By Cait Carpenter
Raising rabbits in colonies is not a new concept, although it may seem new to the modern rabbit breeder. Monks began keeping rabbits in warrens as far back as the early medieval times, and the idea of caging didn’t take hold until the 1800’s. Propagating rabbits in a group setting isn’t for everyone – it is wrong in every way for exhibition rabbitries, and can make fiber production a complete bear – but for those seeking a more comfortable approach to meat production, colony raising is not a bad way to go.
What exactly is a colony, anyways? A colony is simply a group of bonded animals that live together. A colony could be out on pasture or completely indoors in a barn. The term “colony” means nothing about their management or housing other than the fact that they have a different social structure than conventional rabbit raising.
There are several factors to consider when deciding if you should start a colony. Keep in mind that any aspirations towards pedigrees are going to become difficult. Using tattoos or other identification methods alongside respectable record keeping can help to an extent, but once those babies come popping out of the nest boxes and mixing all together, the game is pretty well over. Purebred breeding is completely possible, but you won’t be able to have the proof on paper, it’ll mostly be on your word of, “One of these could be Dad, and one of those girls is Mom.”
Another aspect to think about before starting a colony is space and resources. Colonies require a different sort of environment. Raising rabbits in a group setting can work, but they require mental stimulation and infrastructure to hide under. Any species – rabbit, chicken, hog, etc – will become aggressive and fight with each other if they are crammed into tight, confined spaces with no outlet for natural activities. When you keep rabbits in a group setting, you’re reintroducing those natural tendencies, and some of those tendencies need attention. Unfortunately, you can’t throw three rabbits together in a typical wire cage and call it good. They’ll all have chewed off each other’s ears by the end of the week. They need a proper habitat with lots of things to do to keep them entertained.
Where colony raising shines is in a homestead setting for small-time meat production. In a set-up like this, significant attention can be paid to injuries, illnesses, and animal happiness, and pedigrees aren’t as important if most of the offspring are going to end up on the table.
Finding the right rabbits to meet your needs will make all the difference as to whether your colony will be a success or a flop. Ideally you will want to start out with young females under the age of six months. The younger they are, the more likely they’ll be to bond with each other smoothly. Mature female rabbits already have their personal “bubbles” established, and that typically doesn’t include other rabbits. It is possible to acclimate adult does to each other, but it’s difficult and often not worth the time, energy, and safety hazards to the rabbit. I don’t recommend beginning with a buck in the herd. Let the young ladies get used to each other and settled in before introducing a buck. Most colony raisers don’t keep a buck with the does full-time. If they are kept together all of the time, you’ll have litters coming out your ears, far too many consecutively to be comfortable for the doe. If you do get your buck and keep him in the colony, stick with only one. Bucks rarely get along together as roommates, even if they’ve been raised up as brothers.
Any breed can be raised in a colony. Size, color, and all other factors are solely up to what you want to do. Larger breeds are best for more intense meat production, while smaller breeds around 6lbs make wonderful projects for young breeders and as 4-H projects.
Building a Space
There are many different resources to connect with to design your colony’s home. It’s all relative to what will work for you. I highly recommend poking around online and seeing what you come up with. There is very little professional information regarding raising rabbits in colonies, so the “industry” has taken on a life all its own underground in a sense. I recommend the online forum RabbitTalk, the Facebook page BackyardMeatRabbits, and the series of books published by BYMR administrator Boyd Craven Jr., which can be purchased on Amazon. These are all great resources with a whole collection of great people to glean information from.
I do carry one warning – raising rabbits in a colony in cages is nearly impossible. Rabbits need mental stimulation when in groups to prevent them from taking out their frustrations on each other, and I personally believe that rabbits should have toys and things to play with anyways, even when in solitude. Problems quickly erupt from groups kept in cages, there is lots of ear ripping and fur pulling, causing great stress to all animals. I highly recommend planning for a large floor space with plenty of creative hiding spaces and means of entertainment. You’d bite your neighbor too if you were kept on an airplane for your entire life with nothing to keep you occupied.
Colony raising is a rewarding, albeit complicated adventure. When done properly, your rabbits will be very happy and fulfilled, and we all love happy and fulfilled dinner. Keep in mind that the domestic rabbit is a different creature mentally and instinctually than the wild rabbit. They cannot, and should not, be treated as if they are a wild animal. Be sensitive to each animal’s personal indications of discomfort, and react as such.
Good luck rabbitting!