To cut a very long story short - I am considering pasture raising rabbits for meat in the south west of the UK on a solar park as I have grazing rights and rabbits are the only animals who wont cause damage to the panels. I am starting with an acre pasture, current plan is to securely fence the edges to keep rabbits in and more importantly, wild rabbits and foxes OUT. I am proposing large mobile pens to enable pasture rotation, with chickens to control parasite and insect activity. There is a market in my area for rabbit meat, no other producers are pasture rearing. I intend to obtain high welfare accreditation and market to bistro pubs and restaurants throughout the south west.
I would very much so please like some advice on the following topics:
- which breed (or crosses) will reach good weights on pasture and are hardy enough to survive coastal weather, solar panels will provide shelter from the worst of it. We often get Atlantic gales, usually about a week of snow in late February, otherwise windy and wet! As it's close to the sea a lot of salt blows in with the storms, everything rusts so quickly.
- what would be recommended way to rabbit proof an entire acre? New mesh and barbed wire fencing has installed earlier this year, how far should I dig below and lay chicken wire?
- pen design: I provisionally imagined something similar to this (see below) with supervised access to larger area possible as a colony (not for heavily pregnant does or those with young kits)
- as there are many wild rabbits about I am thinking of vaccinating my breeding stock - 1 - will this sufficiently cover the kits until they are eaten? 2 - is it recommended to vaccinate in animals intended for human consumption? There is no myxi at the moment although we are expecting an outbreak with the expected wild population boom in the next 2 years (all that unmowed yummy grass between the panels!)
- I intend to process the rabbits myself, I am aware that Defra and the FSA want a license for the same. If I sold them as skinned and cleaned carcasses, what uses have people found for the heads and intestines? Ears can be dried for dog treats, pelts frozen then tanned / sold in bulk, feet either as lucky charms or in dog food, offal such as kidneys and liver can be eaten, but what about the guts? I have read that some people feed the leftovers to chickens! Also - any uses for the blood other than a fertiliser?
- Can I make my own hay from grass which may have been exposed to wild rabbits and how can I prevent disease transmission through this?
- Final random thought - would crossing with a native wild buck increase hybrid vigour and lead to healthier genetics and local disease resistance? (Please bear in mind when answering that the wild population local to the farm already has some domestic strains in it due to escaped pets (dutch x) around 10 years ago. We do still see black wild rabbits every now and again around the farm)
I welcome all advice, please point out any obvious failings with this plan!
Thanks for taking the time to read this and thankyou in advance for your advice
Domestic rabbits in the UK *are* the same breed as the local wild rabbits, as far as I know.
I used to keep them when I was in Wales, and I attempted to do it without vaccinating, and time after time the wild rabbits would bring disease and wipe out over 90% of my stock. Exactly the same happened when I tried again in Portugal. I was never happy with the thought of eating vaccinated animals, or breeding animals that relied on vaccinations, so we switched to other livestock which don't seem so dependent. So far, muscovy ducks are the winners for us - the most they've ever needed is a bit of germolene creme on a damaged wing.
This seems like a well thought out plan! Wire 2 feet down would be sufficient to prevent them escaping I would think. I would vaccinate yes, and as far as breed considerations my Silver Foxes do well on pasture, they grow out normally on forage and hay in my set up
Sounds like a fun endeavor. I tried free ranging my rabbits one summer before I started my garden. True free range where the come and go from the barn as they please and had water and feed available. I would start them in pens and when they were old enough I'd open the pen. When I wanted to butcher I would headshot with a 22 while they were calm and grazing then run up and cut the head off and hold it by the back legs until it was bled out or hung up to skin. I loved it, but I lost a lot of trees due to girdling and I lost a lot of rabbits to predators. Mostly owls. I had new Zealand whites so they stuck out. I also had wild cats that were HUGE come around. I sometimes wonder if they somehow crossed with a lynx. I probably lost a few to cayotes too. I had a few leave the farm. I found one roadkill over a mile away and I had some hit on the road in front of my house. After I started growing vegetables for my csa I began pen raising. I had 4 adult raccoon s figure it out and I lost dozens in several days. I only had two live traps and they kept breaking into the barn. I just had a skunk take a bunch of eggs and two nests and one young rabbit. I tried to eat it but probably won't try that again. I am now keeping all my does in cages with nest boxes when they kindle unless it is the dead of winter and they have plenty of deep bedding to make a nest in. Predators are very drawn to rabbit nests. I will likely try rabbit tractors like your pic next year when I am finishing them out, but that is pasture raised. Not free range. At least to me.
I think breeding immunity into your herd with wild rabbits would be pretty awesome if it works, but ya never know until you try. I would do it if I could, but it may take a few years to pay back for the effort if it is successful.
free ranging rabbits can be a problematic idea if you are a gardener, as some of my friends have found out the hard way.More than one person has tried to be kind and worked very hard at digging in fences and trying to do every thing right and others thought it was no big deal if one or two was just free ranging about the farm.but after they breed and eat your garden and then the neighbors garden and then the neighbor sues and the local animal control and the county officials lay charges and you have to pay for it all, it becomes a big deal.It may seem that you are doing your domestic bunny a favour by letting them free range but in reality all you may be doing is either making them free lunch for the local wild life and/or bringing the local predators to your door or you maybe giving your bunnies a free lunch. A good sized rabbit tractor might keep your domestic rabbits happy and healthy, free from predators and disease.
There is also the fact that you have a responsibility to keep your domestic kritters from messing with the local biology .Not keeping your domestic kritters at home and contained can cause misery for years to come for any gardener and her/his neighbors as many have found out the hard way ,here in Alberta the powers that be hold you responsible for any and all damages your domestic animal causes, including their offspring, so free range has its risks whether it is a bunnie, a cow, a pig or a bird.
The apple cider vinegar or grape seed extract in water is to help treat and prevent coccidiosis.
Pumpkin seeds are a natural dewormer.
To grow hay, you would need to let it grow to about 2 foo high before cutting, then let it grow again to get a second cut (not as nutritious). Yoou might want to see what other local plants rabbits will eat and try foraging for them. Someone has probably already done the research on wild rabbits for the government, so you might be able to find it through a wildlife office or something.
Looking at the pic of your proposed tractor, you may want to put the wheels under the rabbit house due to rabbits falling out of door during moves, it adds structual integrity to the wheels supports, and it moves the weight of several rabbits (5-10 lbs each) from the part you pick up that would increase strain on your back - especially if you're going to do this with severl tractors..
Does can live together for a longer period of time than bucks. Most of my bucks start fighting for dominance at about 4-5, with a few waiting til 6-7 months old. Granted mine are lionheads, regular and dwarf, and I've developed a super dwarf variety. It seems that the smaller they are, the sooner they want to breed. I currently have a mom with 2 of her grown daughters and a grown cousin living together. No one has kits or is pregnant and the area they live in is 6x8 foot with multiple levels and hiding spots. They all live together fine.
Chicken wire doesn't really stop rabbits as they can and will chew through it. It also rusts through fairly quickly when buried in the ground. Welded wire fencing can be buried, but will need to be cut unless you can find it made to 2 foot widths. Another option is to hit print shops and see if they have old aluminum print plates that you buy for a few pennies (scrap metal price per pound) to bury as a rabbit guard. Make sure it is attached to the chain link fencing as rabbits and foxes will push and test your fence for weaknesses.
To help protect your animals you may want to get a guard dog or three. Your rabbits and chickens will be fine in their homes at night, while thedogs patrol to deter wild rabbits and foxes. Also portable electric fencing to keep your chickens contained and protected (see Joel Salatin)
And be open to changing what isn't working. Some people become so wedded to an idea that they end up working really hard to make it work. Explore different options all of the time (before and during your set up and opration) to be able to improve and grow, or change if the need comes up.
In April I bought a pair of Silver Fox rabbits. They took months to successfully breed but the doe did give birth to 7 bunnies in June. Originally they were all in hutches which i really dislike but its what I had to offer. Eventually I built a tractor like the one you shared but not nearly as nice. Eventually all the bunnies escaped and would take shelter under my barn. It's now December and they are still living under and around the barn. As needed, I have killed a few for meat as I originally intended but they have all stayed here and haven't made a run for the woods.
While I like the idea of truly free ranging rabbits, I am not sure the garden will appreciate several rabbits having their way with my produce.
Joel Salatin raises grazing rabbits in hutches very similar to that, but with slatted floors to the pens to prevent escape by the rabbits and predators from getting in. I tried it many many years ago. I didn't figure out the slatted floor thing, but found that taking a standard cage outside and simply putting it on the grass worked ok. But I did need to put the cages back inside every night. Without a floor, the rabbits eventually will figure out how to escape.
Vaccines are no biggie at all. I highly recommend it. All vaccines do is trigger the animals' own natural immune response. It's all good. I would rather eat a healthy animal with a strong immune system than a sick animal. Or worse, have it die and have nothing to eat at all.
"Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted & thoughtful observation rather than protracted & thoughtless labour; & of looking at plants & animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system."-Bill Mollison
American Jackrabbits are different to domestic rabbits, but if you are in the UK, your domestic rabbits will breed quite happily and successfully with your local wild populations. domestic rabbits and American "rabbits" are like goats and sheep, UK rabbits and domestic rabbits are like sheep and sheep.
No need to go 2 foot down, far more effective is to L shape the buried netting, rabbits trying to escape go up to the fence and dig in place, trenching a 6" deep by foot wide trench and laying the netting in a L along the bottom of the trench and up out of the ground, then filling back in the trench works.
The rabbits dig in along the fence line and end up hitting the flat portion of mesh, they aren't quite smart enough to dig back and find the edge, but they can be persistent enough to go down far enough to find the bottom of straight down fencing.
Rabbit proof and predator exclusion native sanctuary fencing here in NZ (no native mammals, so easy meat for introduced post 1700's rats, cats and weasels, and plants not evolved to survive death-by-rabbit) is constructed along the L base method.
Use good quality electronet fence around your pens to keep out predators with a tremendous fencer. I want at least 6,000 volts on a predator exclusion fence. 10,000 makes me happy. Even when I only run a couple of pieces of net fence I like a 3 output joule charger minimum.
House the rabbits in pens similar to what you have pictured. I have 3'x4' boxes for individual does with kits until weaning. 1"x2" 14 ga. wire floor, and sides. 16" overall height. People build stupid tall rabbit tractors and waste money, material, and make them too heavy. Only need tall boxes if it is 90-100 degrees F for extended times. Then you need distance from radiant heat from roof material in that case. Plywood ends, wrap arounds, divider, and roof. I kindle in little wood or cardboard boxes on the wire floor, and kits are on the grass and eating by day 10 or 11.
Rabbits rapid dig in a fury of paw action and pull grass upright and eat it. I only feed pasture under the boxes, garden culls and leaf prunes, hand cut/pulled forage from yard and garden growing, and trimmings/peelings from our kitchen.
Famous Virginian says you can't use wire for flooring. Does dig right through our wire floor and pull up grass just fine. Keep you grass as tall as practical without it getting you in trouble with the lawn police or pasture becoming senescent. 6-9" is good with my mix of clovers, blue grass, timothy, fescue, and rye grasses. Broadcast lots of dutch white, medium white or other good growing clovers for your region. Shoot for 30-40% clover minimum. Plantain, rape, kale, etc are your friends.
I used to raise 3,000 finishers a summer on wire bottom crates on pasture. Now we just produces for home consumption. I could meet all of my family's meat needs with our back yard rabbits at 41 degrees latitude, darn hard winters, and hot, humid summers rather easily just kindling from April to September.
Same 16" height side walls including frame height. I can mix same day or one or two day different litters at 5-6 weeks old no problem up to about 20 head per grow out. If I feed a forage only diet grazing through the bottom and vegetable culls and trim, it takes around 16-17 weeks for feed out. With free choice 16% alfalfa cubes in addition to grazing, can do it in 9-10. I only finish 350-400 pounds or so of dressed boned out rabbit meat per year on a 1/3 acre back yard kindling 4 does 3-4 times between April and September. I usually finish on my own forage only. Only do alfalfa cubes if I get too much deep snow, hard ice to finish the late September kindled rabbits.
Move crates two or three times a day. Try not to come back to same piece in less than 60 days to avoid most parasites. I never worm. I rotate, manage, and cull anyone without resistance.
California x New Zealand heavily linebred and culled works for me. My family trees look like an EKG for a dead man.
You can overseed grazing rape, kale, plantains, etc. I grow good yielding stuff with high yields in succession. Radishes, daikon radishes, rutabagas(swedes), 5' tall grazing kale, sunflowers, milo, millet, etc all work.
Making hay. Cut with lawnmower, rake onto tarp, drag onto hot dry parking area(take inside at night if you have a garage), spread out and fluff until good and dry(less than 15% moisture by microwave/gram scale method)and make mini-bales by hand. Ground stored mulched swedes, daikons, carrots, etc easier to deal in winter and make great finisher feed.
Don't have cages in standing water. Put a small board for does and bucks to get on fall, winter, early spring. They can be damp, not drenched. I don't winter kindle. I throw all does into one grower and put on straw bales when it's too deep to pull through snow, and free feed hay and root crops.
Buck lives in a modified dog crate. Wire floor under top half a large dog crate. He's in it year round. It it gets too wet/cold I'll put a box with straw in for him to hop into.
Look up Major Morant's book on google. Rabbits for Profit and Rabbits for Powder. The Morant grazing hutch is a well over century old technology.
Here's the dog crate, buck house. Had a few inches of snow. Buck is living on stockpiled fescue/clover/yard grass and is fit as a fiddle. Shovel snow, drag, repeat. Sucker gained an extra pound this month.