Rabbits should become increasingly important in their contribution to the world’s need for cheap animal protein, as good quality rabbit meat is highly edible and their pelts are a useful, natural fibre by-product. Rabbits have a very rapid growth rate, enormous reproductive potential and they can utilise low cost, high roughage diets.
The realisation of these factors has led to the intensification of rabbit production in many countries. The rabbit is one of the few domestic animals which can convert wood or woody material into meat and it can survive on grass, maize stalks, hay or garden waste. Rabbits can be fed a very wide variety of food. No other animal can produce so much meat in relation to its own weight and space requirements as can the domestic rabbit during its average lifespan of 3 years.
All rabbits produce meat, fur and manure. The meat and fur are saleable products and the manure is a useful by-product which makes a good garden fertilizer. At present the main market is for meat, and the fur or pelts can be sold locally or used by the rabbit keeper to produce toys, cushions etc. However, with the current emphasis on wild life conservation, it is possible that the rabbit pelt may meet an increased demand for the manufacture of fur coats, replacing the skins of wild animals that have been used for this purpose.
Essential requirements for breeding stock are good health, vigour and livability. Animals must beprolific, have a good growth rate, good food conversion and a high meat to bone ratio. Carcasses should be short, compact and with a good loin development as the big muscles on the back and back legs are the main areas of meat.
In size, Rabbits are classified into Giants, Standard and Small. An adult Flemish Giant will weigh
5 – 6 kg, while a Polish has a mature weight of just over 1kg.
Rabbits are divided into four groups, each with its own characteristics of meat and fur production. The groups are:
- Fancy Rabbits
- Normal Fur Rabbits
- Rex Fur Rabbits
This is an ancient breed which produces high quality meat and a silky, soft wool which is in demand in the clothing industry. Most Angoras are white but colours such as smoke, blue, chinchilla and golden do exist. They are easy to feed and are docile and make very good mothers.
Angoras are kept on a small scale in Africa, but there are some very large commercial enterprises in America. The Angora is said to have the finest meat of all the rabbit breeds. They fill out well and at 5 months old grow to weigh 2,5kg.
Angora wool is a luxury article and is obtained by clipping the animal with a pair of blunt nosed scissors. The fur should be brushed before clipping and the rabbits should be groomed twice a month. They should be kept on wire netting floors to avoid soiling.
The rabbits are clipped for the first time when they are 2 – 3 months old. After that, they are clipped every 3 – 4 months when the wool is 50mm long. A good animal will produce 350g of wool a year and some outstanding animals will produce up to 700g. For clipping, the animal is placed on a table and brushed to remove all foreign matter and matted wool. The wool is parted along its back and clipped from the tail towards the neck in narrow rows. The right side of the–body is clipped first and then the left side, clipping very short and leaving the skin looking pink and shaved. The feet, head and the belly of the doe (female) rabbits are left unclipped.
These range from the small Polish to the Flemish Giants. Their coats are not fur in the true sense because they lack density, or are too small, or have unsuitable patterns. They are kept for exhibition purposes or as pets for children. Breeds of Fancy Rabbits are Dutch, English, Giant, Himalayan, Belgian Hare, Netherlands Dwarf and Polish.
NORMAL FUR RABBITS
These rabbits are the commercial breeds which combine good pelts with high quality meat. They range in size from 3,5 – 5,5 kg.
The main breeds and their characteristics are given in the table below:
|MARKING AND COLOUR
|MATURE MASS (KG)
|Body colour: pure white Nose, ears, feet and tail: dark colour Coloured spot on dewlap
3.6 – 4.5
3.7 – 4.7
|Wild agouti, followed by pearl grey when the fur is blown.
|Same colour as body
|Steel-grey (in some countries also sandy and white)
|New Zealand Red
|Red-colour (golden red or reddish gold)
|New Zealand White
REX FUR RABBITS
These rabbits arose from a mutation, and they are noted for their silkydense coat which resembles moleskin. The pelts are bought by the fur trade, and the rabbits will produce a good meat carcass. The fur is very short, approximately 15mm long, and the colours are black, chinchilla and siamese.
|Mutation: the changing of the structure of a gene, resulting in a variant form which may be transmitted to subsequent generations.
A breeding doe must show at least eight functional teats. The working life of both buck and doe is two to three years. Mating programmes begin when the doe reach sexual maturity at approximately 6 months of age. Different breeds will reach sexual maturity at different ages. Two main factors will influence the date are, breed size and nutrition. A well-fed rabbit will develop and mature more rapidly than a poorly fed rabbit of the same breed. Rabbits have no definite heat period, and provided the temperatures are maintained over 16°C, the animals will breed all year round.
A buck matures at the same age as the doe does. Potential breeding bucks, however, should be purchased at about 12 weeks of age so that they can become accustomed to the change. Sex ratio requires one male to 10 – 15 does. Services by young bucks should be restricted to about 2 matings per week, gradually increasing to 6 – 7 matings per week.
The doe should always be taken to the buck’s hutch. Mating takes place usually within minutes. After mating the doe should be returned to her hutch. On average, pregnancy lasts 31 days, but may vary between 29 and 31 days.
During the fourth week of pregnancy a nest box must be provided with a supply of good quality hay or straw which the doe can use to make her nest. Newly born rabbits are blind and deaf and almost furless. The doe cleans them and places them in the nest where they stay for about 2 weeks, feeding on her milk. Litter size is expected to be between 8 and 10 but this varies with the breed, size and age. Rabbits can be weaned from four weeks onwards. This enables the doe to be re-mated 3 – 4 weeks after parturition, producing a maximum number of litters. Rabbit milk is the most concentrated of all domestic animals, containing 12 – 15% protein, 10 – 12% fat, 2% sugar and 2% minerals. Careful management and adequate nutrition are essential at this time.