Updated: Jan 14, 2021
When I say that we colony raise our rabbits, I frequently get questions about how and why I made that choice. This will be a two part blog answering the most common questions I get around colony raising and why I choose it. The first part will be on the benefits of colony raising, while the second will be on how to create a colony environment.
If you have questions I did not answer, please feel free to leave me a comment and I will answer your question as soon as possible. You can also sign up to be notified when future blog posts come out, and you can find me on Facebook as well.
Please be aware, I have only ever colony raised American Chinchillas, so some of these points may not carry over to other breeds who may be less hardy, more aggressive or have some other trait that does not make colony breeding a good choice.
I became interested in colony raising because I'm interested in keeping animals as close to their healthy, wild natures as possible. I choose heritage breeds because I want animals who can reproduce on their own, raise their own young, are hearty and forage well.
I was intrigued by colony breeding both because I loved the idea of no cages to clean, and because I liked the idea of rabbits living in groups as they do in nature. I also read that rabbits raised in colonies seem to be more social towards their humans.
The benefits to the rabbits was visible almost instantly. The first male I put in a colony immediately began to dig shallow scrapes and in between would do leaps in the air or run a circle around his new home. And when I put the girl lady in with him? You have never seen a rabbit so happy!
I was warned initially when I started that disaster was a major possibility. Stories of males killing kits, females fighting and does killing the kits of other does were a real concern. I took it cautiously, but overall I have found exactly the opposite has been the case. I introduce new rabbits to the colony carefully, and in some cases I do have individual rabbits that I don't feel would do well with the group. In general though, I've been very successful with new introductions.
When I lost a mother rabbit with kits, the other females in the pen who were also nursing immediately took over feeding her young. A young doe with no litter moved in to the box at night and kept them warm. I do keep my males separated most of the time, but I have had babies escape into the pen of my main man, Gomez. In each case, he has simply sniffed noses with them and then laid down so they could get warm next to him.
When I kept bucks with only a single doe, I left them together the whole time she was nursing, and while the male would occasionally show minor interest in them, he never hurt them. Even not that they are older, Gomez shows only passing interest in the boys or the girls. He has actually been housed with young females and continued to only pay attention to the mother doe.
Colony raising also gives rabbits a lot more control over their own comfort. I get a lot of questions about how they cope in the winter, but my rabbits tolerate cold far better than they do heat. Except in the most bitter of weather, they will often be out, playing in the snow and my oldest doe refuses to even drink water during the winter. She eats the snow instead!
Each pen has at least one box and tunnel set up, allowing rabbits to get out of the wind if they wish, or escape from predators. They are buried in order to provide maximum insulation, but the rabbits frequently dig them out and rebury they as they prefer.
My final note for the day is food. We use a lot less of it.
Not only does outdoor living allow the rabbits to snag themselves the occasional leaf or greenery as a pick-me-up-meal, the rabbits simply seem to go through less grain and hay when in colony environments. They waste less for sure - my doe Charlie is still an indoor rabbit and we find several cups of grain in her poop tray every time we clean! We constantly throw hay onto the compost pile that has been pooped on or sat on my rabbits that are tired of wire under their feet.
Also, humans are not the only species to eat more when bored! Rabbits with nothing to explore and no one to play with often run to fat if not carefully controlled. Colony rabbits, however, spend much of their time digging, playing or napping in giant bunny piles.
None of this is to suggest that there are no issues with colony raising, or that things are guaranteed to go perfectly. Some of this is a mater of weighting the pros and cons for your particular situation. Some issues can be dealt with in how your structure is set up.
Stayed tuned for structural pointers!