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by Ruth Tudor

For a few years I have been on a quiet mission to promote rabbits as a cheap, sustainable and healthy source of protein. In the same way that families in towns used to keep pigs (picture men chatting over the hedge in a kind of ‘my pig is bigger than yours’ mode…) it seems to me that the rabbit could be the new back yard pig. Rabbits can be foraged for, eat household scraps, live free range, give pleasure, taste great and their sustainability is second to none.

Raising meat rabbits sits well within our wider philosophy at Trealy Farm where we are all about connecting people to the source of their food, about thriftiness, taste and wellbeing – including of the animals and the environment. Our radical Meat Course (see www.meatcourse.co.uk) gives people the opportunity to have real contact with each aspect of raising and eating meat including farming practises, breeds, feeding, slaughter, skinning, hanging, butchery and processing. The people who come are always diverse but what they have in common is a curiousity to connect with the real sounds and smells of meat in all its incarnations.

Of the six species of meat animals raised at Trealy Farm it’s rabbits that we have had the most problems with. Although our rabbits seem to have a better time than the average pet most people do look shocked when they find out that the rabbits are raised for meat. The only time I have needed to take a rabbit to the vet the receptionist politely asked the rabbit’s name. When

I replied that she didn’t have a name, that she wasn’t a pet, there was a long silence before the shocked retort: ‘but what is she for then?’ 

However, the main challenge of raising meat rabbits in the UK is widespread ignorance which can make it hard to get information and support. For example, there are no veterinary products licensed for meat rabbits.  Similar to goat rearing – drug companies are simply not interested in investing in research in rabbits. If you are going to sell your rabbit meat it is important that you don’t use unlicensed products. If you want to read about meat rabbits then I recommend looking at North American websites.

Fortunately if you follow some basic guidelines around cleanliness, handling, feeding and accommodation your rabbits are likely to be healthy. Good husbandry is key. Our rabbits live in ‘free range’ conditions enclosed by security fencing with hutches for shelter. To date I have not had a meat rabbit showing any signs of being able to dig so keeping the rabbits in is not a problem. However, we do have an on-going  battle to keep predators such as squirrels, weasels and rats out. They attack baby rabbits and steal the food. However, we haven’t needed to cover the top of the enclosure against birds of prey:  presumably huge white, grey and black rabbits are simply not on their hunting radar!

There is also plenty of good news when it comes to raising rabbits. As Britain gets more cash strapped the demand for more traditional sources of meat such as goats and rabbits increases. Most farmed rabbits in the UK are raised on commercial farms which are intensive and where they have little space to be as rabbit-y as many rabbit meat customers might wish. I would definitely recommend giving them space, having them on grass and if you are selling then make these high welfare conditions clear to your customers.

If you don’t have enough space for free range then I recommend mobile hutches. They are clean animals and, like pigs, they keep a separate toilet area well away from their bed and food. This makes them easy to keep clean and their droppings make a great fertiliser. Try wrapping them in a muslin bag and seeping in water for an easy to use liquid application. They are engaging affectionate animals and as with all animals observation is key to detecting problems so I recommend spending time with them each day – if they are uninterested in food, hunched or scouring then it is worth taking a closer look.

I gave mine regular doses of cider vinegar in their water and apart from one severe outbreak of coccidosis I have not had any disease problems. Foraging for rabbit food is very straightforward as they can eat almost anything and it’s gratifying to see them always eat their greens first.

They also need hay to support healthy digestion and Vitamin A. Carrots are also a rich source of Vitamin A.

Female rabbits are extremely territorial so you do need to be careful around handling and breeding. Our first buck (male) got killed by one of the does (female) because I made the mistake of putting him into her space rather than the other way around. Since then I have put does in with bucks and the latter have survived intact. Does seem to live together well but I always put does about to give birth in their own small area.

Whenever you are handling rabbits it’s worth bearing in mind that meat rabbits have very strong hind legs and sharp claws. They will scratch and bruise you badly if you don’t handle them carefully. I lift them at the scruff and support them below the hindquarters. If I need to take a closer look I wrap a towel around them and kneel on the ground holding them between my knees – upside down if I’m trying to sex them, head up if I’m going to stun them.

When school groups visit our farm I often ask: how long does it take to grow a lamb?  Responses vary from ‘depends how old the lamb is’ to the ones I favour which include the pregnancy and the time it takes to bring the ewe to top tupping condition. In my view it takes at least eleven months to grow a lamb. But a rabbit? Well, frankly they breed like rabbits. The gestation period is only 31 days and most litters are at least six in number. Our does always make themselves big nests using straw and also their own soft tummy hair. Tempting as it is to keep peeping (baby rabbits are very fetching!)  I leave the young rabbits until they are at least seven days old as the doe can become disturbed, anxious and eat her young. The kits can be weaned after four weeks but we tend to leave them for eight. Similarly it is possible for the doe to get pregnant again almost immediately after giving birth but better to leave her until her young are at least eight weeks old. The young rabbits will be ready for eating anytime from about eight weeks. This is when they are at their most tender and in the USA where meat rabbits are firmly in the food culture this age group is referred to as ‘fryers’, becoming ‘roasters’ at ten weeks and ‘stewers’ after six months. If you are keeping any of the young beyond three months you will need to put them in separate sex groups.

On all our courses it is the slaughter which arouses most anxiety – and understandably so given that the vast majority of animals are slaughtered in huge industrial abattoirs out of plain view. But each time participants have experienced the killing as humane, calm and reassuring. As with cattle, pigs and sheep I prefer to slaughter rabbits using a humane killer.

The one I use has four different heads and the smallest – emitting not a bolt but simply a very strong puff of air – is ideal for rabbits. Having rendered the rabbit unconscious I sever the arteries in the neck and bleed out before starting to skin. If you are a complete beginner at slaughter I advise you to cut the head off before skinning as involuntary movements of the body can be disconcerting. Humane killers are costly and if you cannot afford the investment you will need to consider hammer blow to the head or breaking the neck by pulling the head down.

So – if you think that you would like to try raising rabbits for meat then I would encourage you. All you need to get started are a doe, a buck, at least two hutches, some commercial feed and / some hedgerows and spare vegetables.

There are many breeds to choose from but I favour the French Beveren, the New Zealand White and the British Giant. We tend to mix breeds as this helps us keep a track on incest (apparently not a problem in rabbits but I avoid it) and because it gives the usual hybrid vigour. You can expect to pay between £7 and £15 for each rabbit depending on age. Keep observing. Think about what you are seeing. Making changes if you need to and, most of all, enjoy!

If you are interested in attending our Meat course or Rabbit In a Day please see www.meatcourse.co.uk or contact Ruth Tudor at ruth.trealy@btinternet.com

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