It all started when we began looking for a more sustainable way to raise rabbits. Rabbits are an amazing source of lean meat, but it seems a shame to keep them in tiny cages eating pellets. I personally hate cleaning cages, and all that infrastructure can be expensive. Why not give them access to fresh grass, and let them raise their young as they will? If they can feed themselves, the meat is almost free.
Honestly, there are plenty of reasons not to raise rabbits on pasture including predators, unchecked breeding, tunneling and escapees. None the less, we gave it a try. For science…
Fencing for Pastured Rabbits
We wanted our rabbits to be truly pastured, not just in a dog run. Their total enclosure was a 50 x 50 ft square area that we’d fenced off for a small orchard. The land had just been cleared of trees, but not stumped, and soil was in rough shape. It needed a few years before it was ready for orchard trees, so it seemed like a good test plot for pastured rabbits.
We ran 2 ft tall chicken wire all along the inside bottom. One foot of chicken wire was buried on the inside and the other foot of it ran up the side of the orchard fence. Not a particularly strong fence to keep them in, but it did the trick for 6 full months.
Believe it or not we didn’t have any trouble with rabbits tunneling out. They’d dig at the edge, but hit the wire and then start digging more towards the middle. They made a pretty elaborate warren, with entrances all over the place, but never outside the fence. Maybe we just got lucky.
Very occasionally one rabbit would get out, but it was always by actually climbing up the chicken wire and slipping through the fence above. One particularly curious female was the main culprit, but she always wanted to be with her kind, and we’d find her standing at the edge of the fence waiting to be let back in.
Feeding Pastured Rabbits
Part of the appeal of raising rabbits on pasture is lowered feed costs. They definitely appreciated supplemental pellets, but for the most part, they were self-sufficient. The pasture had plenty of ferns and clover growing at the beginning of the summer, and they lasted until the population reached a peak of 80 rabbits. That was just more than the land could bear.
We brought them a bowl of food daily to socialize them and to count them, but once they’d outstripped the land we began seriously feeding them so we didn’t see losses. At the same time, we began harvesting much more aggressively.
Raising Rabbits in a Colony
Two male rabbits in a cage together will fight, and keep fighting until one of them is dead or castrated. Yes, they’ll actually castrate each other with their teeth. Pretty rough way to go. Given enough space, rabbits develop a dominance hierarchy and females actually choose who to associate with.
We kept two males in our starter herd, and one of them established dominance and they never quarreled again. Strangely, the dominant one had more territory, but the other seemed to have more luck with the ladies.
Initially, we were worried that the females wouldn’t be good mothers in a “wild” setting, but we watched and waited for the first babies. About 10 weeks after putting them out on pasture we saw our first baby, popping out of a tunnel and then darting back in again. The next day we saw dozens.
The population had exploded seemingly overnight, but really the little ones were underground and they’d finally grown enough to surface.
It was a challenge to harvest rabbits fast enough to keep up with production. Starting with 6 females and 2 males, the population reached a height of 80 rabbits. I didn’t even count how many we harvested for the freezer, but one day I did stop to count all the adults and babies. My best guess is about 80 in sight at once.
At that rate, harvesting them becomes a serious endeavor, and it was all we could do to keep up. By the end of the summer, we decided that our experiment was a success and we didn’t want to continue. We harvested them all in stages, and when there were about 20 rabbits left, that’s when the fox struck…
Predators are a bigger problem. The rabbits were allowed to dig as much as they liked, which meant we didn’t have trouble with hawks or owls. If we lost one to a flying predator, it was never one of the adults which I kept close track of.
For a while, we had trouble with a raccoon, but a bit of electric wire at the top of the fence kept him out, and then a .22 and a stew pot solved that problem neatly.
By the end of the summer, we’d decided that the experiment was a success, but that we’d have to eat a lot more rabbit meat to keep up with their rate of reproduction. We decided not to overwinter the colony and planned on harvesting all the rabbits except a small breeding population that we’d keep indoors in cages over the winter. Harvesting them in stages, we dropped the population down to 20, and planned the final harvest the next day.
That night, a fox struck. While there was an electric fence at the top for raccoons, there was nothing to keep out diggers. We’d buried chicken wire facing inward to keep them from digging out, but we’d done nothing to keep something from digging in. Big mistake. Though we’d dealt with predators before, this was our first fox incident.
How do you know it’s a fox? Well, a fox will kill every last one, plain and simple. They kill them all, and then bury their harvest for later. We came out in the morning to hastily buried piles of dead rabbits, and evidence that someone had dug under the fence.
Oddly, there was a single rabbit remaining alive. I wonder what it must have been like to survive the night of the fox. She hopped right up to me and I picked her up. That little lady was given to a family member, who raised her as a pet and still has her even now years later. I guess she won the rabbit lottery.
All in all, raising rabbits on pasture was a success. The population was a huge issue, and we just cant eat that much rabbit meat. If you’re going to have unchecked rabbit breeding, make sure you have an army to feed.
Predators are also obviously a concern, and that fox could have ended things a lot sooner. It was lucky that the fox didn’t strike until near the end, but it could have gone very differently. While a raccoon will take one or two, which would hardly be noticed, a fox is another matter. If you give it a try, make sure you protect them from digging predators like foxes.