Traditional Rabbit PIe
Traditional Rabbit PIe

Introduced to Australia with the First Fleet, rabbits began to breed in plague proportions, especially in Tasmania. As early as 1827 the Colonial Times and Tasmanian Advertiser reported: ‘…the common rabbit is becoming so numerous throughout the colony, that they are running about on some large estates by the thousands. We understand that there are no rabbits whatever in the elder colony [New South Wales].’ Well, if this were true, New South Wales soon caught up!

 Rabbits were contemptuously referred to as ‘underground mutton’ , initially shot more for sport than their culinary qualities. However, by the early 1900’s the rabbit was fulfilling an important role in sustaining the residents of Reedy Marsh; a unique little settlement near Deloraine, in Tasmania’s north. My maternal grandfather James Larcombe was one of a handful of farmers scratching a living here on small patches of grass between rabbit burrows and blackberry vines.   According to my mother, rabbit pie formed an essential part of their diet . Mum joked (at least I think she was joking!) that she and her bare-footed siblings would be shown a line of rabbit dirts by their father and told : Off you go…your dinner’s at the other end!

Four Little Larcombes All In A RowFo
Reedy Marsh Rabbiters! My mother is at far left.

My own childhood was spent on a farm near Ulverstone and my older brother earned his pocket money trapping poor old rabbits and selling the skins. And yes, one of our favourite meals was Reedy Marsh  Rabbit Pie.

The following recipe was passed on to me by my mother’s sister Leah, shortly before she died. I suspect this  was the first time it had   ever been written down.

Mutton birds

                                                                                                    REEDY MARSH PIE

One rabbit cut into about six pieces. Roll the pieces in seasoned flour and put into a 3 pint casserole. Cover with chicken stock to which 1 tablespoon of vinegar and one tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce has been added. Cover with a layer of sliced tomatoes, a layer of thinly sliced onion, a layer of thick sliced bacon cut into two inch pieces and finally a layer of overlapping, thinly sliced potatoes. Season each layer with salt and pepper. Top with a layer of soft breadcrumbs mixed with dried herbs Dot with butter. Bake in a moderate oven for about two hours.

Before Aunty Leah sent me the recipe I had won a radio completion with a version I vaguely remembered Mum making. It netted me nearly a thousand dollars in cash, cookware and electrical appliances.  My sister is  a wonderful cook and  was quite rightly disgusted. I had never actually made the pie myself, and worse still I had forgotten to mention the chicken stock! In my defense, my sister ended up with most of the appliances I’d won.


Of course, rabbit really came into it’s own during the Great Depression. Here is an Australian recipe from the 1930’s

                                                                                                         POOR MAN’S  PIE

 Joint a rabbit and place the pieces into a stew pan with a chopped onion and a little water. Simmer until tender. Season with salt and pepper. Put all into a pie dish.. Make a batter with a heaped breakfast cup of flour, half a cup of dripping, two well beaten eggs and enough milk to make a smooth batter. Season with salt and pepper and pour over the rabbit. Put into a hot oven and bake for about an hour or until the batter is nicely brown.

I love this snippet from The Queenslander January 7 1937. Clearly  “Carlos” knew what he was about!


Here’s a suggestion for the man with no snares or gun who wants a rabbit pie for dinner. Wait till the bunnies are out feeding, then sneak up and fill all the openings of a burrow – not at the top,  but about an arm’s length down. Then run round behind where they are grazing, kick up a din, and rush them to the burrow. They’ll dive in; and the rest is easy. – “Carlos”


Rabbit meat is very lean, and therefore inclined to be a bit dry if baked. My mother would stuff the carcass with a buttery herb and bread stuffing, then cover it with bacon strips. However, on late-night radio I heard an old man reminisce about rabbit baked with a fatty mutton bird inside*…oh my word!    Marjorie Bligh, a delightfully eccentric cook and author from the Tasmanian town of Devonport, did this in reverse. Her method was to stuff a mutton bird with rabbit meat.

Tasmanian Federal MP Dick Adams once  told journalist and television presenter Annabel Crabb that the entrée for his dream dinner party would be: ‘Braised rabbit and mutton-bird served hot in individual coddle dishes’ .  Among the guests he imagined inviting to the meal were the innovative celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal and Hu Jintao, then  President of China. I suspect both men would appreciate the dish!

The Mutton tastes better than it looks!
Dressed  mutton bird…it tastes better than it looks!

Despite the name mutton bird, the taste of the meat has been described as a combination of bacon and smoked fish with a big dollop of fat. I ate my share as a child, but it has been so long since I tasted one that I don’t l feel qualified to comment.

*A note on the birds. Tasmania is the only Australian state in which it is still legal to harvest them, during a brief season lasting from March 27 until April 30. They are the chicks of the migratory short-tailed shearwater. Around 200,000 are caught and sold each year, mainly by residents of Flinders Island, in Bass Strait. Opinion on whether the harvest should be continued is divided.

This year the decision might be taken out of the hands of humans as there is the mysterious shortage of the adult birds arriving from Alaska. Many of those who have managed the epic journey have been underweight and too weak to breed. Here is an article published on the subject in the Tasmanian paper, THE ADVOCATE

If you enjoyed this story, you might like another ‘foody’ one about scones.

I love feedback from readers. Do leave a comment in the box below, then scroll down and complete the little anti-spam sum.

  1. Hi Pauline,
    I really enjoyed your rabbit stew recipe. My latest fiction book at the publishers this week is set in Queensland in the late 1800s. Those early pioneers and even my family would have cooked those types of meals. My mother owned a pressure cooker and she used it so much. Nowadays we have every electrical appliance that can be manufactured but I still believe you can’t beat the Pressure Cooker.

    • Pauline

      How exciting about your book, Heather. Best of luck with it. I’ve always been a bit scared of pressure cookers in case I end up with rabbit stew on the ceiling! Mum used one though.P.

  2. Of course this made me cry. I was also brought up on a lot of ‘rabbit casserole’, not nearly as decicious sounding or as fancy as Leah’s. Although in the UK we can buy ready cut up rabbit pieces ( from France ) the combination of Watership Down plus Myxamatosis have probably put an end to rabbit being eaten. That, plus a very beloved and long lived family pet rabbit called Sam…..

    • I meant to tell you that when we were in England for a few years, I cooked rabbit as a roast. I would have been better using a pressure cooker as it turned out so tough. We couldn’t eat it. Thank goodness it was only for our consumption.
      Re – my mother’s pressure cooker. I can remember the steam release shooting up to the ceiling in the kitchen and the stew with it. I think that I grew up with a hearty respect for pressure cookers. Nowadays, I use a slow cooker. I loved the recipe given for the pastry.

      • Pauline

        Roast rabbit is really nice, but you do have to stuff it and cover it with bacon to retain the moisture. Was very amused about your episode with the pressure cooker!! Whenever I returned from overseas my mother would make rabbit stew. It would be nice with suet dumplings in it.

  3. Hi Pauline,

    Great stories about rabbit pie, but I was awfully glad you explained what mutton bird was because I had no clue.

    Smiles to you, Nancy

    • Hi All you Rabbit Pie enthusiasts,
      I think that we could have mutton birds in the islands off the Queensland coast. e.g. Lady Elliot Island or Musgrave Island, but I’m not sure. Maybe the women pioneers cooked another bird inside the rabbit to keep the meat moist if they couldn’t get mutton birds. On the coast we didn’t see rabbits, but my father still had to pay a Rabbit Tax and he wasn’t particularly happy about that. Inland from the coast in the drier region there were plenty of rabbits.

      • Pauline

        We used to have the rabbit inspector visit. If there were signs of too many bunnies we had to lay poison. Very sad really but I remember one day my father collected about 100! Not sure whether other birds would have been used in the rabbits, as mutton bird chicks are VERY fatty.

    • Pauline

      Thanks Nancy. Yes, mutton birds are a bit of a regional delicacy. I remember them with fascination though.P.xx

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