower parts, such as the chest or belly, the number of white hairs is greater than those of a blue or black colour.”

Today’s Enderby Island rabbits are small at 3 to 3.5 lbs (1.4 to 1.5 kg), fine in bone, narrow in body, eyes very bold, head is a perfect “V” laid on its side and the head appears quite small for the body. Ears are fine and carried in a “V”. The body is rather heavily silvered in most animals, with about 80% silvering. The extremities, i.e. the head, ears, feet and tail, are much darker and only lightly silvered, with a pronounced butterfly marking on the nose. The coat is unlike the Silver breed, being more open, longer and soft in texture. The youngsters can be rather slow to silver, and may require 6 to 8 months to complete the cycle. Adults become more silvered over the years. Litters are rather small with 2, 3 and 4 kits, with a record being eight.

So there you have a VERY condensed version of a remarkable story, some 250 plus generations of natural selection during a course of 127 years of near total isolation on a Subantarctic island called Enderby, where a nucleus of 12 rabbits would evolve to become their own breed called Enderby Island.

THANK YOU Rare Breeds Conservation Society of New Zealand for saving this breed.

– Bob Whitman

© Copyright 

Editors’ Note: – British Silver Grey Rabbits in New Zealand

The survivability of the Silver Grey is well illustrated by events in Marlborough, New Zealand. In 1859 the Keene Brothers of Swyncombe sheep station released one pair of “precious” Silver Grey rabbits onto their property – jealously guarding their offspring from poachers.

Within ten years the Keenes were ruined and had to abandon their land because of the depredations of Silver Greys which were branded as “outlaws”. Ten thousand were trapped on Swyncombe in six months in 1869. (And if they were this prolific in New Zealand it is certain they were equally available and prolific in Australia.) This event prompted the following comment published in the Marlborough Express at the time:

Enderby Island rabbits (Photo by Sitereh Schouten)

Away they went, on pleasure bent,
With freedom quite transported;
And very soon, nay! ev’ry moon,
Proved buck and doe had courted.
In years a few, the rabbits grew
And multiplied tremendous,
Till ev’rywhere was heard the prayer,
From ‘Silver Greys’ defend us.

   See also:
» Enderby Rabbit Rescue Project
» Enderby Island Rabbits – breed page
» Feral Breeds statement
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