Visit Charlotte Mill at her cottage in Queenstown at wine time and you might be offered rabbit rilettes with your pinot noir.
Lean back on the plush sofa, and the soft fur cushion behind you will likely be made from the skin of one of the finest Wakatipu rabbits.
Mel is quite fond of rabbits, but Central Otago’s plague of plant-eating pests, creating holes, and breeding, like pests that have no tomorrow, gave her the inspiration for a new work to rid the area of rabbits – one crust and gourmet food product at a time.
Rabbit problems in the area are well documented. The fauna was established via the farming and lifestyle characteristics of the Wakatipu Basin, Wanaka and Central Otago.
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The Rabbit Destruction Council came close to eliminating them in 1947 and in 1997, the illegally released calicivirus almost did the job. But the numbers have since exploded.
With dozens of rabbits infiltrating her private property, even with a rabbit-proof fence in place, Mel thought she needed to do something.
And instead of wasting these little souls, [it’s] It’s better to turn them into something because they are actually very cute.”
As Covid-19 exhausts Mill’s Queenstown hotel with husband Nik Kiddle, Mill begins planning her new business.
Kiddle was a former diplomat, so he lived, tended and worked extensively in Europe, where rabbits are widely raised and consumed.
Mel saw an opportunity to introduce New Zealanders to delicious new food items, use leather to make luxury furniture, and crush the rest for pet food.
Her work, named Rangi Nui Rabbits after her home estates, would require fishermen, butchers, and craft workers. It has been estimated that it will create as many as 30 jobs and rid the area of 500 rabbits per week. It was sustainable, even if it meant killing a lot of rabbits.
“It took me a long time to understand that. I am not a hunter,” she said.
Getting rabbits was easy once Mill established business partnerships with local hunters, but she soon realized that processing the meat was more difficult.
All wild game must go through an accreditation process from the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI). The nearest certified butcher was 2 hours away in Invercargill. This requires refrigerated transport, but refrigerated transport service providers will not carry an unapproved product.
Most butchers in Central Otago are certified solely to kill wild game at home, and the red tape involved in becoming commercially certified has been so great that Mel only finds one Queenstown company willing to try it out. The company was forced to downsize when Covid-19 hit and decided not to complete the operation.
“The whole thing is fraught with problems and it is very difficult for anyone to set it up.
“My only conclusion is that since the government has a policy to try to eradicate these pests, they cannot have a policy in place side by side that allows people to get out of them.”
MPI and New Zealand Food Safety director Paul Dunstead said there are greater risks associated with consuming wild game than other animals due to its unknown source and history.
For example, the agency needed to know what controls were in place to manage chemicals or pesticides used in animal habitats because they could pose a risk to people if consumed.
“It’s not a matter of policy, but more about what safety measures are in place for people who end up consuming these animals,” he said.
Mel has had more luck with her fur products, but the business is far from profitable.
Contract hunters provide local hides, which are frozen and taken to the tannery, also at Invercargill.
Mill then sorts, sorts, repairs, stretches, cuts, and sews them into luxurious pillows, sheets, furniture, and sheets.
However, with the final product costing hundreds of dollars, I’ve struggled to get it into retail stores.
“They like the idea of a local product being produced here, which is so good for the environment and the fur. But then they ask me what my wholesale price is, and then they mock me out the door because they can’t make their 300 percent profit on top of that.”
Now working with local interior designers, she establishes a custom market for items like the 12-piece bench that was created for a Millbrook resident at a cost of about $1,600.
She has not given up on the use of meat, and she is looking for a local commercial kitchen where she can slow-cook the rabbit to make a precooked confit and rabbit legs to sell in supermarkets.
“It has great flavour, it’s gourmet, and it’s very European, and it’s found alongside duck confit and those other specialty items,” she said.
She was also working on rillette, a French coarse dish.
Mill said gourmet supermarkets across the country are interested, but New Zealanders tend to think of rabbits as poor food at best, and pet food at worst.
Another concern is that she will likely have to buy rabbits from the Invercargill butcher, rather than kill them herself.
“It wasn’t the vision. I want to handle the whole thing locally, and I’m not going to give up yet.
“If I get some momentum to get some products out there… I’ll start small and gradually grow.”
A year after launch, Mill’s financial goals have changed dramatically from its initial plan to have the rabbit business replace the Queenstown Hotel.
“My modified financial goal is to see it cover its costs and turn a profit, enough to be able to … grow it to the point where it can be a more viable business.”