I have wanted to keep rabbits for a very long time. Not for pets, mind you, but for meat. The thought is even more attractive now that we’re feeding our pets raw. I’ve read up on the subject, and I even have my favorite books, but I’ve really never spent a lot of time around rabbits, and I’ve been generally scared of them, nervous that they’ll bite me, or panic and break their back, or whatnot.
At the farm, Jeanette keeps perhaps 150 rabbits, all rescues. Some of the males are neutered, a few rare females are spayed, and for the most part they are fat and healthy. Since being involved in rescue, she and her husband have decided to be vegetarian, because in her words “when we were raising show rabbits, it just didn’t seem right to go to potlucks at the end of the weekend and be eating the losers.” I get her point, but I don’t plan on giving up meat anytime soon, I just want to raise it myself in a humane and healthy way. I think she would be appalled at how much I am learning from her practices.
They started with hutches, but they’re bulky and not very practical. They then progressed to cages in the barn, hung from the walls like picture frames. It gives the cages some spring, so even if a rabbit does panic, it’s less likely to hurt itself badly. There is one room that is set up like a commercial breeder, with cages double high and a runoff so that the lower cages stay dry and waste-free. it’s the system I’m most familiar with, but I have never been very happy with it.
What has surprised me the most is the outdoor runs. Females have been getting transferred out to colonies 4-10 members large in wire-bottomed, wire-enclosed, tarp-roofed structures that have been set with hay bales. The hay and rabbit waste breaks down into an odorless soil that is ideal for shallow burrows. She never mucks them out, and they do not smell. The colony rabbits are the healthiest, happiest, most friendly rabbits she keeps. She’s trying to get the rest of the barn rabbits into colonies before winter.
I asked her where she puts the rabbits in the winter, and she says that the rabbits do fine out there. I was so shocked! It can get to -70 with the windchill, and easily -30 without. And four foot snow buildup. Aargh! I couldn’t hardly wrap my brain around it! She’s apparently been doing it for years and has never lost a rabbit to the elements. The snow surrounds the pens and shelters them from the winds, the decomposing hay and poo keep the ground temperature from freezing, and sometimes downright warm, and the rabbits just build nests, grow thicker coats, and snuggle up with eachother. It still boggles my mind, but it makes sense.
It also makes me wonder if I could do something similar in our backyard. Even though we’re in the city, we’re zoned in such a way that we can put up a request for land use and if it is not denied, we can have certain kinds of livestock and poultry on our property, provided that it is set back from the road a certain number of feet. I also do not think rabbits are classed as livestock, so we could have them without a problem. I’m nervous about wintering rabbits, but it could be very rewarding all the way around. I’ll have to look at the costs of building a shelter. I would have to a slightly different system up for breeding, but it might be worth looking into.
Now if only I have enough nerve to petition for chickens, we’ll have fresh eggs…