Sunday, May 15, 2011

Colony Raising- Ongoing Series

What exactly is a rabbit colony? When people say they raise their rabbits in a colony, they mean that instead of cages, their animals are housed in groups and on the ground. There are various ways to do this: breeding groups (pairs, trios, quads, etc.), family or sibling groups, does only, etc. 

The subject of all the various ways to raise rabbits comes up from time to time in conversations amongst rabbit enthusiasts. Didn't you know that rabbits don't have to be kept in just cages or hutches?  Some people let their rabbits burrow directly into the ground as closely as what happens in nature. 

A group of rabbits in this method is called a colony and the group of tunnels and burrows they create are generally referred to as a warren. Warrens can be huge so if you choose this style, be very sure you have a way to safely contain your rabbits with adequate wire mesh (underground and around all fencing), and adequate fencing. You will also need to make sure that your colony still has adequate shelter from rain and wind as well as food and water sources.

Do not just simply turn your rabbits lose in your backyard or it will quickly get out of control. Your rabbit colony will work diligently to mine a vast network of tunnels and burrows, breed uncontrollably, become prey to other animals, and you will also have to deal with parasitic concerns such as fleas, mites, and worms (a relatively rare concern for cage-housed rabbits) and possibly over-population issues.

Some people actually attempt a hybrid of sorts for keeping their rabbits in cages, while allowing some playtime in outdoor runs or on the barn floor (enclosed of course).  Others actually give their rabbits their own patch of land and let them make their own underground housing.  Others do a more manageable method of containing the space somehow, filling or surrounding with hay bales, and the rabbits just burrow and chew into the hay.  This method tends to be done on a concrete base so the rabbits cannot really burrow into the ground.

I have seen it discussed several times online and have wanted to really dig into the aspects of why, how, and what (happens). Maybe this will be helpful to those thinking about trying out their very own rabbit colony? This will be an on-going series so check back for various articles, opinions, and postings on the subject. 

I will attempt to discuss and showcase various methods, and the pro's and con's of each style.  I am in no way endorsing one way over another.  I cage raise my rabbits exclusively at this time so I am not an expert on these methods by any means.  I do know of two people who have come up with their own unique colony styles and will feature those in upcoming articles. It seems to be growing in popularity and that is what prompted me to focus on this subject from time to time.

Here are some excerpts of various postings from on-line meat rabbit forums (Facebook and Yahoo! Groups).  The content definitely makes for some interesting reading:


I plan on setting up permanent runs in my yard for our rabbits. I'll have one per doe + her kits and a separate one for each buck. We plan on fencing with chicken wire buried in trenches, with bird netting on top. We'll have a little rabbit house in each run, but plan to allow the rabbits to burrow. How deep do you think we need the wire to go down in the trenches so that they won't leave the enclosed area? Has anyone here tried a set up like this?

Various replies:

Don't use chicken wire. it will rust, and they will chew through it. Use the heavy duty cloth stuff.

Chicken wire is easy for rabbits to dig through. If you want to manage their digging, put something in the middle of the run and they'll tend to dig underneath that. :)

Bummer. Chicken wire is so much cheaper than hardware cloth. What gauge would you consider a minimum, and how high do you think that the hardware cloth needs to go before it can switched to something lighter duty? Thanks for the tip about putting something in the middle, M---.

We've had our rabbits in regular cages and hutches up until now. We stopped letting them out in temporary runs because it was too much of a pain to let them each out individually and watch to make sure they didn't get loose.

We have some rabbits in a chicken yard where they can burrow. And the first time I noticed that they had made a hole I thought that it was pretty neat :) I checked the hole the next day and I couldn't reach the end with my arm. So we stuck a long stick down and that still didn't reach the end! We figured it was deeper than 6 feet in only two days! So They will burrow as deep or far as they can :) We have since put chicken wire on the whole floor of the coop area because they would probably burrow to china if we let them.
Have never tried anything like this, but the rabbit list that I am on has archives full of people who have tried to to outdoor runs for rabbits. If they have access to the ground, they will dig, and the burrows (warrens) in the wild run for hundreds of feet. If it works, great, but none of the people who started with runs(unless they had brick or concrete floors) still have them.

Yes, the rabbits will dig down and out as far as possible. Also, they will connect the tunnels to each other - so you may end up with a very large, unregulated colony. As far as the chicken wire, I wouldn't use it. 

This will really change your mind about how far down to put the wire: ROFL kicking my feet, WMP! Fencing dug 2 feet into the ground might slow themdown for five minutes. :)

I had a colony set up for my retired does. The run was about 10 feet by 20,
with chain link fence. When I saw burrows begin, I laid chicken wire on the
ground, attached to the fence at the edges. Foiled those darned does! For
several weeks at least.

I underestimated their persistence. Eventually, their constant digging broke
through the chicken wire. Since I have a quite large front yard, I decided to
not worry about it. After all, this is soil that a power auger works bogs down
on--hard clay with lots of rocks.

My first inkling that the burrows were a problem came when I found L----, or
rather, the remains of L----'s body in the back yard, where my dogs live. Then
R----' body turned up there. I was sure the dogs weren't getting into the
front yard, so I sent my son down the main burrow to investigate. The opening
was about two feet in diameter. I dragged him back out before his feet
disappeared (he was about 5'4" then). He said it just kept going down.

We found the other end by watching the dogs. The does had dug under our
house--about thirty feet away from their pen, and at least six feet down.

The other issues with the pen were that, in spite of having three different
feeding troughs, two does were getting starved out. The grass was completely
decimated. You see, rabbits may graze a bit, but what they REALLY like are the
roots. And parasites were an issue. Pin worms and coccidia were the main ones.
This only occurred after the colony had been inhabited for several years. I had
to worm regularly.

I abandoned the pen completely when a weasel discovered it. Too much work to
keep rabbits in poor condition and miserable. Now my retired does live happily,
in the luxury of their lifelong homes. You may call them cages, but the girls
call them home.

I'm sure that rabbits can be raised on the ground, but my experience with it was
a dreadful failure.

Here are more posts from those who raised colony style: Are rabbits social creatures? Of course they are. Do rabbits do best when raised in separate cages? Of course they do. Huh? This discrepancy arises unless the rabbit hierarchy is taken ...into account. As Lockley said (Private Life of the Rabbit - I do love this book, can you tell? ), there are rigid rules in rabbit society. There is a dominant pair, and these, together with their female offspring, live in nice loving little families as long as there is abundant food for all.
Male rabbits are driven out when they attain puberty, and rarely
socialize with their own kind. It's the young males that wander far and wide
when permitted by circumstances. But stranger males of any age are treated as
interlopers and immediately challenged by the resident alpha male. They can and
will sometimes fight to the death, although the more usual result is that one
male asserts dominance and either keeps or takes over the harem.
Secondary males are allowed to exist and sometimes raise their own families, as long as
they stay out of the alpha male's way. Secondary breeding females can only raise
litters in years of exceptional nutrition and quantity. Mostly they abort and/or
reabsorb litters; on occasion, the alpha doe will destroy their nests and viable
offspring. The best of the grazing, the roomiest burrows, the safest places are
all claimed by the alpha pair.

It was striking to note that secondary does neither grew as well, nor reproduced
as well nor as often as the "princesses", daughters of the king buck and queen
doe. They did not have any litters in their first year, likely due to poorer
nutrition. These same does raised as domestic animals, would have access to
similar nutrition and each one could be a princess when kept solitary in her own
cage. And each one could be just as territorial as the most prima donna alpha
doe - it's in their genes.
But the one real advantage ( after the feed issue is addressed),  is that every doe
does not have to live in mortal terror from the alpha pair. And it was terror in the
rabbits Lockley observed in the field. The testes on the most abused male rabbit
shrank, making him incapable of breeding.

The other does reabsorbed litters more often than not; so that many successful
breedings did not result in that many viable deliveries. So next time one wants
to try colony raising, it might be a good idea to have Emily Post's Rules of
Rabbit Etiquette on hand, or suffer serious losses.
I had a colony once....Been here, done this, and had a very bloody disaster.
:( Bucks in a cage together, no matter the size, have a strong tendency to
fight. Keeping only one buck in the colony helped, but the does then
decided that... fighting was THEIR job.

On the other hand, I've had decent luck selecting for does who won't
castrate/kill the buck and bucks who are very very gentle. That means that
I can (usually) leave them together for longer than just to breed.

HOWEVER!!!! (Warning coming!)

There are NEVER any guarantees as to what a buck and/or doe will do in
company. If you don't want to lose a rabbit to severe injury, however
remote the possibility, don't leave them together.

I've had to euthanize the result of problems, and bury others. This is NOT
my idea of fun, and to me, it is not worth the agony of having to watch my
animals suffer when they didn't need to.

So there's my contribution, for whatever it's worth....

I've had a retired doe colony in my front yard for several years. Obviously,
since it's the retired does, it's not a breeding colony. Except for the couple
of times that bucks have escaped INto it.

Here are a few of my observations:
1) Be sure have multiple feeding areas spaced far apart. Otherwise, the
"lead" animals will starve out the ones farther down the pecking order. This
will happen even if the feeder is kept full at all times. The dominant rabbits
will take turns guarding the feeder.
2) Be prepared to worm the animals.
3) Wire dug two feet into the earth will cause does to snort with laughter as
they burrow down four feet. The "main" burrow in my yard ran forty-odd feet
long and six feet down. It was headed farther, but at that point they reached
the open space under my house. It was wide enough for my 100 lb son to crawl
4) If you use 2" X 4" fencing around the perimeter, any kits born in it will be
out and running when they are two to six weeks old. Two (opposite sexes) will
survive to populate the pasture before you catch them.
5) Young rabbits, having a 10' X 20' pen to run in, will take a loooonnnggg time
to reach edible size. And you won't want to eat the livers.
6) Some rabbits will never, ever get along with others, no matter how much room
they have.
7) Some rabbits will never, ever acclimatize to the outdoors and will huddle in
terror until you put them back in their home.
8) Raccoons and weasels are attracted to rabbit colonies. Even with wire over
the top, weasels can get in 2" X 4" fence wire. I ended up putting the
remaining does back in cages last year, to live in peace.

Domestic rabbits are solitary animals and do prefer to live alone.
Wild hares and wild cottontails may form colonies, but they are very, very
different than domesticated rabbits. They share very little in common. Man
could never provide what a... true wild rabbit colony is. The endless underground
tunnels, burrows, holes, dens, etc. What we call *colony* raising is simply
raising solitary animals together, but we are not really providing a colony -
its just not possible unless you've gone underground and recreated what wild
rabbits would.

Just as man has bred wild wolves into well mannered house dogs, we've also taken
the wild hare and cottontail and made them into domestic rabbits and they have
very different personalities than their wild ancestors.

You may think you're doing them a favor by housing them together (again, man can
never truly create a real colony), but if the rabbits were housed separately
they really would be just as happy and since there is no territory to defend,
even happier.

If you choose to continue this setup - do NOT let the buck into the area when
its time to breed. He will be castrated at a minimum and possibly killed. Not
only that, but it will create war amongst the does and they may never get along

If their are any kits in the setup when you put the buck in, the other does may
kill them out of rage.

"K---" reinforced a very valid point in that if you don't handle kits daily, you
are going to get biters. As I said in my last post - that's one of the reasons
I handle mine from day 1. Since your setup does not allow you to really view
each rabbit and her litter in detail, you wont know who's a good mom or who's
not. Also, once the kits start getting scattered, and they will, its going to
be nearly impossible to know which mom they came from. You cant tattoo 2 week
old kits. You can mark them with a sharpie, but are you able to go in several
times a day and separate hoppers and put them back into their own nest?

If an older kit from one litter wanders over to a litter of another mom, it may
be rejected and killed/eaten. It happens all the time. This is the reason when
kits need fostering it can be done as newborns, but not at 2 weeks old. Does
quite often wont accept young of others unless they are newborns and simply kill
them. So while wild underground colonies are huge and have several dens off to
the side to keep litters from mixing, it sounds like your set up has the
potential for a kit to stray to another litter and be killed.

I hold my position that group housing is not something I would ever do. Having
raised rabbits for over 30 years I've seen just about everything and I know for
certain that what humans call colony raising in no way resembles wild
underground colonies and often, its a recipe for disaster.

You need to be certain you never put the buck into the colony and need to find a
way to know which nest belongs to which doe and need to be sure you keep the doe
and her kits together and not let them walk into the nest of other does. It's a
very high maintenance and high risk setup that takes much more work than
standard housing and again, it does not make the rabbits happier - just more territorial.

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