For an Australian who’s studied agriculture, the sight of a book titled Myxomatosis at the London Library was irresistible. Subtitled “A History of Pest Control and the Rabbit”, Peter W.J. Bartrip’s monograph is in fact more of a political and economic study of the relationship between humans and rabbits in the second half of the 20th century than a study of the nasty disease that was introduced in Australia in a (failed) attempt to wipe out the invasive pest in 1950.
It has to be said, it would be kind to describe Bartrip’s prose style as prosaic, and his attention to detail tends towards the soporific. Despite all of that, however, there’s much interesting to extract from this book.
In 1953 the disease was introduced into France, with spectacular results, and it is likely that it was introduced into Britain by August of that year, Bartrip concludes. He goes into great detail about the detective work then, and in which he engaged in researching the book, and concludes that the introduction was probably deliberate, although he acquits officialdom of the complicity with which it has sometimes been accused. His circumstantial evidence points to a tenant farmer near the first identified outbreak.
Official reaction was as confused as such things usually are. After some debate, the decision was made to contain the outbreak and attempt to eliminate the disease. But: “Since the wild rabbit was widely recognised as a pest, the obvious response was to welcome it as the solution to a longstanding and intractable problem. The government’s failure to do so was regarded in some quarters as absurd.”
But there was much debate about the economics. The trade bodies calculated that the meat, fur and byproduct trade (for glue and fertiliser manufacture) contributed £15.5m to the national economy. While they admitted that agricultural losses from rabbits were higher, they said that if the trade ended and myxomatosis failed to wipe out the rabbits, the traditional control method of hunting would have been lost.
Certainly with the help of human agency (infected rabbits were reportedly selling for £5 a time), the disease, however, anyway spread quickly around the country, and hopes of eradication became obviously ridiculous. Instead the focus turned to maintaining the virulence of the disease by eradicating survivor populations, with the not very serious hope that the species could entirely be eradicated.
But again the official efforts were weak, and thwarted in places by hunters who wanted to keep rabbits going for sport or pot. And there was also animal rights concerns, which finally led to a weak and almost totally unenforced law forbidding the deliberate spread of the disease. Plus defeat was probably made inevitable by the sheer tenacity of the species. As Bartrip points out, “in favourable conditions does can produce litters of five, six or more at intervals of a month or so…if left undisturbed for three years, the progeny of one pair of rabbits would amount to no fewer than 13,000,000.” (Although Bartrip says, a fierce form of natural selection meant the nature of the British rabbit change, in favour of those who chose to live a more solitary life, aboveground.) And soon the virus mutated to a weaker form – in its own interests, of course, since this way it could continue to survive.
But there was nonetheless a collapse in the population, and Bartrip explores the ecological effects, “short-term increases in the height, coverage and variety of grasses and other plants. It also allowed more flowering and seeding, thereby facilitation plant succession. …Cowslips, rockroses and other plants bloomed spectacularly… Rare orchids also flourished locally.” He also records woodland regeneration where seedlings had previously been nibbled down, which sometimes turned heath and downland to thicket.
There’s an obvious parallel here with modern animal disease crises, from BSE to foot and mouth. But the media interest by modern standards was almost non-existent, this was seen as fundamentally a “natural” issue, so, Bartrip says this is a comparison that shouldn’t be taken too far.
There’s something of “a small earthquake in Chile, not many dead” about the whole story, but as an insight into 50s Britain, its agricultural and official communities, and its ecological balance, there is something worth perusing here.