Monday, September 14, 2009

Rabbit on the menu

Breeding rabbits for meat in Alice Springs is not a straightforward thing. Rabbits hate the heat and although they live here in the wild, they live in nice cool burrow systems. The meat rabbit breeds are also appreciably larger than your average field rabbit – and because of this extra sized would find it a bit harder to keep cool.
The old Greek man who bought my first rabbits off in Adelaide warned me. “you need to have a new male each year – they die of heart attack in the hot weather”.
He was pretty close to right – I did manage to get one male through two summers but he was touch and go and very crusty at times (ants trying to eat his genetalia). I had to nurse him through several bouts of heat.
The females seem to fair better – maybe due to being smaller and carrying less fat (the fat goes in the breast milk).
Luckily I have located one lady who breed meat rabbits in Alice and we can swap offspring to keep our breeding genetics strong.

Why to I keep rabbits?
They are in my blood I suppose. I grew up trapping shooting and eating rabbits and my grandad would also process them for sale in pubs. We were eating rabbit all the time – especially when we went to granddads. He would even smoke little ones in his home smoker. Once grandad got too old he kept a few wild rabbits which he would breed up in cages in his back yard. As he became less active in the vegie patch he turned the garden over to Lucerne for the rabbits. Grandad’s brother also keeps rabbits now at 80 plus years old.

During our travels in Europe rabbits kept popping up. In Italy they were always on the menu and we once mistakenly stopped by what we thought was a rustic old bakery with all the bread lined up outside. It turned out that the residents of the town would stop by on their way down the hill and throw out their stale bread to feed the rabbits which were stacked up inside in cages.
In Switzerland the brother of our friend in alice bred rabbits because meat was so expensive in that country.

Rabbits are also a good part of a sustainable system. There are a lot of tings rabbits will ravenously devour that chickens tend to ignore. Big lumps of carrots, cabbage, bread. They will eat all of your broccoli plants that are going to seed including the roots. In short they help to use up more household waste and turn it into useful manure.
You can also feed them a range of garden plants. Saltbush is a favourite and they seem to like all types. Eremophila longifolia is also favoured. I am trying to grow some tagasaste for them as well because of its high protein content.
My friend in Naracoorte fed his rabbits almost completely from Tagasaste (tree Lucerne) which was available in his area.
Even if you fed rabbits totally from pellets, it would still be cheaper than buying rabbits – significantly cheaper. It is my aim however to source as much of their food as possible from local sources. Each weekend I return from the garden plot with a garbage bin full of weeds and plant waste, of which they happily demolish.

Once you get the animals up to breeding age – which can be 6 months for some breeds – breeding is fairly straightforward. But…there is still management required. This includes having a number of cages. Cages for nesting mothers, lone fathers and babies which need small mesh to contain them. You don’t want 8 young rabbits running around in the same cage as a mother who is about to nest. You also don’t want the father the mate with the mother soon after birth because she can get worn out.
They take about I month to gestate. Close to the time of birth the mother will start moving around material for nesting and she’ll make a down lined nest with the fur pulled from her belly and legs. Once she has the babies she will only feed them a couple of times in a 24hr period and will appear to ignore them the rest of the time. This is so she doesn’t attract predators to the nest – hares also do this.

My last litter had 14 babies and this is about the upper limit. only 13 of these survived and there were a few runts amongst them that didn't get enough milk

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