Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Charter of Freewarren

A Note for Naysayers

Nobody, even the most avid animal-rights fanatics, needs to worry about depriving caged rabbits of their liberty. Those born in confinement don't know what liberty is; they are not deprived of anything.

Also, you will note I advise housing rabbits only in wire hutches. If you house them this way you and the rabbits will do just fine. But if you let a rabbit out, you are asking for trouble ... That goes for pet rabbits, too. The wire hutch is ideal. Keep them there, except perhaps to hold and pet them.

-- Bob Bennet, Storey's Guide to Raising Rabbits

We are now wabbit wanchers.

I'd been looking into this for some time. We raise the pastured meat chickens in the summer and fill the freezer, make a little money selling them. We hunt, and a friend is raising pigs, one of which we'll buy a whole or half-interest in. Hair sheep and perhaps a feeder steer are in the works.

In addition, I wanted to explore a fast avenue to fresh meat in the winter and year-round, something that wasn't dependent on freezer storage. And a varied diet is important for us and the dogs, yes? Americans eat way too much chicken and beef.

I am not sure whether we are okay with my devoted-to-pet-rabbit friends. I am respectful of their sensibilities. I hope we can all come to an understanding about animal welfare, and the touchy problem of pet v. livestock within a species.

I've had pet rabbits in the past. The archetypal bunny-in-a-backyard hutch as a child. A house rabbit as an adult. The latter demonstrated the range of a rabbit's social capacities, and the species' need for enrichment. I've also delivered several abandoned bunnies to house rabbit rescue folks, in the days before Pittsburgh shelters accepted them, and acquaintances who found pets dumped in the park would call the crazy animal lady to take this thing out of their bathtub.

I don't care whether it is livestock or pet, solitary living in a backyard hutch is not species appropriate.

What do all animals need? Fresh air, sunlight*, wholesome food and clean water, general hygiene, and the opportunity to move about freely.

What do rabbits need, specifically? The opportunity to dig and chew, social interaction with other rabbits, including the chance to play and groom, hidey-holes, enough space so that they don't feel driven to fight one another.

Bob Bennet can join Frank Perdue, Salmonella Jack DeCoster, this knuckle-dragging gap-toothed hick -- and the rest of the livestock abuse industry -- in kissing my shiny white ass. My rabbits are going to get what they need.

I guess I am rather broad in my definition of "need." Obviously, animals survive, grow, and reproduce without any of those things. Cattle put on weight in feedlots, hens lay while their feet have grown into the cage like a tree grows into a fence, and rabbits breed like bunnies while their hocks rub raw on wire floors. A bitch in a puppymill pumps out little lurve-objects for cuteness consumers while eating rancid food, drinking filthy water, living in solitary confinement in a cramped cage, never seeing the sun or breathing fresh air, covered in shit and shot through with parasites. Biologically speaking, hope springs eternal. A plant that is barely hanging on -- a tomato languishing in a nursery six-pack, unplanted, or a weed in a sidewalk crack -- puts everything it's got into producing a few sickly fruit and seeds. Things could get better for my descendants, so I better make sure I have some toot sweet.

99% of rabbit breeders keep their livestock / petstock in individual wire-bottomed cages. It's orderly, takes little room, easier to keep somewhat clean, and easier to control breeding. The good breeders -- the ones who care about animal welfare -- use larger cages, provide resting boards, give the does roommates when they can get along (bucks are either fighting or fucking in a cage situation), make sure the cages are high enough that the rabbits can stretch out vertically, meerkat-like, which is something rabbits really like to do.

I got my four foundation rabbits from a breeder who has a locally excellent reputation. Her cages were large, and all the animals are in good condition.

They are Californians, one of the two most common meat breeds. I asked for animals that had excellent production conformation, without regard to fancy points such as "correct" coloration. I got a buck and three does that are of good production quality and unrelated. (I also considered cross-breeding to increase hybrid vigor, and will probably do this when I start breeding this buck's daughters -- buy a New Zealand buck to breed to them.) I do like the Californians, though, because their dark points are just variable enough that I can tell individuals apart by markings, without checking ear tattoos. This will become important, as you'll see.

I'd read about colony-raising of rabbits, and am going to try it.

The Brandywine freewarren. The walls are either block or wire-covered wood. The floor is concrete covered with rubber stall mat and thickly bedded with sawdust topped with straw. There is a high window for daylight, which doesn't open, but I'll be replacing it with one that does. It took the rabbits about five days to really start digging; they now have a nice labyrinth around the bales. It took them perhaps three days to recognize fresh greens and fruit as food, and a week or so to become comfortable with the space and climb the bales a little. I haven't seen anyone binky yet, but that doesn't mean they aren't doing it when I'm not there.

Although rabbits come in quite a few breeds, and artificial selection for functional traits and fancy points has obviously worked many changes on them, I don't consider them a truly domestic animal. Demi-domesticated, like white mice, ferrets, budgerigars, and, in a rather different way, my knuckleheaded African guinea fowl. They've lived among humans for too short a time, and too peripherally for most of it. They can't be managed in flocks or herds the way chickens, goats, cattle, etc. can.

Romans used to keep colonies in leprosaria leporaria† -- stone-walled gardens or pits from which the rabbits could not tunnel -- but did not control breeding. The leporaria kept the rabbits convenient for the catching, and provided some protection from predators. They were something like a fenced Texas game-ranch set up for canned hunts, but without the repulsive conceit of "sport."**

Rabbits became "domesticated" some time in the Middle Ages. When Pope Gregory I designated laurices as fish for the purposes of Lent and other fast days, monks and others were motivated to propagate rabbits under closer husbandry.

A laurice is a fetal or newborn rabbit, eaten guts and all. A "delicacy."

Yeah, I know. Moving along ...

In early medieval England, rabbits were introduced from the Continent and managed in open colonies established by landlords who purchased charters of free-warren from the king. The charter gave the holder the right to manage and kill rabbits, hares, pheasants and partridge in specified game preserves -- warrens. Warreners were hired to protect the colonies, create artificial earths for the rabbits, and catch them (usually with ferrets and nets) for the table or sale. It took hundreds of years of protection under extensive husbandry for the Iberian rabbits to adapt well enough to the British climate and naturalize. At the same time, warreners in some places practiced some selection for fur color in their colonies, presumably by culling the common-colored animals and preserving the eye-catching sports.

I have not been able to come up with a word in English that describes animals (or plants) occupying and evolving in this limbo between managed wild game and domestic livestock. Commensal is not right. Yet it must have been a stage in the domestication of many species, though it would look different depending on the ethology of the species and the point in technological and cultural history at which it happened. No haughty monarch was presuming to grant or deny the right of freewarren when the chickens came home to roost and the sheep joined the human fold.

Neither will the modern efficiency experts who see sentient creatures as units of meatwidget production dictate the "right" way for my stock -- livestock -- to live.

* Unless one is, say, a naked mole rat.
I am not certain of this word. The OED does not verify it, but then, it's not English. My student's Latin dictionary doesn't have it, but then, it's not the O.L.D. The term later was applied to leper colonies. An erudite reader provides the correct word, see comments!
** The Romans reserved that fiction for the arena.


  1. Latin teacher here! It's leporaria.

    [ Courtesy of the following online student dictionary: http://www.archives.nd.edu/cgi-bin/wordes.exe ]

    I've always wondered what the differences would be if new world rabbits, the kind that don't live in warrens, were domesticated.

  2. Looks like a nice habitat -- however, how do you deal with the poop? Do they dump it all in one place to be scooped out or do you have to muck the entire place out after x number of days or does the deep litter composting system work for rabbits as it does for chickens?

    Definately something to consider for meat for the future. . .


  3. Thank you Sarah, I'll fix that now.

    Cottontails are certainly different critters from Iberian rabbits. They may be, per Jared Diamond, undomesticable.

    Dorene -- all of the above.

    The pellets and urine are concentrated in a couple areas, which I've now scooped out once.

    The rest should compost in place much like chicken litter, hopefully aided by bunny tunneling.

    I threw the scoopings into the chicken pens for phase II recycling.

  4. If any of your plants need a nitrogen boost, you can probably dump the rabbit scoopings around them -- supposedly, rabbit droppings don't have to be composted further to use on plants. It's a little late for squash, but brassicas and onion family plants always appreciate extra N.


  5. Wow, I am utterly fascinated by how this goes.

    The question I have, is that you currently have a little harem of females with their king, all unrelated - until, that is, they breed like rabbits... and a few months after that where they do it again.

    How do you even hope to control the inbreeding? Aside from replacing the male entirely every few months...

    Regardless, I think these are without question the happiest meat rabbits on the planet.

    As for the eat 'em or pet 'em discussion, I each chickens, turkeys, duck and quail... but I keep and rescue parrots, and wouldn't hesitate to have ducks for pets.

    There's an interesting book about this issue, "The Dog By The Cradle, The Serpent Beneath". She's not a very good writer in my opinion, but she poses some interesting questions and at some point I will probably read it again.

    Keep us posted on this new addition to the growing farm!

  6. Seeing the picture of your rabbits in their "leporaria", reminded me of a favorite movie of mine, "Jean de Florette" (France, 1986.) In the movie, the title character creates something similar for his rabbits, which are the biggest rabbits I have ever seen. Just thought I would pass the movie tip along if anyone is interested in a fine French film. If you do look it up, try to find the sequel, "Manon of the Spring."

  7. In 1944 I sent for and received the U.S. Department of Agriculture pamphlet on the raising of rabbits for meat. One of the so called facts I remember was that 1 buck and 6 does will, within something more than a year, produce 1800 offspring. I grew to hate one particular buck who racked my arm every time I put him in with selected does. Still love to eat rabbit though. They were contained in wooden boxes with heavy guage wire fronts. Cleaned the boxes often. Fed them pellets and greens. Lots of water.


  8. We did something like that when I was in college. Six of us lived on an old place with forty acres. My housemate had read about communal rabbit raising from The Countryside & Small Stock Journal, and we decided to convert an ancient 12'x20' chain link dog run to the rabbits. We put half inch aviary wire around the bottom of the sides, and more lying flat on the perimeter, to keep out rodents.

    In our mild northern California climate tarps over the top provided enough protection from rain in the winter and sun in the summer.

    We started with one good doe and one good buck, a dozen bales of hay, half oat and half alfalfa, water, and a salt block.

    We added a few cups of mixed grain every morning, whole oats, whole barley, and cracked corn as I remember. They also got thinnings and trimmings from the garden.

    The only problem we could never solve was inbreeding, and we finally rounded up all the males and put them in the freezer, and bought another good unrelated buck.

  9. Have you read "Possum Living"?


  10. I dunno. Might do to sleep with one eye open....


  11. I was quite amused to read this- just this weekend while at a goat show I was talking with the spouse about raising meat rabbits next year instead of chickens since a)the milkers waste a good deal of premium alfalfa which rabbits could munch on and b)it sounds like they are much easier to process than chickens. Great minds and all that- except that I am simply talking about doing this, while you are actually doing it. I'll be quite interested to see how this project goes for you.

  12. I've been wanting to raise rabbits in a warren type system ever since Gene Logsdon mentioned it in _The Contrary Gardener(Farmer?)_, and this spring was going to be it.

    But unfortunately, I had lost my mind 5 months earlier and have 10 goat kids to put in the freezer. So until the goat glut is gone there's no rabbits. Sigh.

    And your set up has made me think more about the 'how'-even adjustiing for a totally different climate(Texas). Thanks for giving me more ideas!

  13. Re: inbreeding

    Yes, you replace the buck about twice a year. This is similar to the way that large producers manage rams and bulls, just on a shorter timeframe, because, you know, rabbits.

    I'll probably replace my buck in April or thereabouts. All male offspring will go into the freezer. I'll retain a few female offspring to join the current three does for breeding, then get a new buck when they come of age -- probably a New Zealand, for the hybrid vigor.

    I can sell or trade my current buck, as he is young.

  14. I've seen rabbit tractors, too, that allow them to munch the grass and hop around outside. They're triangular with a small strand of electric wire or electric poultry netting to keep them away from the edges so they don't just dig their way to freedom.

  15. Well after the fact, but I am interested to hear more on how this goes. Raised rabbits for about 10 years, long ago when I was quite young. Was in the "large" wire-floored pen with various boards/nests to get them up off said wire camp. One rabbit/pen, but with all the does that were sociable housed in adjacent pens. Californians as well, actually.

    Hoping to get back into it in a year or two when I (hopefully) again have the space. Might try the open warren method, but need to learn more first.


I've enabled the comments for all users; if you are posting as "anonymous" you MUST sign your comment. Anonymous unsigned comments will be deleted. Trolls, spammers, and litigants will be shot.