The task this weekend is to make a pen for them and for the existing Two Mrs Rabbits in a spare corner of the garden. I have been doing some reading around the concept of keeping rabbits in colonies rather than in individual hutches and I have a space that is about twenty four feet by eight feet that would be ideal. To start with, it's in an unused corner of the garden and there are very few plants there to be rabbited. I am very conscious that we have a lovely garden and I want to keep it in good condition. This corner gets over-run with nettles and thistles every spring and I have toyed with various ideas for it. The current hot weather and the obvious discomfort of the New Zealand Whites in their hutches has brought me to colonies.
I have four does and a buck, plus one rescued buck that is being castrated on Tuesday*. In the last twelve months, I have put the two original does in kit three times. They are averaging nine kits per litter, each. The kits can be killed at eight weeks, as 'fryers', where you use the back legs and the rump as you would chicken wings. Or you grow them on until about eighteen or twenty weeks, when they are 'roaster' and can be used for pies or mince. In practice, we are mincing most of ours, because that is the most versatile form of meat if you have small children. Rabbits can kindle pretty much the nano-second they give birth; so clearly I won't be able to keep a buck in with the does and I will have to separate the youngsters out at twelve weeks.
At this point in my research I started to think it was all a bit complicated.
The downside of colonies is that you don't get as up close and personal with the does as you do in hutches; so you don't handle them as much and you don't get to see what condition they are in under their fur. If you keep the bucks and the youngsters in the main colony, you end up with uncontrolled breeding and that is a Bad Thing with any livestock.
On the plus side, the additional space gives the rabbits room to run around, to jump and to keep busy. It's a much more natural and therefore less stressful way of rearing them - and if I am going to rear my own meat, then I need to do it in as humane way as possible. Otherwise I might just as well be buying Tesco two-for-a-fiver chickens.
So my plan is to create what I am hoping will be the best-of-both-worlds. I am going to have a main colony for the does and their kits up to twelve weeks. Then I will have what seem to be called 'grow-out-pens' for the youngsters, with the sexes separated, from twelve to twenty-ish weeks. And my buck will be in a smaller hutch-and-pen setup inside the colony, so he can hang out with the does but not mate them**. Does to be mated can be popped in with him, so I can keep track of who's due to produce when. And poor castrato Bungo will go in with the does as a kind of rabbit eunuch, to provide sherbet and frozen grapes at appropriate intervals.
I can't see myself every wanting more than four does. I wouldn't have ended up with four except these two lovely ladies turned up on one of the facebook groups for rehoming. I am going to put them to our NZxCalifornian buck initially, just to see how they are as mothers; and then I am going to look in to getting a British Giant buck for them and phase out the NZs if the Giants grow to a good killing weight in a reasonable time. Commercial does breed six or even seven litters a year; I don't want to do more than four, probably only three. Having at least two does that kit at roughly the same time is good because you have a foster mother to take over if one has problems. Hand-rearing baby rabbits is a ball-ache and not dreadfully successful.
So there you go. Tomorrow is Colony Construction Day. I will try and remember to document with photos.
I am very much trying to focus on the positives in my life at the moment. I live in a beautiful place. I have beautiful children. My family are extremely supportive and very close by***. I am gardening and raising animals, which is what I have wanted to do since I was at school thirty years ago. I need help to do it effectively currently, but that's okay. It has been a lovely few weeks of summer weather and I am planning a weekend trip out with the children to Big Fun Place which is a spot on Exmoor with a stream and place to picnic. Despite all it's challenges, there is a great deal of positive stuff in my life.
And now I need to go and remove the rabbit from the coffee table and the child from the bath.
* I am using my birthday money to fund this. For my birthday, I am buying a rabbit a castration.
** I will probably need double-wire to ensure that this doesn't happen.
*** Although quirky and emotionally constipated.