May 6, 2014
After much research and preparation, we have begun our Grand Rabbit Colony Experiment (codename: Little Australia).
Our current rabbit system utilizes elevated cages that allow for waste to drop onto the ground where the chickens will then pick through it. After enough waste has built up, we use it for compost, fertilizers, and building our hugelkultur beds. We have six breeding does and two breeding bucks, each in individual cages. Every year we have between 6 and 12 litters that are reared in a similar cage system minus the chickens. While the rabbits are young, we let them out to play and stretch in fenced-in areas. This system works well for keeping the rabbits safe and allowing for easy collection of waste but ignores the rabbits' other needs.
Our current rabbit system. Some how the guineas snuck in.
A domestic rabbit colony living system is meant to mimic a wild rabbit's habitat while keeping the rabbits safe. There are many ways that a rabbit colony can be designed and implemented. A typical colony consists of a fenced-in, large open space, man-made shelters for the rabbits, a feeding area, and a group of rabbits. I will layout how our system is designed and the reasoning behind our decisions here.
In creating a colony living system for our rabbits we hope to create a space where rabbits can feel and be safe while also allowing for the grazing, playing, and social time that many rabbits seek. We also want to reduce the amount of labor put into feeding the rabbits daily by having more grazing space and caring for the rabbits in large groups.
The space we chose for the colony is a 20' x 11' shaded area surrounded by trees. In order to keep rabbits from digging out, our research suggested burying chicken wire a minimum of 3' around the perimeter. This would allow for digging and burrowing inside of the enclosed area while preventing escape. We, however, decided that in order to keep track of our rabbits we didn't want them digging much. Our solution was to dig up the sod in the area, lay down chicken wire, and then replace the sod. The wire connects on the perimeter to the fencing that encloses the area. We used cattle panels reinforced with 3' of chicken wire for the perimeter fencing.
Buried chicken wire attached to the perimeter fence
For the shelters, we wanted to mimic the effect of a rabbit burrow as much as possible. We created 10"x18"x14" wooden boxes that are open at the bottom and can be opened at the top for easy access. The entry is 6"x6" and we have inserted a 1' pvc pipe into it to create a tunnel. We then arranged the boxes in the colony and covered them with dirt.
Rabbits exploring around their new shelter
The site that we chose for our rabbits is fairly barren of vegetation so for now we will be supplementing their sparse grazing with pellets, alfalfa hay, and vegetation from areas of the land with more plentiful grass. The water and food supply are given to the rabbits in the same area. This area has the ability to be closed off so that we can trap the rabbits when we need to handle them.
Rabbits have complex social dynamics. Does are typically territorial and can act aggressively. Bucks have to be kept separately if you don't want new litters once a month. To combat these dynamics, we chose to put 9 rabbits of the same litter into the colony. 5 does and 4 bucks. Hopefully this tactic will prevent them from acting territorially. After 3 months we will separate the does and bucks.
To differentiate the rabbits I put dots on their ears in permanent marker. Left ear male, right ear female. The first male I identified I put one dot on the left ear. On the second male I put two dots, and so on. This will help to keep track of each rabbits health and progress while being able to compare them to other rabbits raised in cages.
Molly showing off her temporary tats
We have a few concerns about raising rabbits in a colony system. First of all, it will be more difficult for us to collect their waste and chickens will not be picking through it. Secondly, rabbits living in close proximity to their waste can lead to disease, which spreads quickly in a colony setting. Thirdly, we are not entirely sure if our system will keep the rabbits safe from predators.
Because of these concerns, we are starting with just the 9 rabbits and not introducing any of our breeders into the system. We figure that if the rabbits grow up in a colony setting, they will be more adapted to it in the long run.
I will be weighing and examining the colony rabbits and comparing the results to a litter of 6 that was born on the same day. Starting out, the colony rabbits weigh significantly less than the litter of 6 and a few days in are quite a bit dirtier.
All rabbits seemed happy and healthy except for Gingerbrear Rabbit. He escaped multiple times and found hiding spots where I couldn't catch him. I set a trap but a squirrel ended up falling for it instead. He survived outside for about three days. On the third day another rabbit, Anise, escaped as well. Sometime between 9:30 AM and 11:45 AM they were attacked by what we think was a neighbor's dog. (A dog has been getting our chickens at night but has never struck in broad daylight.) Gingerbrear Rabbit was killed but not eaten and Anise had a large gash on her back. I caught her, washed the wound, and put her in a cage of her own.
We now have seven rabbits left in the colony. After the first week, the colony rabbits (now named after culinary spices and herbs) have gained an average of 4.9 oz each. The caged rabbits (named after the Weasley family) have gained an average of 7.3 oz each.
The colony rabbits are seemingly enjoying stretching, relaxing, running, and playing in their pen. However, a week after when the rabbits were introduced to the colony the dog struck again in broad daylight and took five of our chickens. Since the chicken and rabbit areas are right next to each other, we decided to put the colony rabbits in cages for the time being. Hopefully we'll figure out the dog situation and get them back out soon!
After one week in the cages, the colony rabbits have gained an average of 7.5 oz each. Much more than last week. I suspect this is due to their decrease in activity and burned calories. The caged rabbits on average gained the same amount as the previous week, 6.62 oz.
Although we have yet to catch the dog, I have put the rabbits back in the colony. I don't believe the dog will be able to jump the cattle panels and I think the rabbits are too large to escape. I covered up any potential spots I saw just in case. They seem much happier back on the ground where they immediately ran, hopped, and checked out their old home.
Bunnies back in the colony after a week in cages.
Anise, the rabbit who was injured last week is doing amazingly well. When we were first treating her we thought that she would need stitches if she was going to survive. Without having a suture kit on site, we have instead sprayed the wound daily with Vetericyn Wound and Infection Care. Seriously crazy results. I'll probably reintroduce her to the colony next week.
Thyme, apparently so happy he's about to eat me.