From the 1880s, farmers began building rabbit fences using wire netting. There were two distinct aims: to prevent rabbits spreading into new areas, and to contain them for better control.
The first major rabbit fence
The first officially approved rabbit fence was a 64-kilometre barrier to stop rabbits moving into Hawke’s Bay from northern Wairarapa. It was put up between 1882 and 1885, but failed to halt the spread.
Rabbits increased to alarming numbers on Brancepeth Station, east of Masterton, in the mid-1880s. Hugh Beetham, the owner, ring-fenced the 23,067-hectare property, then divided it into four using rabbit fences. The job involved about 112 kilometres of fencing. With his farm in rabbit-proof blocks, Beetham then used poison to get his rabbit problem under control.
Public rabbit fences
Three major rabbit fences were built in the South Island in the late 1880s. A 128-kilometre fence from Aoraki/Mt Cook to Kurow was put up between 1887 and 1891, to prevent rabbits from spreading to South Canterbury from Otago. In 1889 the Hurunui Rabbit Board built a fence on the south side of the Hurunui River to protect the district from a rabbit invasion from Marlborough. Two years later, the Amuri and Hurunui Rabbit Boards erected a 135-kilometre fence from the head of the Waiau River to the sea. But at best, these fences merely slowed the advancing horde.
Private rabbit fences
Several runholders put up a considerable amount of rabbit fencing on their properties. A notable example was on the Avondale run in northern Southland. Rowley and Hamilton took up the run after the previous leaseholder was forced off by rabbits, and ring-fenced the whole 10,521-hectare estate with rabbit netting. They were able to control the pests and prevent re-infestation. By 1886 they had increased their sheep flock from 7,000 to 18,000 – the number carried before rabbits became a nuisance.