Tag Archives: Christmas

The rabbits of Christmas past: a present that backfired for Australia

The Conversation

By Andrew Bengsen, University of New England

On Christmas Day 1859, the Victoria Acclimatisation Society released 24 rabbits for hunting, to help settlers feel more at home.

Given the millions of dollars in damage to agricultural productivity that ensued, as well as the impacts on biodiversity as the rabbits bred and spread to cover 70% of the continent, this could be seen as Australia’s worst Christmas present.

Now, given our current climate change commitments, controlling rabbits could be “Santa’s little helper” in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2007, Australia committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to at least 5% below 2000 levels, by the year 2020. This commitment remains central to our climate change policy, and we should expect greater emissions reduction targets in future if we comply with the international target of limiting global warming to plus 2 deg C.

Storing carbon in the land

There’s been plenty of talk of planting more trees. But case studies and evaluations of government programs such as Bushcare show that this is an expensive way to re-vegetate.

Instead, many people now recognise there are better ways to manage carbon across large areas. Livestock grazing and fire (such as “savanna burning”) are often cited as important factors to manage and enhance carbon storage in plants and soils across vast areas.

Some significant gains might also be achieved by reducing the damage caused by some of our most serious pest animals.

Eating us out of house, home and carbon

Rabbits are well known for their ability to strip grasslands bare and destroy the seedlings of woody shrubs and trees. Even in low numbers, rabbits can completely prevent some important woody species from regenerating.

Mulga woodlands, for example, cover vast tracts of inland Australia, and mulga trees are likely to be a very important carbon store in these areas. However, rabbit numbers as low as one animal per hectare can effectively stop the replacement of old trees by destroying seedlings.

Distribution of rabbits (orange, left) and mulga woodlands (green, right) across Australia. Rabbit data from West 2008.

Recently, Tarnya Cox and I reviewed the potential benefits of controlling rabbits and other invasive herbivores for reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. We unearthed a multitude of similar stories about the extensive damage that rabbits can cause to vegetation and ecosystem function, and how that may affect the ability of these systems to capture and store carbon.

Importantly, much of the damage that rabbits cause to the environment can be reversed.

In many areas, Mulga and other species flourished for the first time in 100 years after rabbit numbers were reduced by up to 95% in the 1990s by rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus (previously known as calicivirus).

Many other studies have also found sudden increases in plant growth after rabbit populations were reduced by disease or intensive conventional control.

A rabbit opportunity

Dying mulga tree and narrow-leaved fuchsia bush in a rangeland area degraded by rabbits and goats. Robert Henzell

The regeneration of Mulga and other woody species over broad areas can make significant contributions to our emissions reduction targets. Mulga and other arid zone acacias are long-lived, grow slowly, and have very dense wood. This means that mature trees can store large amounts of carbon for their size, and keep much of it locked up long after the death of the plant.

Regenerating Mulga woodlands in western Queensland and New South Wales are estimated to capture over half a tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent, per hectare per year, in woody biomass alone. This equates to about four air passengers travelling from Sydney to Brisbane per hectare of mulga woodlands.

Rabbits inhabit most of the 143 million hectares of Australia’s Mulga woodlands. If their populations can be controlled, then there is considerable potential for natural carbon sequestration to help us meet our greenhouse gas reduction targets.

Other invasive herbivores – such as camels and goats – can also reduce vegetation cover and plant carbon storage. However, we already have a solid understanding of the rabbit’s impact on the environment, and they are very widespread which means that their eradication could have large positive impacts.

How to control rabbits

Conventional rabbit control operations – such as warren destruction and poison baiting – can be more cost-effective at regenerating native vegetation, than planting more trees. This would be useful for the large areas of road-side reserves and stock routes which need revegetation. They rival the size of the National Park estate in terms of total area across south-eastern Australia.

These areas would be suitable for conventional rabbit control. Even a small increase in tree density due to rabbit control would help us achieve our greenhouse gas reduction targets. Rabbit control is often required to allow tree plantings to establish and flourish.

A rabbit feeds on a planted tree surrounded by a tree guard, despite an apparent abundance of green vegetation outside the tree guard. Mark Hillier, Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre, Author provided

Of course, there are many challenges in reducing the damage caused by rabbits, and improve our chances of achieving our greenhouse gas reduction targets. Most importantly, we need accurate estimates of the effect of rabbit control on natural carbon sequestration. We also need a means of monitoring actual carbon sequestration amounts, that complies with the stringent carbon accounting rules of the Kyoto Protocol.

Another major challenge is the declining effectiveness of rabbit hemorrhagic disease. Fortunately, a major cooperative research program is already underway to counter the virus’ diminishing effect, though biological control alone cannot be expected to completely mitigate rabbit impacts.

As we hark back to that fateful Christmas Day in 1859, a future of climate uncertainty, agricultural hardship and the loss of our unique biodiversity, we must be prepared to act on these challenges.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged with permission). Read the original article.

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Harking back: the ancient pagan festivities in our Christmas rituals

The Conversation

By Marguerite Johnson, University of Newcastle

In the movie The Life of Brian (1979), Reg, played by John Cleese, asks fellow members of the People’s Front of Judea:

… apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health; what have the Romans ever done for us?

“Brought peace” is the answer he receives.

In hindsight, Christmas could be added to the list.

When we think of the Romans, gift-giving, carol-singing and celebrating the birth of Christ don’t immediately present themselves. Waging wars, general oppression and a never-ending desire to rule the world are more likely to spring to mind.

What have the Romans ever done for us?

But various Christmas traditions come from ancient pagan festivities, including the Roman celebration of the Saturnalia.

Historian and cultural investigator, Polydore Vergil (c. 1470-1555), was the first to record the similarities between certain pagan and Christian practices. He noted the connection between the predominantly English tradition, “The Lord of Misrule”, which occurred on Christmas Day and an equivalent custom of the Saturnalia. Both involved masters and servants or slaves swapping roles for a day.

Why the Romans permitted such silliness is based on the nature of the Saturnalia. Held in mid-December, the Saturnalia, a celebration in honour of the god Saturn, was characterised by the relaxation of social order and a carnival-like atmosphere.

Ruins of the Temple of Saturn (eight columns to the far right).
Wikimedia Commons

Saturn, once the principal deity of the Italians, was the god of time, agriculture and things bountiful. He reigned over the Golden Age, an era of peace, happiness and plenty. Indeed, the pleasures associated with the Golden Age were perhaps re-enacted in the Saturnalia itself.

The Saturnalia celebrated the god in his role as overseer of a season of anxiety. Winters were harsh and food sometimes scarce. And as the days became shorter and the earth symbolically died, the seasonal time needed to be commemorated and the god kept happy.

The Saturnalia was a lead-up to the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, recorded as December 25 in the Julian calendar.

With revelries and hijinks, feasting and the cessation of formal business, the Romans looked forward to the coming of the light of the sun. With the return of spring, there would be renewed fertility. Crops would grow and farm animals would give birth, providing another year of bounty and full bellies.

As part of the revelries, the Romans exchanged gifts: candles, signet rings, toothpicks, combs, tooth paste, baby rattles, hairpins, woolly slippers, warm caps, tablecloths and, yes, even socks and the Christmas puppy! These were exchanged during or after a feast, served by the head of the household and perhaps his children while the slaves enjoyed their time off.

Saturn’s association with gift-giving has led scholars like Samuel L. Macey to link him with Santa Claus. But, as Macey knows, Saturn had a shadowy side and, like many Roman deities, there were skeletons in his closet! Someone who decides to eat his children as a means of maintaining power, for example, isn’t an ideal Santa prototype. Then again, some kids find Santa pretty scary.

French painter Antoine Callet’s 1783 depiction of Saturnalia.
Wikimedia Commons

As television was not yet invented, and the internet light years away, the poor old Romans had to occupy their Saturnalian leisure time with human interaction. They enjoyed games, gambled, played dress-ups and recited poetry (some of a risqué nature). Drinking, the modern scourge of the holiday season, was also a feature of the Saturnalia. While some of us take offence at the barbed comments at Christmas get-togethers, the Romans simply regarded them as a ritualised part of the upside-down world of the silly season.

Besides the Saturnalia, there was another important Roman festival with influential ties to Christmas: the celebration of the Unconquered Sun on December 25. According to the fourth century almanac, the Calendar of Philocalus, there is mention of a celebration of the “Unconquered” on December 25, which is most likely a reference to the “Unconquered Sun.”

In the same manuscript, December 25 is also listed as the birth of Jesus.

The Calendar of Philocalus is therefore cited by some scholars as potential evidence for the coalescence of the festival of the Unconquered Sun with the celebration of the birth of Christ. David M. Gwynn suggests: “The commemoration of Christ’s birth on 25 December … appears to have originated in the west, in part to provide a Christian counterpart to the birthday of the Sun.”

By the end of the late Roman period, Christmas was part of the Christian calendar. The pagan festivals may have officially disappeared but traces of the old ways remained.

And so began the long history of Christmas.

This article is part of The Conversation’s End of Year series.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Republished with permission). Read the original article.

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