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 is intended to answer the most common questions I get around colony raising and why I choose it.
Part 1 was around why colony raising is beneficial and Part 2 was about indoor versus outdoor colonies - including the pros and cons of each. If you have not read them yet, I would suggest you start there.
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.
For those of you who have been following this series, you know it was intended to be a duology. Well, good intentions and all that. Even summarizing, there is a lot of information, made complicated by the fact that everyone's circumstances and rabbits will be a little different. I have attempted to keep my comments general in order to accommodate all of the possibilities and invite people to message me if they have questions about their personal set up.
It is important, at least for many, to see how general rules can be applied in a specific way, however. So, for my final (promise!) installment I will be discussing how we created our own set up and why we made the choices we did. Hopefully this will give everyone a better idea of how my earlier comments work in a practical setting.
As previous mentioned, we chose, first and foremost, to go with an outdoor setting. There were a number of reasons for this. We want to raise out rabbits in as natural a manner as is possible, we had a large, open space that would work well for it, and we didn't have the time or money to build a new structure right after closing on a house. In addition, an outdoor structure allowed us to start small with our existing rabbits, and expand as we decided it was necessary.
Initially, our plan was to turn an old chicken run in to our rabbit run, flipping it over so that the wire on the top became the floor, preventing escapee rabbits. Each panel was 16' long, meaning a good sized area. However, we were halfway through our move when CoVid hit, and only two of the panels made it over before we had to put things on hold for several weeks. So, we adapted.
Hardwood saplings from our woods replaced the pine supports from the panels on two sides. We were lucky that we had stockpiled wire (though not originally for this purpose) and lightweight chicken wire was run over the saplings. In all likelihood, our sapling jury-rig will outlast the original panels!
As a side note, past experience has told us that using wire that is too sturdy is actually detrimental, because living outdoors makes for stronger rabbits. Strong, determined males can and will climb a fence to get to a female! We do run a run a finer, stronger wire around the bottom of the fence, two feet high, to prevent curious babies from getting outside the pen as well.
Each pen has at least one box-and-run set up included. The more rabbits, the more boxes. Since the males are alone, they get smaller boxes so that their body heat can more easily keep them warm in the winter. Females get larger boxes, and often sleep in bunny, piles unless someone has a litter. If a female is about to give birth, she clears the box of her choice of other rabbits and takes it over for herself. Since American Chinchillas can have litters of 12-14, the box also will be big enough to allow her and her brood to grow comfortably.
We bring in sand to cover the floor and to bury the box and the tunnel for insulation. We have discovered that during the summer, the rabbits will often dig it out and dig under the tunnel to allow more airflow and cool things off. We also fill the box with hay regularly. The rabbits will move it around as they wish, and this both gives them a nest, and keeps the hay dry if it rains. When the hay level drops too much, we toss in another flake!
We picked up several more rabbits this year, which resulted in a lot of expansion. The young rabbits were all placed together in a new run that was made out of the last two panels - finally transported over! - and some used dog panels we picked up on the cheap. The two new boys were give their own, smaller areas on the other side, again made out of a leftover panel and dog fencing.
While this looks like a rather sprawling commune, there is a method to the madness. First, this long pen is creating a natural barrier between my male and female goats for the winter. The goats, in turn, are acting as a layer of predator protection for the rabbits. Also, there are strategically placed doors between buck and doe areas to make for easy breeding come spring time. When a female is introduced into the males pen, it is both a familiar area, and a familiar buck she has seen before. So far it has made mating so much easier.
The new boy pens were difficult because the ground began to slope, making it hard to run wire in a way that wouldn't result in it just floating off the ground. Enter: pallets. Free pallets really should be added to the list of life's necessities with WD-40 and Duck Tape. Is there nothing the three of these things can't fix! We place a few on the low end to straighten things out a little and then ran the wire over them
Of course, dirt still falls through the slats, so a layer of mulch hay makes for a more stable surface before adding the rabbit box and the sand to complete the new boy-play area. Eventually this will likely decompose, and we will need more dirt, but it allows us to get the new boys outside and used to their new digs before the weather turns nasty. At least we hope so! They are not out yet, so we will keep an eye on them to make sure they adapt.
One final note: I get asked about the tunnels a lot. They are made out of pieces of corrugated piping, screwed to the hole in the boxes. I have used both 8" piping with a few holes punched in the bottom for drainage, and larger dimensions cut in half lengthwise. since buying it new is expensive, we use what we can find for free or cheap.
The tunnel has several purposes. It allows the rabbits to feel safer and gives them a quicker escape if an overhead predator flies by. It keeps the wind out of the box during very cold winter days. And, possibly most importantly! It makes it harder for wiggly, inquisitive baby rabbits to make it all the way out of the nest before they are caught and put back. When cage raising, I have lost many a baby to ending up on the cage floor, or even out of the cage completely. When colony raising, I have - so far - never lost a baby rabbit to an accident.
By no means has any of this been to say that colony raising is perfect. It is another option that has worked well for us, and for our rabbits. We have still lost rabbits, though fewer than when cage raising. There are still dangers when colony raising, from predators, disease and that one rabbit who refuses to get along with others. Again, these are risks we do our best to watch for and overcome, but currently they are not enough of a risk for us to revert to cages. We also understand that, for those with only a few rabbits and no plans to breed, colony raising rabbits may be simply impractical.
For us, it works.
New rabbits being introduced to the colony and meeting their new litter mates