With the addition of our new rabbits, we decided it was a good time to experiment with a new rabbit system we have wanted to try for a while now–a rabbit community, colony, or “hare-pen” as I like to call it.  It was also a good time, because we have more rabbits than cages.  On our recent butcher day, it was discovered that our little American Chinchilla doe who unexplicably died was about 2 weeks pregnant, meaning our AC buck had bred her.  Therefore, he and our remaining, seemingly infertile, doe won a reprieve for a few more months to see if anything will happen.  Anyway, the idea of a hare-pen at its most basic is, instead of having each rabbit in its own cage, several rabbits are run together.  But it isn’t necessarily that simple. 

N petting Pelham, our AC buck.  We are finding that, despite their freedom to run, they are not completely wild–as long as we don’t try to pick them up.  Otherwise, they are quite curious, frequently coming up to us, and even allow petting. 

Depending on how much control you want of the rabbit burrows and the gene pool, there are many ways to do the community run, including, but certainly not limited to the following:

  • Throw a bunch of rabbits in together and hope the hardiest survive the fighting, then start your community from there.
  • Put a pregnant doe in, allow her to deliver, and prevent most fighting, but then you must cull out the baby bucks before they start breeding all the little does.
  • Put a couple of does and a buck or two in, and just randomly go cull out rabbits for dinner/sale as needed.
  • Put a couple of does in, but keep bucks seperate (either in cages or their own pen), and bring the buck in only when babies are wanted.  Then, cull kits as needed.

Of course, it still isn’t that simple, necessarily.  You see, the biggest problems with community colonies are the facts that some does will kill off other doe’s babies, and rabbits like to dig.  If you research online, you will quickly find many stories about how quickly one little burrow and nest will turn into a whole colony of burrows and nests and tunnels, that can easily wind up going under the fencing, under your house, into the dog yard, into the nearby hidden fox den (not that you would ever find the evidence of that!), and so forth.  So, you have to prevent that problem.

While researching, I have come across a number of solutions and designs:

  • Dig a perimeter fenceline 18-24 inches below ground level, then fill the fence line with just fencing, or with straw bales that have fencing on the outer and under side of them.  The idea is that rabbit tunnels usually (but not always) don’t go more than about 24 inches down, so that will keep them in the pen, and the straw bales simply provide extra digging and nesting material.
  • Fence in a large enough area, add some play things, sand piles, and nest boxes, and hope for the best.
  • Put the rabbit run on a concrete slab covered in straw or dirt, and build the community from there.
  • Dig a pit 24 inches deep, the size of the pen, line the edge and bottom with fencing, fill the pit with straw bales, and let the rabbits have at it.  Of course, the big downside here is that you will never know where it’s safe to step, as there could be a burrow anywhere under the straw.

Finally, no matter what method you use, there are some common difficulties with community runs:

  • Catching the rabbits, who become experts at ducking into their burrows as soon as you approach or attempt to catch them.
  • Not being able to check on nests or kit welfare, and not being able to figure out which kit belongs to which doe, since you may not see them until they are independent enough to pop out of their burrow on their own.
  • Dens and burrows potentially flooding and killing whatever critter is in them.

Those ideas and problems are just a few of the common ones I have come across.  After hours and hours of research, however, we came up with a design I am really hoping will be a compromise of everything.  I want my rabbits to have some freedom in digging and tunneling, but not so much they get out or are impossible to catch.  I want to have some control of the gene pool so I know what doe or buck to cull if there is a problem, or if I decide to breed for specific characteristics.  I want to have the ability to check on babies, clean out nests, etc. because the simple fact is, the pen is not entirely the way nature would have it, and therefore letting them have complete freedom could create more negative issues than positive ones.  I also want/need the ability to catch the rabbits when necessary.  On the ground, we can use a fishing net, but once they go under, I wanted a way to open the nest to catch them.  So, here is our design, which is still in the making, but you’ll get the idea here…

Step one:  Build nest boxes/simulated dens.  We decided this was a great way to use up some scrap lumber, and when we needed more, I utilized the clearance lumber rack at Home Depot (I LOVE that, by the way.  Totally makes a trip to Home Depot with the hubby worthwhile!!).  Each box is roughly 14 inches wide by 24 inches long, give or take based on the wood we had.  I wanted plenty of room for a large doe and several growing kits.  The bottom is made of hardware cloth to help drain any water that might get in.  The front entrance is made of wood on one box and hardware cloth on the other, to see which works better in the long run.  It has a hole cut into it which the tunnel enters into.

The top is a plywood or OSB (again, based on what we had available) lid covered in aluminum flashing to help water roll off, and little handle to make lifting easier. 

Step two:  Dig.  Seeing as how our ground is frozen solid, S got to do this part (THANKFULLY!), and he decided to minimize the digging by digging one large area for both burrow pipes.

S dug holes for each nest box, and then he dug tunnels leading out from the box and up to ground level, with a gradual slope. 

In our area, “hardpan” is a big problem.  Instead of nice, rich soil that water easily percolates into, it’s almost like concrete in areas, which causes water to puddle very easily and rapidly.  So, to prevent pooling inside the nest boxes, each hole for the nest box/simulated den was dug deeper than it needed to be, with a slope toward the front (away from where newborn kits would likely be), dropping off into a deeper section for water collection.  This whole area was back filled with gravel, all intended to help keep water from pooling IN the nest itself. 

The nest box was then placed into the hole, resting on the leveled gravel.  See the nest box photos above for reference.

Step three:  Add tunnels/simulated burrows.  In this case, I decided to try using aluminum ducting first, because it was nice and flexible, and because the ridges in it added good grip and traction for the bunnies.  S drilled a few holes along the base of it for increased drainage. 

Side notes here….leave the pipes unstretched for added strength (which we didn’t do and wish we had), and/or drill holes AFTER you stretch the pipes (which we also didn’t do…as we stretched, the piping twisted slightly, causing these holes to not all be on the bottom). 

These pipes were placed down in the tunneled out sections S dug.

We did not actually attach the pipes to the nest boxes in this first experiment (mainly because we couldn’t figure out a good way to do so).  We are hoping the dirt on top will hold the pipes in place, and we are curious to see if the rabbits try to break through the cracks.  We will keep a check on it by simply viewing through the open lid of the nest box.

Finally, the pipes were carefully buried, leaving only the entrance at ground level visible.  This end was cut as vertically as we could manage, to create a roof of sorts over the tunnel, and help further prevent water from pouring into the tunnel.

Step four:  We bed the nest boxes with straw, and then introduced the rabbits.  

You may also notice a piece of scrap OSB board was laid over the burrow pipe area.  I will explain why later. 

We put each rabbit into a nest box, and placed the lid on top.  Then we waited.  After a couple moments, a little bunny rabbit would pop out of the end of the tunnel. 

One of the AC bunnies, Pelham, came out, looked around, turned, and went right back down, not to be seen again for about 1/2 hour.  I think he approved.  This morning, we found it appeared as though one of the 3 rabbits currently running free in the pen had bedded down for the night in a nest box.  I think it’s safe to say they like it!  For the record, yes, we have had 2-3 rabbits running free in the pen for about 3 weeks now, and yes, they dig and burrow like crazy (hence the reasoning behind the work we are doing).  For now, we inspect for holes daily, and fill them in as fast as we discover them.  One of our does can easily dig 4-5 feet down in less than 48 hours if we aren’t watchful!

Notice in the last 2 photos the size difference of the rabbits.  This is a 6 inch (exterior diameter) pipe.  The darker Harlequin cross bunny is about 5 pounds right now, and still growing.  Pelham, the silver AC rabbit is around 11 pounds.  Our future rabbit colony will likely have 7 inch pipes for the larger rabbits, but since we don’t yet know if the larger AC’s will work out, we settled on the 6 inch pipes.  They are plenty big enough for the 5-8 pound rabbits.  If you do this with standard meat breeds above 8 pounds though, I would definitely advise the larger (7-inch) pipes.

This is still a work in progress, but the eventual plan is to have a total of 4 of these boxes and tunnels.  Once they are completed, we will lay 2×4 fencing across the ground, completely covering the area inside the fenced sides, attaching the ground wire to the perimeter, vertical fence wire, and cutting out sections just for the openings to tunnels and nest boxes.  We will cover the wire with dirt, mulch, etc., add some dirt piles for digging, and then add a central feed/water station.  We also plan to build a couple climbing platforms and above ground hide-out boxes.  The idea is to give the platforms and dirt piles for play, chewing, and natural digging desires, but burrowing is limited by the fence laying on the ground.  The piped tunnels we create will simulate natural burrows, but prevent further digging or expanding.  Same with the underground nest boxes.  I am hoping we can allow the bunnies to exercise freely, exhibit all natural tendencies, but still contain them safely.  It will also prevent predators from digging under, so I won’t have to worry about hot wire on the outside of the pen (which is what we have done in the past, and it has effectively shocked more visiting children than predators).  Once it is completely finished, all our more aggressive rabbits will remain in their individual cages, but I currently have a mother/daughters trio that will be put in this pen.  They are currently caged together, are different colors meaning easier to identify, and I will rotate bucks through based on what I want at the time.  The idea is to maintain 3 does and, on occasion, one buck in the pen, so each rabbit has its own next box.  Kits will share their mom’s nest box until they are old enough for her to kick them out.  At that point, they have the option of using the above ground boxes we’ll make available, but around that time, we will round them up and seperate them by sex.  Bucks will go into cages, as will does as it gets closer to harvest time.  That’s the plan.  We’ll see if it works.

Update:  Remember that OSB covering the tunnels?  We have had the 2 boxes and tunnels in place for a whole 24 hours now, and have decided on a big change already for the next 2 we build.  After I stepped in the wrong spot and effectively crushed the aluminum pipe that created our tunnel, I realized it was a little too flexible.  Thankfully, I caught myself in time, before it was totally crushed, and we were able to fix it.  Next time, we will use PVC or concrete (depending on what we can find), using elbows to create the turns.  The other option to save money would be to lay plywood over the the entire tunnel, which is what we will do to these current ones for now.  The plywood can be buried for aesthetics.  It will eventually rot, but it will give us a chance to find out if the area will hold weight better once the soil settles into place, which should happen by the time the wood rots.  With a stiffer pipe though, you wouldn’t have to worry about it at all.

Stay tuned for Stage 2.  Not sure when it will happen, but our ground is so frozen, it may be a while.  In the mean time, I will be building some of the other items we plan to put in the pen so that once the holes are dug, we will be ready to move forward quickly.  We have been researching and planning this for so long, I can’t wait to see it all come together!!