Thanks to our experiment raising meat rabbits in a community environment, we are learning a great deal about rabbit social issues.
Granted, raising in a fenced-in colony is not completely natural. In the wild, rabbits have far more space than a fenced pen allows, and tunnel systems can be quite intricate. Nonetheless, after reading many seemingly successful stories of colony raising, we figured it was something we needed to try. Even if we can’t duplicate nature in it’s entirety, we figured everything we could duplicate would only improve the lives of our bunnies. The following is a totally random compilation of what I have observed:
I feared turning rabbits loose would cause their temperaments to become more skittish and wild. To the contrary, every rabbit, of several different breeds, that I have turned out, has grown friendlier with time. All I can figure is that they learn we are not trying to catch them every time we come in (like you do when you open a cage), and so they don’t anticipate or fear trouble as much. Pelham, our AC buck, has been running free in this pen for about 8 months now, and he is the friendliest rabbit I have ever seen. He will greet us at the gate, run along the fence with us if we are walking outside of it, sit there and allow anyone to pet him, eat from your hand, crawl on you, stand up on your legs, and so on. At first I thought it was just him, but every other rabbit put in there has done similarly over time. Visiting children love our rabbit hare-pen!!
It has been a blast watching the rabbits interact with each other. They romp, play, leap, chase, dig, explore, hide, and lounge. Pelham often tries to breed the does, and they are easily able to escape his advances if they aren’t ready. If they are ready, they just sit there and allow it. Growing kits love the extra space to be…well…like little kids running around or playing hide-and-seek in the tunnels all the time. By having an assortment of obstacles, tunnels, lounging surfaces, and different heights, all rabbits seem to find a space they can claim as their own, and preferences are as individual as the rabbit. Preferences also vary with the weather and temperature.
I have had few health problems with rabbits in the hare-pen. I have had a couple of new rabbits that developed “snuffles,” a highly contagious respiratory infection, or other mysterious conditions, shortly after arriving. Most were caged and in quarantine at the time. Still, I feared my hare-pen rabbits might catch it, but they never did. They are just healthy, happy, and seem resistant to common diseases. I certainly don’t go looking for things to expose them to, but overall, they just haven’t had health problems. It is possible that it is breed-based, as Pelham is the only surviving AC rabbit we have (after 9 tries), and I have only lost one of our Harlequin hybrids. I know AC’s are weaker as a whole anyway. Nonetheless, I also have to imagine that fresh air, being exposed to things on the ground, a cleaner environment sterilized by the sun, and a lack of intense smells caused by urine and feces collecting under the cages contributes to their health.
Breeding and Kindling:
Breeding takes place as nature intended. The buck doesn’t require much to get in the mood. A fluffy doe tail hopping by is about all it takes, and he’s ready. If she isn’t ready, she runs or refuses to raise her haunches for him, and the pen allows plenty of space to escape. When she is ready, she allows him to do his thing and cooperates.
We have had three litters born in the Hare-pen so far. The first was a pregnant doe we added, and shortly after noticed her waistline had shrunk a bit. JR found a bit of plucked hair under the cages, so we went searching for her kindle. We found her kindle neatly situated in one of the underground nest boxes we had designed. At that time, our tunnel system was not completed, so there was a hole in the ground that went right to the entrance to the nest box, and we found she had filled this hole with dirt. As we watched her, a couple times a day, we found she would dig the loose dirt out of the hole, go in the nest box, tend to her kits, then exit and re-bury the hole. It was clear she was hiding her nest, and quite effectively at that. Before the kits got too old, we actually sold the doe and her kindle to an individual trying to start a meat rabbitry of their own.
The second was more recent. We were expecting the doe to kindle, again noticed the smaller waistline, found tufts of hair throughout the Hare-pen, but couldn’t find the kindle anywhere. We searched all nest boxes, corners, dark areas, the community shelter, and even did our best to look in the tunnels, all to no avail. After several days, we were puzzled. She has proven to be a great mother in the past, but we finally concluded that she had either eaten them, or they were tucked away deep in a tunnel. Either way, there was nothing we could do about it. Then, S and I were out doing some work in the pen about a week later, and suddenly, the ground gave way under S’s foot. As it turns out, she had created a perfectly hidden little den of her own in the center area of ground not covered by the fencing. His foot had landed on the entry space, which she neatly back-filled with dirt.
This area looks just like the rest of the dirt ground, with the exception of bits of straw and slightly looser dirt. In fact, it contains the hidden entrance to the den.
It led down to a slightly deeper, perfectly dug little cove, full of a kindle of perfectly healthy kits which appeared to be about 4-5 days old.
With a bit of loose dirt dug away, you can see the entrance to the den.
With the camera stuck down in the entry-way, and the flash on, you get to see the hidden treasures. I haven’t counted them yet, but it appears to be a good-sized kindle.
With this kindle, my first question was “Why did she not use the nest boxes?” My theory is that all the older, weaned kits use the tunnels and nest boxes frequently, so perhaps she sensed it wasn’t safe? Or, perhaps she didn’t like the length of the tunnels, and felt she couldn’t bury the kits as tightly as she’d like. The den she dug is very tight, so perhaps the small space holds in heat to protect them, and the tunnels don’t allow that. Certainly worth considering. I really didn’t know the answer at that point, but we decided to leave it and see what happened. Unfortunately, before they were 2 weeks old, we lost 4. As you could see in the photos above, the den wasn’t very deep, so when she would back fill the dirt into the opening, she would accidentally bury any kits that had followed her out a bit. As a result, we finally removed them and placed the kits and mom into a cage with a nest box to try to keep the rest alive. They are still doing great as best we can tell.
Look closely and you might see a couple of kits around her.
The third happened just this week, with an expecting doe delivering in another nest box. Again, we have decided to leave them, although JR, our resident rabbit manager, decided he’d had enough excitement and put Pelham (the buck) in a cage temporarily to see if that could decrease the stress of the does at all. ( I don’t think Pelham causes any, but it isn’t worth arguing right now). I have caught one of the older kits napping with the nest, so I’m not sure how long it will last, but for now, we’ll watch and see.
Nonetheless, I think we are going to make a few improvements to some issues that we have discovered because of this whole experience. I’ll keep you posted.
A few weeks ago, we decided to do some experimenting in regards to meat production. I had two does, each with weaning-age kits that were born on the same day and within hours of each other. I separated one doe from her kits, and put her in a separate cage, leaving her kits in their cage for typical weaning by separation. The other doe and her 9 weaning-age kits were turned loose in the hare-pen. It has been quite fascinating comparing the two groups of kits. It’s a highly scientific experiment, don’t you think?! LOL!
What we noticed first was the behavior and development of the weaned kits. In the past, I have found that kits will pester their dam (mother) trying to nurse even after she is ready to wean. In a cage, she has nowhere to escape and either gives up and lets them nurse or runs herself crazy trying to avoid it. Separating the kits from the dam has proven to be the least stressful way to do it, for her at least. The family we turned out in the colony, however, weaned totally naturally. From the moment I put them out, the kits were so busy running around, playing, digging, exploring the tunnels, and sampling all the hay and feed, that I never saw them try to nurse again. The dam, on the the other hand, was almost as playful, and certainly more relaxed. She just lounged wherever she pleased, and didn’t seem at all concerned about her kits playing nearby.
Now, you may think that’s a perfect solution for all, but as it turned out, there is a definite downside. We found all that playing and running has resulted in beautiful, fit, lean kits as we approach harvest, and that isn’t necessarily a good thing when it comes to meat production. As a result of the calories they burn, they weigh about 2/3 the weight of the kits we left in the cage, who ate more out of boredom and activity was limited.
A bit hard to tell in the photo, but the rabbit on the left is one of the hare-pen kits, and you can see the caged-kit on the right is at least 30% larger. Sorry, you try to get two rambunctious babies to sit still and smile for the camera!
Now, for the most part, I would rather have leaner and lower-weight, but happier, healthier kits at harvest than fatter, less hardy, happy ones. However, we haven’t tasted the meat yet. I am interested to compare the tenderness of the meat when we harvest both kindles, as it is also very likely the hare-pen kits’s meat will be tougher due to the intense use of their muscles with their higher activity level. We’ll have to see how that goes and decide how we want to handle meat in the future.
Colony raising in the Hare-pen requires, by far, the LEAST amount of work to raise rabbits. We have all our cages full, plus this experimental group in the pen. The cages require twice the effort and time, at the least. Because of the colony set-up, we have multiple food and water spaces, all of which are checked twice a day just like the caged rabbits. Unlike the caged rabbits, however, the multiple sources mean they rarely run out of food or water. The caged rabbits do on occasion. If you have a leaky bottle on a cage, and it runs dry, the rabbit is really thirsty before you discover it. If that were to happen in the pen, they just use the other sources. No big deal. There is far less time involved in clean up, and the pen just looks neater than the cages as well. Although rabbit pellets do get scattered all around the pen, for the most part, rabbits are quite clean, and choose a certain far-off corner to do their business. The nest boxes, community shelter, and tunnels stay surprisingly free of excrement. Cages, on the other hand, build up waste quickly, and we find all our rabbit smells derive from the cages rather than the pen.
Well, I guess that’s it for Colony-Raising 101. I am contemplating doing a few things differently in the next one we build (after moving to Red Gate), but we love it so much, we will absolutely have one there! To give you an idea, we are considering not having large tunnels like this one, but rather having the entrance to the nest boxes go right to the box (thereby allowing the doe to backfill it more easily). I still want to improve on our food an water set-up, as there currently seems to be a lot of waste of food. I love the sifter-feeders, so I think we are going to implement those into the plan. Then, I want to fence the entire ground and add a larger pile of dirt on top of the fence where they can dig. Finally, I think I will have a few short (less than 18 inches) tunnels scattered around and/or partially build to be used more as hiding areas and fulfill their burrowing instinct, yet eliminate some of the difficulties our current ones cause. I’ll let you know as we continue to develop it.