KOSCIUSZKO HUTS ASSOCIATION

The CSIRO Rabbit Research Hut was built in 1964 as accommodation for researchers investigating the effectiveness of the Myxomatosis biological control upon rabbits. Rabbits were trapped, marked and observed in their warrens from a number of hides around a study area overlooking the Gungarlin River. The Snowy Plain study site was one of four used in these tests, and remained in use up to 1980.

 

First testing of the Myxoma virus occurred in Australia in 1938 and it was developed and released as a control for wild rabbit populations in 1950. It was highly successful but from the outset some rabbits demonstrated a genetic resistance and by the 1960s there was concern the virus would lose its effectiveness and plague numbers would return. A research programme into the effects of the virus on wild populations was instigated by the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organisation at four sites — Urana NSW (Mediterranean climate), Tero NSW (semi-arid), Mitchell Queensland (subtropical), Snowy Plain (subalpine), and Mogo NSW (temperate coastal).

The Snowy Plain Research Station was established around 1961-62 under the leadership of Dr Ken Myers, and programmes would involve 20+ researchers and technical staff over the years. The wider study area extended over ~2400ha to Botherum Plain, where a portable canvas hide was used.

The primary study area was limited to ~20ha northwest of the present hut, where a bend in the river created a natural amphitheatre with good vantage over 32 warrens. An elevated hide was constructed and a weather station, whilst a caravan provided accommodation until a prefabricated hut was brought down from Canberra an erected in 1964. On the flat across the river a second hide was constructed post-1966.

Most CSIRO research appears to have concluded by the mid-1970s although the site continued to be used intermittently as a for some years. Around the late 1960s-1970s the site was also used by the Howard Florey Laboratory at the University of Melbourne, examining salt deficiencies in rabbits to ascertain whether attractions to various salts could be used in developing poisons.

Aside from stream and weather stations associated with the Snowy Scheme; this hut is the only scientific research station to survive in the backcountry.

CSIRO Rabbit Research Hut, Snowy Plain – Background

The Station hut is also known as ‘CSIRO Research Hut, ‘Rabbiters Hut’ and various amalgams of these terms.

The hut is situated in the on the east side of Snowy Plain above the Gungarlin River, an area which is believed to have been grazed as early as 1838-40 when Robert Moore and William Neale established the Kalkite Run. Subsequent holders of the run included Stewart Wallace and Donald Ryrie, Ryrie selecting freehold land and building a homestead named ‘the Chalet’ 2km north of the CSIRO hut. In 1885, brothers Andrew Jackson and James Cunningham of Lanyon and Tuggeranong (now historic estates in Canberra) acquired the Kalkite run and the Ryrie freehold, and continued to lease the area following the end of squatting in 1893. Snowy Plain was carved up into numerous freehold lots through the 1880s-1910s, most of which were resumed for inclusion in the Kosciusko State Park in 1944. Grazing continued in the area under snowlease until the State Park became the Kosciusko National Park in 1969.

Rabbits are believed to have been released by early colonists in an attempt to make Australia more like Europe and provide sport and food in hunting them. Whilst some were likely introduced as early as the First Fleet, the main spread is claimed by some sources to be linked to the release of 150 for hunting at the Austin Park estate near Geelong in 1859. By the 1890’s rabbit numbers were becoming a concern and by 1930s numbers were reaching plague proportions across many parts of mainland Australia.

In 1919 the myxoma virus was discovered in a South American rabbit species. Whilst the original hosts were immune to the virus, an opportunity for it to be a biological control in Australia was soon picked up. The NSW Dept of Agriculture conducted laboratory experiments in 1926 — but the results were not encouraging. The CSIR (precursor to CSIRO) conducted similar lab tests in 1934 followed by field tests in arid parts of South Australia in 1936 — the results meeting only partial success.

The impact of rabbits on grazing and agriculture had become so desperate by 1949, that political pressure was brought to bear on releasing the virus. The following year the myoma virus was released onto irrigated dairy farms in the Murray Valley. Whilst the virus is spread by direct contact between rabbits, it often fails to spread by contact means beyond a ‘family’ group of warrens as it generally proves lethal in the relatively short period of 10-14 days. However, 1950 was a year of unusually heavy rain, and the conditions allowed for parasites — particularly mosquitoes, fleas to a lesser degree — to spread the virus between warrens, and it was soon spreading along the Murrumbidgee, Lachlan and Darling River valleys.

Rabbit populations were decimated within two years; in some areas by as much as 99%. Claims of the overall numbers killed by the virus range from 500 million to 5 billion — reflecting as much the uncertainty as to overall rabbit numbers as to those lost — however within in 1952-53, Australia’s wool and meat production jumped by $68 million as pastures recovered from the ravages of rabbits.

There was a problem though — the rabbits remaining alive were those least affected by the disease — indicating a genetic resistance to Myxomatosis that could lead to successive generations of immune rabbits and another boom in numbers. Dr Ken Myers of CSIRO concluded in a 1961 paper examining populations in the Riverina that “despite myxamatosis, rabbits are still a great potential threat to Australia’s agricultural economy”.

CSIRO began an extensive research program aimed at developing an understanding of the rabbit in Australia and the effectiveness of the disease. Laboratory work showed that the rabbit and the virus would eventually come to some sort of compromise or balance.

The programme examined the affects in differing environments across four sites — Urana NSW (Mediterranean climate), Tero NSW (semi-arid), Mitchell Queensland (subtropical), Snowy Plain (subalpine), and Mogo NSW (temperate coastal).

A significant part of the programme was identifying the behaviours of wild rabbits within differing environments, so that more effective methods of using the virus might be applied in different conditions. Prior to this time rabbits had generally been studied in natural areas within pens, but in the UK Dr Peter Fullagar had developed methods of studying animals in the wild and these were modified for application by CSIRO, incorporating more efficient traps and marking systems devised so that individual rabbits could be identified from a distance. There was an existing controversy over whether mosquitoes or rabbit fleas were more effective in spreading the virus. Research would eventually indicate mosquitoes were more effective in spreading the virus in wet conditions and fleas were better in dry arid areas — particularly the Spanish Flea, which was imported for this purpose.

The Snowy Plain Research site/station was established in 1963 under the leadership of Dr Ken Myers. The Snowy Plain site covered a general study area of ~2400ha, encompassing part of the Kosciusko State Park and adjoining freehold. The location was chosen following examination of airphotos and an initial field survey was undertaken on foot and at night using vehicles with spotlights — reporting the presence of 866 warrens with 6154 burrow entrances!

The primary study area was limited to ~20ha northwest of the present hut, where a bend in the river created a natural amphitheatre with good vantage over 32 warrens. A wooden box 1.5m square 4.5 metres above the ground was built as a hide at the top of the study area. Each wall had a window from which the rabbits could be watched by telescope or binoculars. Part of the study area had been set out with markers in a grid, against which behaviours were recorded in high detail. A Stevenson screen was installed next to the hide; from which daily readings of temperature, rainfall, humidity and evaporation were recorded against the behavioural observations. Smeuse traps (named after the designer) were used; 2 x 2m, having a steel frame covered with chicken wire and four doors, some of which remain at the site of the study area.

John Libke recalled the routine “we used to leave Canberra Monday morning, have a cup of tea in Cooma, buy a bit of tucker and get up to Snowy Plain just after lunch, set up camp and start watching rabbits about 2 o’clock. After observations were finished just after dark, the traps were set using oats soaked in a salt solution”. The men returned to the hut for a late dinner. Every morning the traps were checked, rabbits weighed, tagged, fleas counted, blood samples taken to check for the virus and pregnancy tests done. Visits were done Monday to Fridays on a weekly basis during breeding season, late August to December, and fortnightly at other times. On some evenings, the staff would drive a loop across the River and back to the hut, counting animals (including wombats and kangaroos) outside the periphery of the primary study area.

More detailed study was undertaken at a few locations in the wider study area. At Botherum Plain a portable canvas hide was used to study warrens. Another structure of uncertain origin was also erected on the creekline just south of the hut. Sometime after 1966 another hide was erected on the river flat opposite the primary study area; the steel tubular frame of which still remains.

A caravan was permanently left in a clearing just offset from the primary study area was used to accommodate researchers and technical staff at the start of the programme. In 1964 this was replaced by the existing fibro-clad, corrugated iron roofed hut, which had been prefabricated by CSIRO carpenter Don Brown before transporting and erection onsite. When in use it was fitted with beds and bunks, tables and chairs, cupboards and sink, a gas heater, gas stove and gas lights, and a filing cabinet. Two 45kg gas bottles were located outside adjacent the front door.

In 1969 a new method of poisoning was developed by the Snowy Plains team based on their behavioural observations, using the recently developed sodium fluoroacetate poison (1080). The poison was dissolved into a lanolin-paraffin mixture and deposited in the entrances to the burrows. After treading in the mix, the poison was spread by paw-shaking and the rabbits absorbed it licking their paws clean. Populations at treated warrens disappeared completely in three days, whilst visitors from nearby warrens took back the poison and their numbers were also seriously diminished.

Around this time the site was also used by the Howard Florey Laboratory at the University of Melbourne, examining salt deficiencies in rabbits to ascertain whether attractions to various salts could be used in developing poisons. Rabbits were presented with a series of soft wooden pegs, each of which was soaked in a solution of one or other of those salts found in blood; those pegs impregnated with ions of sodium, potassium and magnesium were chewed avidly by rabbits, thus opening up a potentially useful method of poisoning. Similar studies into salt deficiencies were undertaken at Currango, where extensive pens remain on the plain several km south of the homestead.

The following staff and research programmes were active at the CSIRO Snowy Plain Research site from the 1960s to 1980:

Dr Ken Myers

Officer in Charge of the Snowy Plain work

Clive Hale

Behavioural, population and salt studies. With Ken Myers worked on the grooming habit of rabbits for poisoning

Bill Price & John Libke

Technical officers ,Ditto & isotopes

Dr Jon Dunsmore, Dr Joseph Foreshaw and Russell King

Ditto + parasites

Dr Peter Fullagar and Chris Davey

Population studies

Dr Richard Williams

European rabbit fleas and myxo

Peter Haycock

Technical officer, working with Dick Williams and Jon Dunsmore, sampling for rabbit parasites. for David Spratt he collected soil samples for soil mites, native mammal collections in both large mammals (wallabies, kangaroos) and small mammals (antechinus, mastocomys), and tanabid flies for life cycle work on the kneeworm of kangaroos

Dr Barry Richardson

Genetics, ANU

Ian Parer

Myxo

Ederic Slater

Photographer

Dr Ken Williams & Robert Moore

Population studies, site comparisons

Dr Horner and Dr Taylor(USA)

Rattus fuscipe studies

Eric Schneider and Doug Hayes

Population studies and shot samples with Dr Ken Myers

David Spratt

Parasite studies

Dr Derek Denton

Sodium balance studies (Howard Florey)

Sir Edward Florey

Worked with Dr Denton on sodium balance laboratory studies (Howard Florey)

Documentary Sources

Scully, Graham KHA 2005: CSIRO Rabbit Research Hut, Snowy Plain, Kosciuszko National Park - report on a site visit 6-8 December 2005 and interviews with some of the men who worked there between 1965 and 1980

CSIRO: Myomatosis to Control Rabbits, CSIROpedia online article https://csiropedia.csiro.au/myxomatosis-to-control-rabbits/

Cserhalmi, Otto & Rice, Jean: CSIRO Hut Heritage Action Statement, NPWS 2009.

Hale, CS & Myers, K: Utilization of the Grooming Habit for Poisoning Rabbits, Division of Wildlife Research Technical Memorandum No. 2, CSIRO 1970

KHA records, database and images.

NSW Dept of Land and Property Information: parish maps c1880s-1970 (Nimmo).

Some Nearby Points of Interest

Evidence of the research activity including the steel tubular frame of the second hide on the opposite side of the Gungarlin, and steel mesh rabbit traps and marker pegs around the site —about 800m west of the hut.

The Gungarlin gold-dredging site ~1km northwest of the hut, including a large cylindrical trommel screen.

Daveys Hut and numerous occupation and gold mining sites along the western side of Snowy Plain, ~2.5km to the west of the hut

Amenity

Water – ??

Toileting – no outhouse.

Firewood – no fireplace or stove.

Emergency Information

Nearest Phone Reception Point in an Emergency – (??)

Nearest Trackhead/Public Road – the hut is located on the Gungarlin Powerline Road, however traffic is very infrequent and the road may be closed in winter. Nearest main road is the Eucumbene Dam Road 14.5km to the northeast along the Powerline Road.