It was after reading John Seymour’s, ‘The new complete book of Self Sufficiency’, that the idea of farming rabbits was born. I had enjoyed the taste of wild rabbit meat and disagreed with the way shop bought rabbits live in the same, or worse, conditions as battery hens. With a large garden full of organic dandelions and clover, and all around us mountainsides covered with pesticide free supplies, I designed a house and pen system for breeding, to meet their physical and mental needs, as well as mine looking after them, to raise healthy, happy, organic rabbits.
Naturally, I have since made amendments to their housing, learning more about them as I spent more time with the fluffy bunnies. Using the internet as a guide but watching and observing, I have been able to feed a very varied diet without the need to buy stock, except for the depths of winter! Knowing which leaves and bark they like and at what time of year I have found many places nearby to keep them happy. No-one else in our village breeds rabbits and I thought my neighbours would think me mad, collecting huge dock leaves and always coming back from a mountain walk with a bag of Acacia leaves, but instead they were supportive, especially when they realised the unwanted weeds from their gardens were wanted by my bunnies. And my rabbits eat different wild food to their cows so everyone is happy!
In Autumn when everyone is readying their wood for winter, they bag up the sawdust for me. It’s a better absorbent than hay, makes a much better deep litter in winter and is good for my compost structure too!
The hot dry summer is a challenge for most humans, even those who have climate controlled housing, so having a thick warm fur coat is not ideal but perfect for sub zero temperatures, so against advice, our first brood was born in the middle of winter. Unbeknownst to my neighbours, my rabbits had a luxury hutch made from thick stone walls with wooden doors, deep litter, insulated water bottles and exterior rubber curtains to insulate and keep the worst weather out. They really were the luckiest rabbits for miles around and the first group of kits snuggled together in their nest made of mother’s fur, kept each other warm and a month later they were playing outside in the snow.
Domestic rabbit is different from wild rabbit. The meat is whiter, more like chicken, though still very tasty. Unfortunately, rabbit husbandry is not as easy as it sounds and the saying ‘breed like rabbits’ was wrong. After 2 years of successful breeding we sadly lost the stud rabbit, who we tried replacing with a male from the last litter, only to discover after 3 phantom pregnancies, he was incapable! So I decided to wait until Spring and in the following March, a male rabbit was loaned to try and mate with my resident female. However, she was in no way, shape or form, going to let him get near her and became quite savage, aggressively biting him. After a week of trying to help nature work for me, I gave up, sent him home, and resigned to restarting our breeding programme with a new pair of rabbits.
When the new pair arrived, I integrated the young female with my older rabbit for company until she was old enough to start breeding. Oddly, a month later, the small one was seen attempting to mount the larger… so I double-checked and found she had become a he! But the chance for babies was slim as the older female still wasn’t putting out, so I went back to the source and came back with an older, and definitely female, rabbit. She was mated with the other male, who was from a different gene pool, and 31 days later, 6 squirming, blind and hairless, kits were born, the dad’s colouring of white with black patches, being the most prevalent.
Meanwhile, the original female had been put out to pasture and had the run of the whole garden until, by accident, she encountered the sex changing rabbit (who I hadn’t decided what to with) and to my surprise she let him mount her and even groomed him while he regained his stamina and had another go! Perhaps the other pregnant female had put her ‘in the mood’…
Whatever the reason, it was a lucky stroke as sadly, the first mother died when her kits were only a week old. She overdosed on wild carrot of all things, which I had read on the internet was safe but subsequently found out, is toxic. I didn’t know yet if our original female was definitely pregnant and we needed a breeding female so I decided to hand-rear the kits. It’s a very difficult task as they are such fragile creatures, the mother’s milk being so rich that she only feeds her babies once a day. Luckily my neighbour’s cows milk was abundant so I was able to give my orphan bunnies the thick, rich, creamy ‘top’. Getting them to drink the milk and not wear it was a different story but I persevered, twice a day, to give them as much ‘goodness’ as I could. After a few days their eyes started to open and bundles of fun emerged…
It was now mid July and the daytime temperature was soaring. I was worried about the orphan kits overheating so moved them indoors, into our cool stone house and my bumper harvest of watermelons kept them hydrated and happy. Bunnies are extremely entertaining and so cute, especially when we let them exercise in our kitchen and the tiled floor meant they were skidding around like Bambi on ice!
Assessing whether a female rabbit is pregnant or not is very difficult as she hides it well but when the older female starting nesting, pulling fur from her belly to line a nest and expose her teats, I knew immediately and moved her back to the brood hutch where she increased the number of little bunnies! I considered smuggling the orphans in with them but had read how females will kill anything with another smell and also, because of the age/size difference, I decided it was best to carry on hand-rearing. Plus this poor woman had enough to deal with, with more babies than nipples!
I had hoped that the warnings on the internet wouldn’t apply to me but it was not to be. One by one the orphans died for various reasons until only one was left. It had been nicknamed Tubs as was the ‘fattest’ of the lot. It weaned itself off milk the earliest, was bigger than the others and whenever new food was introduced, it was the most cautious. Tubs probably had the best start in life with the first of the mother’s milk but survival seems also due to intelligence. I nurtured this remaining bunny and supervised playtime with the other rabbits to socialise but Tubs had always been independent and seemed very happy to be on her own. She is the spitting image of her dad, with extremely soft fur, loves being fussed – which she gets daily, and boldly touches noses with our resident donkey.
The original female has been retired and we are very grateful to her as now have a new breeding doe, her daughter, who is nurturing her first brood of kits with the help of her sister. All my rabbits get their segregated exercise time in the larger area we have created and it’s great to see them ‘binky’ (run, jump into the air, twist their body and flick their feet). What’s even better is when I want them to ‘go to bed’, they all happily return to their safe hutches at night🙂