Free range rabbits

Introduction

Rabbits have become a very enjoyable part of our farm system. It was important to us that we followed the patterns of nature in caring for them and avoid the caged methods used by commercial rabbit farmers.

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image003The observations that led to me adding rabbits onto our farm came about after considering a number of points:

  • There were small areas on our farm where weeds such as docks, thistles, dandelions and brambles were taking over, I wanted to keep this managed in an ethical manner and improve the overall fertility of the soil. Having experimented with chicken tractors I found this often resulted in scratched up bare patches, whilst many weeds were left standing. The rabbits natural diet seemed more related to the weeds we had, and I felt might result in an even finish and improve the pasture.
  • My family wanted to ensure that all the meat we ate had been well looked after and raised on a natural diet. For white meat we had been eating chicken but many commercial meat breeds are not bred for a free-range lifestyle and are more reliant on bought in grains. With rabbits easy to breed, their ability to thrive on pasture, and the availability of some very good meat breeds this made them an obvious alternative.
  • Finally our kids were enthusiastic about having farm rabbits and helping in their day-to-day routine. I needed to ensure they kept the same relationship with the rabbits that they did with our lambs and pigs.

The Design

My chosen design framework for developing the free range rabbit system is based on CEAP(IMET).

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Collect site information

With all designs that affect our farm I have to consider how it will impact on the whole farm and how it will fit into our lives.
With rabbits the brief was to raise our own meat knowing it lived as natural a life as possible, and easily integrated into our present farm. Ideally it needed to thrive on the sort of diet that the land naturally provided and not rely on bought in feed.
Observations about the land:

PASTE

The 20 acre smallholding is on a southerly slope, and so is quick to warm in spring and has a reliable rainfall. The land is windswept downland, with large flints just under the surface. This makes it ideal for growing permanent pasture, which is how we have managed the majority of it for the last 16 years. Other from this we have planted hedging, 5 acres of coppicing woodland and 1 acre of forest garden.image005

Zones

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Zoning was done for the land at the beginning of the diploma as part of my ALP. This revealed a piece of unfenced, unused land encircling the farmhouse garden (shown in green). Based on its current use it was classified as Zone 5 despite its proximity to the central hub of the farm. With no regular management this had become overtaken with perennial weeds, which was squeezing out the grass and had become unattractive.
image006This would be the focus of this project. If animals could manage this it would reduce the overall workload of the farm in terms of mowing. Also this patch of land was particularly flinty, and twice in the past 6 years mowing this area has resulted in a flint smashing a window in the house. Again animal management of this area would reduce the risk of such damage.

Lifestyle questions

A key question in taking on any new animal on the farm would be – is it practical and affordable? To make it workable we needed to:

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Rabbit research

When I started to collect information on rabbits I soon found that there were very different ways of viewing rabbits, depending on your perspective. Each perspective brought some useful information.

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Sources of research

Key places from which my research had come included:

  • Observation patterns in nature – of wild rabbits in their natural environment.
  • Forums shared by countries where eating rabbit is more the norm, and many more keep rabbits in their Backyard. Many of these are caged, but there is interest in colonies and natural feeding in the groups I belong to. American rabbit breeder Boyd Craven Jr has created a very ethical way of rearing rabbits in his backyard and has produced a number of books on the subject. He has particularly looked into the food needs of rabbits and has produced a handy booklet on this.
  • Looking back in history and how Coney Garths were popular in this country and my own experimentation in how to create a modern day variation of this.
  • Internet research into skin preparation as well as speaking to knowledgeable skin producers at Hillfield Monastry.

Evaluation

Key points:

  • I did not want to cage our rabbits. Observing many farmed rabbit systems revealed rabbits being kept in wire cages, divorced of any interest. I wanted to explore how I could create a rabbit colony where rabbits had space to be independent or in groups with plenty to keep their brains stimulated.
  • I wanted to feed a natural diet. Feed companies have persuaded us that rabbits need formula feeds to remain healthy whilst it is very apparent from observing wild rabbits they can thrive on an all-natural diet without the use of cereals brought in from outside. I wanted to feed them as much as possible from the pasture.
  • I wanted to where ever possible have the rabbits graze down troublesome weeds and apply their rich fertiliser directly rather than bring food to them. I wanted to find away of moving towards mob grazing with rabbits without the risk of them escaping. Integrate rather than segregate.
  • I wanted to have a meat that is the product of a healthy diet rich in beneficial trace elements. Having observed how rabbits are particularly interested in eating deep rooted mineral accumulator plants, this should be reflected in the healthiness of the food. Research into beef has shown that grass fed beef makes it richer in omega-3 fats, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and CLA. It stands to reason the diet of the animal affects its meat.
  • I wanted to keep waste to a minimum and integrate them into the system so they are an asset rather than a liability. Also I could see potential for the fertiliser they produce, the weeds they could eat down, the meat they produced, the pelts and the offal for our pets. Effectively there was minimal waste. Combine this with their meat output from the same input was 6 times that of a cow, rabbits could be a very valuable food source.

System Thinking

I broke the function of raising rabbits into the systems and elements to ensure I had considered all aspects of raising rabbits.
Many of the elements had multiple function – warrens were unused chicken coops or pig arks, water supply are the same as chickens, soiled bedding was added to no dig beds, weeds given to rabbits resulted in quick compost creation…

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Apply principles and Ethic

Principles

Rabbits in traditional systems are typically kept in secure areas with no dig floors as they have the potential of becoming a pest. With my initial rabbits having come from a caged system they were very wary of people, and it was clear from my observation, that if they were to escape we would struggle to recapture them. I needed to observe and interact with them, making Small and Slow changes to ensure I built a relationship with them, and made changes that did not jeopardise the other systems on our farm.

There were a number of yields we could obtain identified from the start of the project. Rabbits produce quality manure packed with nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and many beneficial trace elements such as calcium, magnesium, boron, zinc, manganese, sulphur, copper, and cobalt. With a NPK 2.4,1.4,0.6 it can be applied right back on the garden without composting to help build soil (Cycling of energy, nutrients, resources). The meat from rabbits is particularly beneficial (especially with their natural diet). I think of them as a great way of converting invasive plants (many mineral accumulators) that are unpalatable to our modern taste into lean and tasty meat. They are an excellent source of protein, have less cholesterol and fat than chicken, and has an almost ideal fatty acid ratio of 4:1 omega-6 to beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. Also they will produce six times the meat on the same feed and water as that of a cow. Therefore a small change gives the potential for a much greatest output. Another resource was their pelts, and I aim over time to breed our own mix of rabbit including Rex to create a good meat rabbit with an excellent pelt.

Overall this system produces little to no waste with everything being recycled.

With the budget being tight, and wanting to observe the earth care ethic the aim from the start was to where ever possible Use and Value Renewable Resources on site. The farm has a whole stack of items that are presently redundent and kept in order to recyle. The initial rabbit hutches were made from pallets and corrugation taken off old sheds. The only resource that needed purchasing was the weld mesh used for fencing. This made the initial setup very low impact. We were able to buy a breeding pair of meat rabbits from within 15 miles with all their kits from a person giving up, and so were able to give the rabbits a home where they could express themselves more naturally.

Having evaluated the different methods people have kept rabbits I chose to follow the pattern of the Normans Coney Garth (Design from Patterns to Details) where they kept their rabbits like wild rabbits, free to express themselves. There are many issues with this in the modern world. Rabbits dig, can easily escape from a rabbit tractor system (as I found out) and knowing how quickly they multiplied I did not want them becoming a pest. It took us nearly a year to perfect the system that gave rabbits as close to the Coney Garth inspiration and now all our rabbits are free in pasture with minimal work to keep them contained. By doing this the rabbits are Integrate rather than Segregate with their food reducing our work load considerably and leaving them more chilled. And very importantly, they are now utilising the piece of land that was once a zone 5 (now a zone 3) making its management much improved. (Efficient energy planning: zone, sector and slope)

One key improvement that has surpassed my expectations is the building of soil from the compost they have generated. Our land is incredibly stony, and not dig friendly. I have concentrated the compost from the rabbits on two large no dig beds, and now can, when needed get a spade in to its full blades depth into rich soil. (Accelerating succession and evolution)
In the case of our invasive plants that have always caused us much work on the land, adding rabbits has been a great way for us to turn the problem into the solution!

Ethics

Earth care

I am creating a rabbit mob grazing system. The rabbits are left on an area of the field for a week, giving them time to impact the invasive weeds and partially grazing the grass. This allows the grass to come back stronger, whilst reducing the perennial weeds. They are then moved to the next strip.
To keep the ground clean, I aim to follow the rabbits with chickens to help reduce any parasite build, and dependent on their location, they may be further followed by horses or sheep. Rotating animals does improve the health of the land.
From the short time I have been doing this it is apparent that the grass is getting stronger, and the invasive weeds like docks are coming back smaller.
As well as the mob grazing system there is also the improvements to our soil from their excellent manure (explained above). I have experimented with different beddings and have settled on miscanthus for our system. Not only does it give them a clean environment in their warren but it also compost well on the no dig bed.

People Care

In the rabbit system I have translate “people care” to “animal care”. There are many rabbit systems that do not give rabbits room, privacy, height, freedom or company to express themselves. Rabbits are intelligent and great fun (something all my children would agree with). Each one is unique, and given the right environment can really flourish.
I have taken considerable time to get their environment right, as well as the mix of rabbits. Like people, not all rabbits get on. Also there is a lot of information regarding the feeding of rabbits, and particularly not giving them too much greens. From what I’ve learnt from developing the system, rabbits tend to be more healthy on a pasture system. Yes I add to this (willow, occasional seed mixes), but when on grass they are looking for far less additional foods.

Fair Share

At one point “Fair share” was “set limits to consumption”. In my rabbit system this relates to my desire to limit the use of bought in grain and use of annual crops, and find ways to ensure the rabbits live within the means of our land on principally perennial crops. A large % of grains grown are used in animal feed and this sit uncomfortable with me. In 2013 farm animal consumed 1.3 billion tons of grain each year. This accelerates soil erosion, and affects world food supply. In swapping our principle white meat supply from chicken to rabbit and growing our own on otherwise underutilised land we are reducing our demands on world resources, and regenerating our land at the same time.
In winter I have supplemented their diet with large bags of carrots or swedes, and whilst lactating I give them a small additional feed (this also helps to keep them friendly), but the rest of the year they live purely on farm raised food.

Planning and Implementation

The planning and implementation was done in small and slow steps of planning and implementing, giving me time to observe and make changes along the way.

The initial breeding pair with kits had lived in cages in a shed full of breeding birds and were very wary of people.

The Implementation path of my rabbit system

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With the Coney garth I wanted to integrate the rabbits as much as possible into our other systems to benefit our farm as a whole. With the daily attention requirements of the rabbit throughout the year and their links to so many other systems (see web of connections below) I wanted them located close to the hub of the farm utilising the piece of land shown in the zone drawing above, and the colony in the stable in the yard.

image019Having now established to moveable coney garth to move through this area using mob grazing technique it is clear that this is going to become a continual system in this area. Rabbits benefit from chewing on willow bark for both health and teeth maintenance so I plan to now create a willow hedge on the windward side of the rabbits to protect them and further integrate their food with their system.

Costings

Set up:

Initial breeding stock plus hutch £100
Additional breeding rabbits £35
Drink containers £35
Rabbit tractor (mainly reclaimed pallet wood) £10

Running:

On going costs will be bedding, occasional bagged feed and carrots in winter.

Yields will include meat, compost and pelts. At present the intention is to only supply our own needs. I’ve had a number of requests for breeding stock but this is not a market I am considering at the moment.

Maintenance

With the benefits outweighing their pull on our resources the rabbits are expected to remain on the farm, but not to grow above their present size of two coney garths.

Evaluations

I have stretched my edges through keeping the rabbits. I’ve taken on the keeping of a whole new type of animal and have learnt a lot through doing it. Having studied the theory, I found the final commitment to take on our first rabbits and testing the theory in practice a challenge. I found my head moved from all the positive reasons to all the risks of starting something new, and I really had to push myself to take a step into the unknown.
This has been very satisfying seeing theory become a successful reality. This is one of my favourite projects so far and has given me the confidence to stretch my edge further.

It has been great to work with my children on certain aspects of making pens out of old pallets, and creating new toys for the rabbits. I really appreciated how this project has felt like a team project. Having the children more involved in this project than any previous farm project has been really rewarding and there is nothing nicer than visiting the rabbits to find one of my children (including my teenage boys) already sitting with them.

Along the way I have also acted at time on whim. When I decided we were to expand I chose two expansion rabbits on looks rather than following fundamental principles that would have guided my decisions better. After this a lot more thought went into breeds of rabbits and what I was hoping to achieve in future breeding stock.

The small and slow evolution of the rabbit system. Planning and implementing was crucial to creating the final solution. However none of the steps in between would have been long term sustainable.

I still have a concern over vaccinations in rabbits. The vetenary advice is for rabbits to be vaccinated, however this is not sustainable in meat rabbits, and I am reluctant to have vaccines in a rabbit for this purpose. With rabbits living outside they are under more risk than typically farmed rabbit, and there is still questions to resolve about this. On the flip side I found our rabbits are a lot more resilient on a natural diet outdoors.

Setting this a side rabbit have the potential of becoming a useful system for many others. They fit into a small space, are quiet and easy to handle. Plus they are very efficient giving so much and generate little waste. After our sheep, they are the next most sustainable animal on our farm in terms of time and use of resources.

Tweaking

My next steps are:

  • Designing a purpose built Warren on wheals
  • Breed own to create a perfect permaculture rabbit

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