The rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) was introduced for sport and food, and perhaps also as a part of the British environment which the early colonists hoped to reproduce in New Zealand. The first liberation was made about 1838, but later (in the sixties) rabbits were repeatedly released in many localities of both main islands by early settlers and prospectors. It took about 30 years, however, before rabbits became well established; then, suddenly, they began to spread and increase in numbers. In 1873, 33,000 rabbit skins were exported; in 1877, nearly a million; in 1882, over 9 million. In the eastern part of the South Island their spread was faster because there were no large forested areas; sheep farming had cleared tussock and bush, and the climate was drier. Rabbits had become a nuisance in Southland and Marlborough by 1869; by 1878 they were a pest in Central Otago, and by 1887 had infested most of South Canterbury. Their slower progress in the North Island is well exemplified by Guthrie-Smith's account (1921) of rabbits becoming well established in Northern Hawke's Bay about 1900 and reaching Wairoa approximately 10 years later. Their widest spread and largest numbers were reached after the Second World War, when all areas suitable were colonised. In 1947 nearly 17 million rabbit skins and carcasses were exported. This spread of the rabbit was determined by (i) physiographic and vegetational barriers, such as mountain tops or forests; (ii) soil drainage – an interaction between rainfall and soil type; and (iii) the density of settlement and type of farming.
The rabbit has been tolerated as a pest for nearly a century because of conflicting attitudes to it – a valuable source of skins or a pest in pastures? Further, too little was known of its ecology. Rabbit skins and rabbit meat have been articles of trade from the early 1870s to the end of the Second World War: an average of 13,335,000 skins and 1,818,000 carcasses, valued at £914,000, were exported each year during 1937–47, about 1·1 per cent of the total annual value of New Zealand exports. But the economic waste caused by displacement of sheep and the effect of rabbits on vegetation and soils have heavily outweighed the revenue derived from exports. Wodzicki (1950) showed that the food needs of 10 rabbits are equivalent to one ewe, and a cautious estimate suggests that the 20½ million rabbits killed in 1945 ate as much food as over 2 million sheep would have eaten, and caused a net loss of about £2,061,000.