When it comes to food and drink, Central Otago is renowned for producing gorgeous wine and superb stone fruit. But there’s another incredible food source in the district that deserves as much attention: wild rabbits.
When we first moved to the farm, there were thousands of rabbits. If we went out to one of the hills and clapped, the hill would “move” before our eyes, with rabbits dashing everywhere. Thankfully, we have made good progress, and now I might see the occasional rabbit hopping around the garden, or a few in a paddock.
This has come at a big cost, building kilometres of rabbit-proof fences, and time spent shooting. Shooting animals is confronting to some, as it was for me when I met my hunter-gatherer husband 16 years ago, but it’s a much less cruel way of controlling rabbits than poisoning, and it keeps those toxins out of the soil and food chain, which is important to us.
Rabbit calicivirus was also released in New Zealand as a means of suppressing the population. However, over time it’s had less impact because the rabbit population has become relatively immune
If you’re wondering why these cute, fluffy creatures are deemed such a threat, it’s because they can quickly render land useless for agriculture and horticulture. Each doe (female) will have 20-50 young a year (you can see where the saying “breed like rabbits” comes from).
Unfortunately, burrowing and scrapes cause extensive damage to erosion-prone soils, and they will eat young vegetation before it has a chance to become established.
I learnt this the hard way when I planted some natives and berry bushes last year without properly rabbit-proofing them. Not a trace was left. I was devastated.
They also compete for pasture with other animals. Seven rabbits eat the same amount of grass as one sheep.
So, I know they do a lot of damage and are called pests. However, in my mind, anything in the natural world can be a valuable resource, so we eat them. We can’t eat and give away all the ones we kill, but we do eat what we can. I feel we’re lucky to get to eat such an organic, truly free-range (and happy until it’s shot) meat that would have otherwise gone to waste.
Wild rabbit is delicious. I slow cook the legs in a casserole (Moroccan apricot or red wine and mushrooms are favourites) until the meat falls off the bone. Then it goes into a pie, is tossed with pasta or is eaten with mashed spuds.
The backstraps, which only need a quick cook as they are naturally tender, are amazing marinated in lemon and herbs or a dry spice rub, then pan-fried or barbecued. Other favourites are “butter bunny” and, the kids’ favourite, “bunny nuggets”.
Everyone I serve it to loves it, and they always think it’s chicken. Even though it’s very tasty, most Kiwis can’t get past the fact rabbits are a pest, and screw up their noses when I talk about eating them.
Rabbits are the most prolific wild animal on our farm, but they’re not the only ones we have to contend with. We’re always battling with something, from birds (which eat the seeds of our crops), to possums, ferrets and stoats, to wild deer, goats and pigs. The wild pigs, in particular, have been a big problem.
We have enough wild boar bacon in the freezer to last years, but my husband Carlos angrily jokes that it’s worth about $400 a kilo. That’s because this particular boar did tens of thousands of dollars worth of crop damage.
When we first moved on to the farm, we spotted a sow and her piglets on the hills one beautiful summer evening as we were having dinner. How lovely to have a few pigs around, we thought. We like biodiversity, so we left them alone. A few months and a few families of pigs later, Carlos came across one of our grain paddocks that the pigs had got to first, all but decimated. They eat the grain and uproot any crops you’ve sown.
This boar had been having a lovely time eating everything he could on the farm, including lots of wild apples, and he was huge. There were several inches of fat on each side of his belly. With no added nitrates, nor water pumped into it, you can imagine how good the bacon was.
In 2019, we lived in a small village of 900 people in Umbria, in Italy, for a few months. One of the things that impressed me most about Italian village life was the fact they celebrated their wild food as a precious resource.
Throughout summer we had a festival every week celebrating different wild foods, such as the Sagra del Bosco (festival of the forest, celebrating wild mushrooms and fruits), and Sagra del Cinghiale (wild boar). To them, wild food is superior to farmed. In New Zealand, we seem to have the opposite view.
Living here, we feel lucky to have access to a free outdoor supermarket of high-quality, organic, free-range meat, and I’m glad that Carlos is pretty handy with a shotgun.
My dad was Buddhist and I came from a non-hunting culture, so it was a bit of a shift for me, initially, to come to terms with it. But I realised that if I’m going to eat meat, this is the best way I can. These animals have lived a truly free-range, organic life, so I am comfortable with eating them, and happy knowing they haven’t been wasted.
Imagine if we could shift our mindset to viewing these “pests” as a resource? It would divert thousands of wild animals left to rot on the hills (think of the tahr cull last year), to be used as a nutritious resource.
Just after the first lockdown, the Fiordland Wapiti Foundation – in an attempt to control the population of deer – diverted the carcasses to a meat processor instead of leaving them to rot.
The result was 18,000 1kg packs of prime, export-grade venison mince, which was then distributed to food banks to feed families in need. I was lucky to get to try some, and it was fantastic quality.
Surely eating wild is the most sustainable, environmentally friendly, ethical, and least-wasteful way to eat meat? These animals already exist, roaming free and wild, in catastrophic numbers.