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 this is the second part of a two part blog answering the most common questions I get around colony raising and why I choose it. The first part was on the benefits of colony raising, while this part 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 them as soon as possible. Others may have the same questions, so it will hopefully benefit everyone! You can also sign up to be notified when future blog posts come out, Contact Me or 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.
Well all, I tried. My plan had been for this to be a two part article - no more. However, after having written and re-written this several times, with more questions coming in regularly, I've realized that summarizing everything into one blog post has about as much chance of happening as George Martin completing Song of Ice and Fire by next month.
Bonus internet points if you can honestly post that you got that joke!
So, today's post will be a summary of types of colonies. The design of a rabbit colony is a very individualized choice and depends on large part on what you have for rabbits, predators and plans. Next (and final! I promise!) post I will talk about the set up we have on our Homestead, it's actual structure and how we developed it from the ground up.
FYI - this one is still going to be long. Go make some tea - we'll wait!
One of the major questions I get about colony raising is predators - especially aerial ones. If you have the space, and easy way to overcome this is to have an indoor colony. While people tend to think of rabbits colonies as being out of doors, with the right set up you can combine the best of both worlds by having an indoor colony. This provides you with the temperature control and predator proofing of cage-raising, while keeping the mental health support and social benefits of colony raising.
Depending on the space, this can be simply a matter of dumping a lot of dirt into a barn, making certain does have boxes or other structures to have litters in and plenty of food and water. I have never used this method personally, and it seems to work best for those not worried with blood lines or anything other than raising meat rabbits. One can go through and pull what is needed for "freezer camp" a couple times a year, and otherwise the rabbits will do what rabbits do! (Yes, these are shots of Wednesday - our doe - attempting to mount a rooster)
This also has the added benefit of coming with a built in floor. One of the difficult parts of colony raising can be escapist-rabbits and the adults' chosen method of escape if often down. A preexisting floor will guarantee they can only go so far, and solid walls will prevent (hopefully) baby escapes as well.
We have never done indoor colony breeding here but the major downside I can see to this method is that rabbits need sunshine. Rabbits' ears - when exposed to sunlight - produce an oil on their ears, which they then lick off that provides them with Vitamin D. Keeping rabbits indoors all the time, whether in a cage or colony, deprives them of this and results in the need for an artificial alternative. This is true even in a well-lit area, unless lighting is done with UV lights.
In addition, since we chose American Chinchillas - in part - because of their endangered status, bloodlines are important. We want to be able to guarantee future feeders. We want to have the options to register, show and sell kits, and that means separating out our males. The designer's intention certainly needs to play a large part in how this would be set up.
Finally, rabbits poop a lot. If you have tidy rabbits that all go in the same corner, shoveling it out once a week doesn't seem like such a bad thing. However, if they are less neat, or you have litters who haven't yet been potty trained by their mothers, that can mean shoveling out a large area quite frequently.
Since we did not have the spacing for an indoor colony (and probably most don't) we elected to go with an outdoor colony. This not only could be built on the cheap, but allowed us to start small and expand as our plans did.
Outdoor colonies may be less secure then their counterparts, but they do allow for more creativity. Floors can be anything from wire to concrete. At one point we looked at a house with an in-ground, fenced in pool that needed major work in order to be a pool again. I immediately announced that if we bought the house we could fill it will dirt and release rabbits into it. It had a secured floor, secure walls and would have held a lot of rabbits.
Outdoor colonies do not have to be constrained by a specific size building - your rabbit collection can be as big or small as you wish. You can modify your flooring based on how dry or wet your ground is. It can be placed closer or further from the house, and can grown along with your rabbit colony.
It is also adjustable from a safety standpoint. If you have aerial predators, try to place it under trees for cover. You can adjust the material of your walls to deal with issues from other predators, whether it be good quality welded wire to keep out fox or cinder blocks to keep out a bear! You can also help the rabbits help themselves against predators but giving them more or less underground space and lots of place to hide.
A word to the wise: Always build your fences higher than you think you need then if using welded wire. We chose to build separate areas for males and females except when we wanted to breed them. They could see, smell and play with each other, but not mate. Except that rabbits raise in colonies have the ability to run and jump and play, which makes them far less fat and far more muscular than the average cage-raised rabbit. We learned this when Gomez muscled his way over a four foot fence to be with his lovely Morticia one year - and that was how we got our doe Wednesday!
Rabbits also do relatively well with other animals around as long as there are also rabbits. Our guineas frequently fly over their fence for short periods to say hello, and we used to intentionally keep chickens with the rabbits to clean the cages for us. Our rabbit pen is also the divider between our male and female goat areas, and while the rabbits don't seem to be fond of the noisy neighbors, they have settled in quickly. In fact, the goats play a dual role as an added layer of protection for the rabbits, since our boys are never going to allow a raccoon or fox to go strolling through!
The biggest issues - at least based on our experience - will not be older rabbits escaping, it will be the babies. They are inquisitive even from an early age and will sometimes escape the nest before their eyes are even open. It is important to remember that is a rabbit's head will fit through an opening, so will the rest of it, so it is important to make certain that the first foot or so of the walls are completely baby-proofed.
Whether you choose an indoor or outdoor space will depend on your own needs for security and simplicity versus flexibility and creativity. And, of course, whether you have an indoor space available! Either way, you will have the benefit of happy, well-socialized rabbits.
Stay tuned for Part 3!