So. I’ve been wanting to try meat rabbits, forever. I must have mentioned it quarterly for the last ten years. Frank remained unconvinced, despite my very reasonable reasons.
Here was my reasoning:
- Great for raw dog food, and we have a million dogs.
- Good market from raw dog food buyers.
- Lots of inquiries, consistently
- Cute, smart, fun.
- Supposedly a very good ecologically sustainable meat to raise.
What kept me back, though, was
- the manner that most farmers kept them (cages)
- how they were fed (so much grain)
I’ve been doing as much reading as I can. There are a bunch of folks on permies.com who are pasture raising them.
One of Joel Salatin’s sons was doing it “tractor-style“.
I really want to free-range them as much as possible. I want to try a colony method, and once they bond to the place, and I convince the Pyrs that they ain’t for eatin’, let them wander about much like the birds do.
I found someone right here in Windsor raising American Blue rabbits, and we bought two does.
We had a perfect spot picked out for them. Frank cut down a bunch of sumac trees, and we built a paddock around that area. It’s on the side of a hill (as are most things here), close to the barn, so the Pyrs can help protect them.
We had 36″ welded wire fence, 100 feet of it. We dug a trench that around 6 inches deep. We put in the crate that we brought them home in by a bunch of brush where they can hide, and hopefully burrow, building the start of their nest. The theory was that they’d be bred when we brought them home and would kindle a few weeks after we got them.
The theory was to let them out for limited amounts of time after a bit, with a pop hole out the side of their paddock. Then, see how it goes. There was lots of good eating out there, more than our birds can handle, and we have a LOT of birds.
Funny how things never turn out like we planned. (Suprise!) They dug out from under the fence we’d spent so much time burying in about 2.2 seconds. Luckily, they stuck around. My biggest fear in the early days is that the Pyrs would eat them. Both Maggie and Buffy considered them intruders, not part of our farm, and would give the alarm call that sounded just like the bear alarm every time they’d spot them. That was unnerving, and no matter how much I mocked the Pyrs, it went on for MONTHS.
Really, though, that was my fault. If you are a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan, you’ll understand why I named them Anya and Halfrek, two vengeance demons. It still makes me giggle. We call them Anya and Hallie. But it should be no surprise that Buffy and Maggie don’t trust the little beasts — demons! Run for your life! There’s an entire verse on bunnies and a little throw away line at the end of “I’ve got a theory” … except for bunnies! Anyway, it makes me laugh. Anya would be proud.
The Pyrs are over it at this point, and the bunnies hang around with the chickens and turkeys, just like I planned. I got them used to the Red Scoop of Joy, and they show up a couple of times a day for some grain, or at least they did all through the grazing season. Anya likes to be cuddled, but Hallie only likes to snuggle with me, along my legs or back, NO TOUCHING, which is fine. They are adorable. If we pass out the stale bread that I bring home from work a couple of times a week, the birds will announce BREAD!!!, and the bunnies come running. They also have been foraging on all of the windfall apples in the orchard, berries from the blackberry bushes, and they love rosehips, too.
Unfortunately, either they weren’t bred when we got them, or the litter didn’t survive. I saw nest building, pulling hair, etc., all signs that she was bred, but we never saw babies. They have burrows all over the place. We see the entrance and exit holes on the sides of hills. So the babies would have been born below ground, but eventually, they would have come out of the burrow, and that never happened. They might have been too young to be bred, and we’ll just try again. In the meantime, they are basically pets.
Now that cold weather has set in, and there is no more forage in the pastures, they show up in the barn stall where the grain and hay is kept for meals. I’m not sure what they are doing for water. I used to see them drinking out of the wading pools that we have for the geese and ducks, which gave me extra incentive to keep those clean and fresh. But those are long gone because the water froze, so I’m not sure what they are doing for water. There is no snow on the ground yet to use, but I bet they have some source somewhere, because they ignore what we provide in the barn.
So because we haven’t had any babies, we haven’t had any rabbit to feed to the dogs or to us, but I’ve been able to manage to access other rabbits for those uses. I found a breeder culling about 40 of her stock that I went down to pick up near Peterborough. Frank got a quick lesson in how to slaughter rabbits, and the Icelandic Sheepdogs in particular thought raw rabbit was all that and more. That was at the end of Disa’s pregnancy and early puppy days. It’s sort of amazing what a pack of puppies will do to a carcass. All of that tug of war behavior that puppies exhibit is put to great use. They really go to town.
I also traded one of our turkeys for an equivalent amount of fresh rabbit meat last week, so we now know exactly how yummy American Blue Rabbits are for human consumption. One word: divine! I made Lapin à la moutarde, or Rabbit in Mustard Sauce, for dinner last night and it came out simply wonderful. I used a roasted garlic mustard and a bunch of mushrooms in the sauce because I am incapable of leaving a recipe alone. Other than that, though, I followed the basic Joy of Cooking version, very similar to this one. (Trying to think of what else I did different — cooked the noodles in the broth for a while, used some black trumpet mushrooms, used duck fat instead of olive oil, raw milk cream, and turkey stock because I had some that didn’t fit in the pressure canner the other day.) Anyway, YUM!
So now our decision is whether to get a buck of our own or take the girls over to be bred again, now that they are older, and their burrows are complete. I’ve heard worrying things about keeping a buck ourselves, but that might just be my prejudice against most male critters. They always seem to be a pain in the ass. Everyone is telling me that there is no need to wait for Spring, that they’ll do fine having babies in the winter because their burrow will be above freezing, and they have all the food they need. There’s no hurry, though. I’ve got a bunch of rabbit in the freezer for us, at least, and the dogs have lots of frozen cockerels for now. We are doing another batch of cockerels at Christmas when we do the waterfowl.
Our conclusion about rabbits is that we really like them! We will definitely be figuring out how to get these two girls bred somehow, and I just love having them around in the pastures and barns with the birds. They even get along with the cat! Tara is often out hanging with her bunny buddies and it’s just too cute for words.