Bilbies not Bunnies

Bilbies Not Bunnies This Easter

Confession time, I’m on a bit of a crusade when it comes to Easter.

It seems consumerism has gone a little crazy. Hot cross buns for sale in January, chocolate Easter eggs literally everywhere, spring chickens made in China and assorted mass produced “Easter” gifts everywhere I turn. (I’m not even going to tell you about the tantrums I’ve had to manage at the supermarket!)

My question to you: Where did this gift-giving rabbit come from?

I did a little research and here’s 4 things I learnt about Easter and the Easter Bunny.

  • The rabbit mascot is likely to have stemmed from the pagan celebration of Eostre (a pagan Germanic goddess) and the Festival of Spring marked by the Spring Equinox (in the Northern Hemisphere). The egg and rabbit symbols were symbols of life and renewal.
  • Following the advent of Christianity, many pagan celebrations were absorbed and adopted as Christian celebrations – the celebration of Easter in Christianity, and the resurrection of Christ absorbing the celebration of Spring.
  • Besides rabbits and eggs another remnant of the pagan festival is when we celebrate Easter: it falls on the Sunday following the first full moon after the (Northern Hemisphere’s) Spring Equinox (and therefore our Autumn Equinox).
  • The custom of decorating eggs is thought to have begun in the middle ages where egg was eaten following the fasting period of Lent.
  • The Easter Rabbit was first introduced by German Lutherans as a figure of ‘judgement’ (like another mysterious gift giver who goes by the name of Claus..). It’s even thought that the Easter Bunny became tradition in the US in the 1700’s with German immigrants.
  • A slightly less cute, fluffy and cuddly theory is that the rabbit symbol at Easter time originated from French monks who specifically bred rabbits for their whiter meat so as to avoid eating red meat during Lent when they were supposed to be fasting.

So why am I telling you this?

Not only is it Autumn in Australia (so it seems as though we’re a little upside down celebrating what is traditionally a spring festival), but more importantly, this country has a serious issue with Rabbits.

Rabbits are an introduced species and are not supposed to be here.

Rabbits were brought here with the First Fleet, as potential food because of their ability to breed so quickly. Small numbers were later released for hunting sport and allegedly to ‘provide a touch of home’. These rabbits turned out to be extremely well adapted to Australia, due to its mild winters and very few predators while the freshly cleared bushland for farming made ideal rabbit habitat.

The introduction of rabbits in Australia is the fasted ever recorded spread of any mammal anywhere in the world. Their effect on Australian ecology has been devastating– they are suspected of being the most significant known factor in Australian species loss.

Rabbits compete with native species including the bilby (more on this guy shortly). They also strip vegetation down to to the soil, and with nothing to anchor it down, huge swathes of soil and native habitats have been washed or blown away.

Now I’m a realist, the modern, commericalised version of Easter is here to stay…

Enter – The Australian Bilby.

Twelve years ago, in the run up to my first Easter in Australia, I discovered chocolate bilbies. It was actually the first time I’d heard of a bilby, never mind the chocolate variety. I’ll be honest, my first thought was “not another Easter treat” but hear me out…

Bilbies are a native, nocturnal, desert dwelling marsupial with large oversized ears, bandicoot type snouts and sharp claws an long tongues – they are perfectly evolved for burrowing.

Its name is derived from bliba, the Ullaroi language name for bilby. They have huge importance to Indigenous heritage, featuring in creation and dream time stories and existing as totems for some tribes. It is no surprise that bilbies are so important to Indigenous heritage – their spiral shaped burrows help keep ecosystems in balance, their diggings acting as compost pits filled with plant matter and germinating seeds (pretty much the opposite effect on the landscape to rabbits).

Sadly the lesser bilby has now disappeared while the greater bilby which once occupied 70%of the county is now limited to small pockets of Australia’s central and western deserts.

This is a familiar tale for many of Australia’s small native marsupials – with rabbits largely responsible as well as other feral species such as cats and foxes.

So why Chocolate Bilbies?

Chocolate bilbies not only raise awareness around the plight of our native species, but some quality Australian brands such as Fyna Food Pink Lady Chocolate and Haigh’s Chocolate donate a portion of their profits to protecting the bilby.

They were first produced in the nineties in in conjunction with Foundation Rabbit Free Australia (RFA) who began using the Easter Bilby to highlight the damage caused by introduced rabbits.

The bilby has now become a symbol of hopefor wildlife conservation across Australia and the idea of the Easter Bilby gains more traction each year. In fact word on the street is that chocolate bilbies have SOLD OUT at many retailers across Australia this year.

Chocolate bilbies are clearly not the silver bullet to fix the rabbit problem or bring back the lesser bilby. But isn’t this a great opportunity educate our kids and adopt an animal more relevant to the Australian context?

Personally I am all for the bilby as an alternative mascot for Easter. Not every culture has adopted the rabbit to represent Easter, with foxes and even cuckoos being reported to symbolise Easter in some countries, so  we certainly aren’t the only country to do something different.

This is a chance to stop and think hard about the plight of our environment and the devastation caused by introduced species.

If you, like me, haven’t done your Easter shopping yet then I urge you to buy a chocolate bilby this year and support something important.


About the author

Carmel is mum to three young boys and lives in Sydney’s Inner West.  An environmental consultant by profession and an environmentalist by proclamation, she is happiest when outdoors, riding her cargo bike (normally packed with kids and provisions) or out bushwalking with her tribe. Be it searching for rock carvings, identifying wildlife (or scats), or discussing storm water drains (the latest fascination), she loves answering questions about why and how the world is the way it is.

Oh and she is also the owner of a rather fabulous online store called Puggle Post, a store dedicated to inspiring Australian kids to connect with their world.