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AUSSIE HARES PROMPT HAIRY CAMPAIGN

Australian farmers, desperate to rid themselves of a plague of rabbits destroying valuable grazing land, have turned their wrath upon the hapless Easter Bunny.

They say the lovable cartoon bunny, commonly depicted skipping harmlessly along with a basket of chocolate egg gifts, is fooling townsfolk into thinking rabbits are just cute and cuddly.Wrong, say the farmers. And to prove their point, they want the Easter Bunny replaced with the Easter Bilby.

The Easter Bilby?

The bilby, one of the more retiring of the native Australian mammals, is a pointy-nosed nocturnal marsupial about the same size as a rabbit. It also sports a short furry tail, sometimes has spotted fur, and has similar living habits to the rabbit.

It was chosen by the South Australian United Farmers and Stock-Owners as an ideal replacement for the Easter Bunny because the bilby is being driven toward extinction by the voracious rabbit.

"Urban dwellers don't realize the environmental damage caused by rabbits and indeed their effect on native mammals. Where you have rabbits you virtually don't have bilbys," said Peter Day, executive director of United Farmers and Stock-Owners.

"The problem we face is that when you talk about rabbits (you think) they are cute, cuddly things, so we thought a great way to swing the whole thing around was use the Easter Bilby instead of an Easter Bunny."

The farmers' group, which represents 8,000 of the state's estimated 14,000 farmers, hopes that the introduction of the Easter Bilby will bring greater awareness to townspeople of the trouble caused by rabbits.

Rabbits were introduced to Australia in the early days of European settlement and have long been listed as vermin that cause widespread erosion by eating the roots of grasses that hold the soil together.

Some historians believe they could have been brought with the first fleet to settle in Sydney in 1788 as a food source. Others say the first pairs arrived a short time later when hunting enthusiasts brought them to Australia.

Whatever the case, the rabbits took to their new environment with such enthusiasm that they are now estimated to cost agriculture $150 million a year.

As one farmer told Reuters: "I don't care who actually brought them in, if I could get my hands on them, I'd wring their necks. . . ."

He said once rabbits started burrowing under his fences and eating the grasses, it took only a short time before the wind shifted the loosened soil, causing erosion.

Farmers hope that if their campaign to introduce an Easter Bilby is successful, it will help them raise money for research into rabbit-control methods.