Friday, January 24, 2014

Rabbit Colony Experiment: A More Natural Way?


Years ago, when I was sitting at a desk and dreaming about having my own homestead, I discovered a blog that had an interesting concept. They were homesteaders/farmers in West Virginia and they had a rabbit colony. Groups of rabbits living together in a more natural state but still controlled (or semi controlled by humans). It wasn't without problems. Sometimes the rabbits escaped, sometimes there were predators, sometimes other challenges. However, it was a fascinating idea and I continued to check back for some time after they stopped blogging.

When we got started with rabbits we decided after considering our time, resources, and abilities to not attempt to keep them in a colony. That is fine. Cages are a fine and a good option if an appropriate size. You can find cage size guidelines at the ARBA website. And while there are many reasons to keep rabbits in cages, overtime raising rabbits grew on us, and made us reevaluate how we raised our rabbits. We wanted larger cages and the rabbits to have more room. We kept litter mates together and needed multiple feed bowls and water dishes. It was time to explore more options.

One of the joys behind having free-range chickens is the wonderful experiencing of seeing the "chicken-ness" of the chicken. We soon discovered we loved seeing the fun, curious, and bounding energy of the rabbits when we let them out to play in safe play areas. It was fun for us, fun for our kids, and fun for the rabbits. The rabbits deserve a great life with only one bad day after all. Not to mention you keep your does and bucks for years and want them to have the best living conditions possible.

One day while exploring I discovered the Animal Welfare Approved standards for raising rabbits. They had guidelines that made sense the more I got to know rabbits. Those standards involved rabbits being rabbits. You can read the standards here. These are nice guidelines to consider but I don't think people who keep rabbits in cages are inhumane so please don't get that impression. It did help get me thinking about a colony set up again. I wanted to be a farm that could raise rabbits in a more natural manor. I am a HUGE fan of pasture raised rabbits. My heros are Skyview Acres keep rabbits in "rabbit tractors" 365 days a year. Then there is "The Coney Garth" a system developed by Julie Engle of raising rabbits in a pellet free managed intensive grazing system (basically cage free, grassfed). Now that is what I am talking about (more on that in a future post).

We have put considerable time and thought into the first attempt at a colony. We wanted to keep the rabbits safe and yet give them a more natural environment. I am not certain we will be able to keep all our rabbits in colonies but this will be our start.

The wire doorway into the original chicken coop (now a shed).

Two of the girls exploring. These two grew up in the same litter.

The darker doe is a full sister but grew up in a different litter due
to milk supply of the mother. You can see a "hole" behind them.

Another hole option for the girls. You can also see the water dish.
We will be changing that when there are young rabbits. 

Above another hole. 

Another private place to hide. They seem to use this as
a potty corner.

Hello!

The rock cave. They LOVE the cave.

Another view. We have multiple feed stations to avoid hungry
rabbits. 

From the inside doorway looking down.

We kept the original door way but utilized an old storm window
for additional light and ventilation in the summer. It has
a wire and wood gate to keep the rabbits from darting out.

From the window door way looking in. You can see the hay rack.

Here is how we did it.
  1. Location - we determined our best bet was to repurpose an existing structure into the rabbit colony. We decided a tool shed would be an ideal first colony for three rabbits. It already had a gravel floor but needed a few modifications. 
  2. Pick your rabbits - we had three young doe all from the same litter somewhere around 4 months old. Two of which lived together in the grow out cage but had been apart for a couple weeks
  3. Bunny proof - added wire fencing on all walls and down to the ground where the gravel could cover about an 1". Create doors that they bunnies couldn't just dart out of. 
  4. Make a natural environment - We decided to use a deep litter method and natural elements from the farm. We brought in about 6" of dirt and layered leaves on top. Each corner was made into a bunny hiding place. Offering places to crawl, hide, sit, and chew. 
  5. Add light - We had small skylights in the roof already and used an old glass storm window for one of the doors we added. It allows to see the rabbits, lets them look outside, and lets in bright daylight. The building itself is shaded by large pine trees so to keep the building from getting too hot in summer time. 
  6. Provide multiple food and water dishes and a permanent large hay rack. 
  7. They love the rock cage and will all sleep in there. We have decided to take it apart, dig it out, add additional wire under the Earth, and then add additional stability to the rock cave. They will grow larger and there is a possibility they won't all fit into one hole. 
We hope to breed the does when old enough and allow them to raise their litters in this space together. No buck will be apart of the community to control breeding.

I should add that this project cost us nothing to set up except for a $5 bag of staples from the local hardware store. No loss but time if it doesn't work out like the think it will. 

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It has been several days since adding the does. They were nervous and curious about their environment. It was enough to keep the chasing and aggressive behavior to almost none. Very quickly they are bonding. They often eat at the same food bowl and love to hide in the same rock cave. There is evidence that all the corners are used often though. Two of the girls are adventurous and come out to see us when we visit and sit in there with them. I expect that behavior to increase as the get more comfortable with themselves and their new home. So far no digging is visible but they are chewing on the branches and leaves provided. That is a great thing! 

Our experiment is working out well. It is a real joy to see these girls living together and keeping each other warm. Hopefully it continues to go smoothly. We will post updates as there are some.

Please feel free to ask questions or visit us on Facebook as we have a very active Facebook page. 

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