Rabbits are a polarizing sort of livestock. People see them as either cuddly pets or farm animals, more often the former. We've had folks visit us, either when we were in Brooklyn or here at the farm. We're asked what the rabbits are for, half of our visitors giving a look as if to say, "Please don't tell me you are going to eat them." This interpretation could just be my own insecurity talking. I've only been raising meat for our household sporadically and for a short time so I still have that lingering guilt that often comes from years of eating poorly handled mystery meat and being out of touch with where food starts.
The response I give is an honest one. We use the rabbits for manure (rabbit poo is magical stuff) but also for meat, home consumption only. As omnivores, our goal is to raise meat that we feel proud to eat, from animals that are able to live a life free of stress, contaminants and confinement. I do not think eating meat is something anyone should apologize for. It is as natural to many animals (humans included) as breathing, but I think allowing unpleasant conditions for any creature, whether you intend to eat them or not, is just wrong. As stewards, we should aspire to create the best conditions for the lives we are responsible for. When my animals are happy, I am happy. As it should be.
With that in mind, I chose to manage the farm rabbitry differently than in the past. I did the best I could to raise my rabbits the conventional way, in wire cages, but it always just felt wrong to me. I'd give them the best feed, clean their cages often, let them out for exercise supervised. I still found myself making excuses for why it was the best I could do. In cages, rabbits instinct to burrow and run and socialize with one another is suppressed. After you see rabbits out and about, it becomes obvious that those behaviors are pretty much all they do! So, completely denying my rabbits the chance to express themselves in their own way became something I no longer felt willing to do. For the sake of my conscience, and for my rabbits well-being, I needed to try something different.
So, we built our rabbitry to function in two stages. The interior of the house is divided in two, one side for does (4) and one for bucks (2). We want to be selective and controlled with breeding while still allowing the rabbits to play and cuddle. It would take no time at all for the colony to reproduce to the point of diminishing their own quality of life.
Each room is open, bedded thickly with pine shavings and straw. There is a chicken wire divider allowing the bucks and does to socialize, each with communal feeders and waterers. This makes daily chores much easier and less time consuming. Once every few weeks I'll need to muck out the old hay, put down a new layer of bedding and roll the soiled stuff to the compost, or to mulch resting garden beds. Pretty easy, if you ask me.
Right now we have a couple cages in either side, bedded with hay with doors pinned open for added vertical space for them to occupy. The rabbits occasionally go in to sprawl out alone, but are able to leave when they want. We're debating on whether or not to just remove them completely and build four separate burrows for the gals (same for the bucks) and just keep the cages for transportation. We've got extra straw bales around that could make really cozy places to curl up, so I'm considering that as an option. When they kindle sometime this winter, the goal is to have the same sort of treatment extended to their offspring, especially if they end up on our dinner plate.
So far, the rabbits seem to really be enjoying the extra space and social time. There haven't been any fights, as I've been warned could happen but I'm keeping an eye out for it just in case. I'll have to keep close tabs on the overall health of the flock (I noticed yesterday a touch of ear mite infestation, which will have to be managed closely) because any illness can spread more quickly with this sort of set-up. When I consider how little time feeding, watering and bedding takes each day, the time spent doing health checks isn't a bother at all. It would need to be done, regardless but now I'll have time to be more thorough about it. Always a good thing.
The second stage of the rabbitry will come into play in the spring. We're building movable tractors in the Salatin/ Polyface-style which will be wheeled from pasture to pasture to allow the rabbits to graze freely, while being protected from the abundance of predators we've got around here. We'll update as this part of the farm develops. It's bound to be interesting.