Jackrabbits plagued Wellington County in 1930s

During the 20th century, naturalists learned that it is a foolish and dangerous idea to introduce species of plants and animals to areas where they are not native. 

In southern Ontario, the list of unfortunate introductions is long. English sparrows and starlings displaced more desirable and rarer songbirds. And our most noxious weeds, from twitch grass to scotch thistles, are virtually all non-native varieties.

An unwelcome arrival in the 1920s was the jackrabbit, or European hare. There are many explanations for the appearance of this large rabbit in this portion of the province. Some accounts claim they were deliberately released; others claim that they escaped from the pens of farmers raising rabbits, and still other stories have their range expanding from introductions elsewhere in North America.

In any case, farmers began spotting them from time to time in the early 1920s, in various locations across southern Ontario. 

They seemed to have a particular liking for Wellington County. Jackrabbits certainly thrived and multiplied in this county. By 1928 farmers had added them to their list of pests. Two years later they had increased to the point of a serious plague.

In February 1931 Fergus editor Hugh Templin reported that a local resident, in the course of less than two hours, bagged seven large jackrabbits in a single field in Peel Township. That self-styled Elmer Fudd did not detest the rabbits. In fact he had a particular fondness for them, and was delighted to fill his larder with them. They averaged almost eight pounds each.

J.H. Clemens, the Arthur-based county agricultural representative, had been monitoring the rise in the rabbit population for several years, with increasing alarm. In 1930 he estimated they caused $50,000 of damage to crops and trees on the farms in Wellington. There were then about 6,000 farms in the county. That works out to $8.50 per farm. That is an inconsequential sum now, but on a depression-era farm it was real money, equal to 25 or 30 times as much today.

The damage, though, was not evenly distributed. Some farms had no jackrabbits in residence, while others were overrun with them. They were particularly hard on fruit trees, stripping and eating the bark off newly planted and younger trees. Farmers reported that the hares could reach up three feet by standing on their hind legs. With snow on the ground their reach extended farther. They wrinkled their noses at older trees with tough bark, but in winter they had little trouble reaching the newer branches on established trees.

Clemens noted that many orchards in Wellington suffered considerable damage during the winters of 1929-30 and 1930-31. Some were utterly destroyed. The rabbits also cut a swath through the reforestation projects under way in Wellington.

Though the program is largely forgotten today, the Ontario government, during the Drury, Ferguson and Henry regimes of the 1920s and early 1930s, aggressively promoted tree planting. 

The Forestry Branch operated large tree nurseries, and provided free trees to farmers willing to plant them as windbreaks and as cover on marginal land. In the late 1920s, Wellington County farmers planted roughly 150,000 trees each year under the program. By 1930, more than a million trees had been planted in the county.

Clemens, early in 1931, noted that a large percentage of those trees had been damaged by rabbits. He estimated that half had been completely destroyed by the pests, and that in some plantings the proportion was 100%. He noted that the hares also ate sprouting wheat crops where the ground was exposed, and that in spring they had a special fondness for young turnip tops.

Residents of villages and towns also suffered. In gardens, jackrabbits began on spirea, then moved to other shrubs and young trees.

Natural predators were of little use in 1931. Wolves had long since been hunted to extinction in Wellington, and foxes were rare. Farmers, wanting to protect their hens, had shot most of the red-tailed hawks and owls. Jackrabbits had little to fear. 

By February of 1931, Clemens had worked himself into a state of panic at the population explosion and the damage that the jackrabbits were perpetrating on the crops and trees of Wellington County. He proposed a comprehensive eradication program to reduce what he estimated was a jackrabbit population of at least 30,000 in Wellington.

Over the years Clemens had enjoyed considerable success with various educational and demonstration programs across the county. He was known to virtually every farmer in Wellington. But his proposed Jack Rabbit Hunt turned out to be a major failure for him.

The hunt organized by Clemens would take place on March 7. He wanted the trustees of each of the 150 school sections in Wellington to organize the farmers in their section on that day, and systematically drive the jackrabbits to a central point in their sections, shooting them as they proceeded.

Clemens would compile the statistics at his Arthur office, and offer prizes for the largest number shot, the largest rabbit bagged that day, and several other categories to introduce a spirit of friendly competition.

Interestingly, Clemens was not anxious to have people from towns participate. He wanted the hunt to be conducted early in March when the roads were largely impassible. That would discourage interlopers who were not familiar with the territory and with other hunters. He did not want accidents, or inadvertent shooting of livestock or barnyard fowl. The goal was for each school section to shoot at least 20 rabbits that day. That would mean a total of 3,000 hares, or roughly 10% of the population. Such a hunt, conducted every year, Clemens believed, would eventually reduce the rabbit population to more reasonable numbers.

One factor Clemens did not fully consider was the gun licencing law. The Henry government had recently tightened control and increased the licence fees. In early March, Robert Nixon, the future premier, denounced the law, which he said was a protection to jackrabbits and ground hogs, “two of the worst pests for farmers … the government might far better be paying a bounty.”

Many farmers had firearms but no licences. Obviously, they were reluctant to take part in an organized hunt. The other factor working against Clemens was time: he tried to get the hunt day organized in two weeks.

Some of the school sections did conduct hunts on March 7, but the participation was far below what Clemens desired. On the other hand, the publicity generated by his press releases prompted many hunters, both farmers and townfolk, to go on rabbit hunting expeditions. With money scarce in most households, a fresh rabbit or two brightened the dinner table in the dull days of March.

The rabbit population was particularly dense in the area north and east of Arthur and into the Luther Marsh area. That became a preferred area, and unsuccessful rabbit hunters in that area were the subject of jokes. 

In one story, reported by Hugh Templin in the Fergus News Record, several hunters from Arthur were confronted by a group of jackrabbits and driven back into town.

Such stories indicate the frustration felt by farmers. In the end, nature, aided somewhat by hunters, corrected the rabbit population. For some reason, probably a disease, the population crashed in 1932 and 1933. 

The jackrabbit explosion of the 1930 era is another lesson in the dangers of upsetting the delicate balance of nature.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Jan. 19, 2007.

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