Backyard Rabbit Keeping, Part 5/15 – Housing
The way in which your rabbits are housed depends on your preference and also on whether you have a garden or a field. I think that it is better to let rabbits graze if you can, but if you have only concrete outside, their greenfood will need to be gathered for them, and they will have to live in conventional hutches.
Keeping rabbits in a field will give you a lot of problems however. Some people run rabbits in a fenced enclosure like a miniature Norman warren during the summer months. The netting has to be buried at least six inches under the soil or they will be out in no time. And there are other problems such as foxes and outbreaks of fighting. It is pleasant to keep animals in natural conditions, but giving them a chance to fight each other without enough room for the loser to go away, as would happen in nature, is not a good idea. The same applies to shelter. You can leave an animal in a field without shelter and call it natural conditions, but a wild animal has a much bigger territory and can choose its position according to the weather and the direction of the wind. Having said all this, if you have a bunch of young rabbits of the same age, some netting and pleasant weather, the colony system would perhaps work well for a while.
There is a compromise, which allows the rabbits to graze but restricts their freedom. This is called the Morant Hutch, and if you have a patch of grass, an orchard or a lawn, this is the system for you, in the summer at any rate.
The Morant Hutch is a sort of ark with a covered part for sleeping and a run. Usually the floor of the run is covered with wire netting so that the rabbits can graze the grass through the wire, but they are unable to start digging holes, or escape if the ground is uneven. This fold unit (grazing like this is called ‘folding’) can be dragged onto a fresh patch of grass every day. In the grazing season much of their food can be provided this way. If you have a field you can fold rabbits for most of the year, but if it is a lawn they are grazing it should be rested in winter.
The wartime books about rabbit keeping tell us that you can make rabbit hutches yourself with no previous experience of woodwork; but then, it was an emergency after all! There were more wooden packing cases then than there are now, which helped a lot. Our family has always made things from wood like this, but then my father had qualifications in woodwork so this was no problem. But if you have any idea of carpentry at all, a hutch must be about the easiest thing to make.
A sample Morant Hutch is 7 ft long overall, with a roofed-in sleeping section of 2 ft 6 in. Inside this will be a wooden floor. The roof can extend over the grazing area as well; it is usually weather boarded or covered with roofing felt. It is very important to keep rabbits dry and snug, with no draughts in the sleeping quarters. The hut is 3 ft wide at the bottom, but the dimensions can be varied.
One advantage is that it requires no cleaning out. You just move on and leave the droppings to manure the grass. Ideally the rabbits should not go over the same ground twice in a season, but if they are keeping the lawn trimmed they will need to graze it more often. In this case scatter lime lightly over the grass immediately after each grazing.
If you have no grass at all, hutches will have to do. For a backyard unit I think outdoor hutches are the best; but if there is a poultry house or garage available, there may be ad-vantages to putting them inside it. A light, airy shed with good ventilation is suitable but a poky, dark one is not.
We have found that rabbits do well inside or out. You are less at the mercy of the weather inside a shed – it takes fortitude to clean out the hutches with the rain trickling down your neck. A shed also protects the stock from extremes of heat and cold. But well-made outdoor hutches can be very good and you can always choose your day for mucking out!
Outdoor hutches need to be protected from the weather and so the roof should have projecting eaves at front and back to keep off the rain and it should be completely weatherproof. The wind is a problem because it changes direction, but try to put outdoor hutches in a sheltered corner. You may not have a great deal of choice of site. But I would still make the point that anybody can produce their own rabbit meat, even in the smallest of backyards. If the rabbits are exposed to fierce sun all day in summer they will be distressed, but you can always rig up some sort of awning to keep off the sun at its strongest. In Spring and Autumn the sun will do them good. The hutches should have a front which is part netting, part solid wood so that the rabbits can shelter behind the solid part if they wish.
Free Rabbit Hutch Plans:
Rabbits can still be happy in hutches if you have no land. Many people let them hop about for a change in a corner of the yard when they can spare the time to look after them. They can run about under the hutches – outdoor hutches should be raised off the ground on legs.
Commercial rabbit keepers, who have their hutches in-doors, can lengthen the daylight artificially in winter so that there is no slowing up of breeding. They also keep the temperature at about 15 deg C. Backyard producers need not worry if the number of litters per year is rather below commercial standards, so it’s not worth putting up a special building for your rabbits. In fact, rabbits should be healthier out-side; one of the problems of large-scale indoor rabbit keeping is getting the ventilation right, with consequent respiratory troubles if you don’t succeed. The ammonia in the urine can give off fumes in a confined space.
When you are deciding what sort of hutches to build or buy, space, comfort and cleanliness all need to be considered. A doe and litter will need about 8 sq ft, say 4 x 2 ft, or more for the larger breeds. With a big enough hutch, the litter can be left with the doe for a little longer without overcrowding and this can be useful sometimes. If you have a small area of grass, the doe could be kept in an outdoor hutch and the young ones after weaning could be ‘folded’ on the grass.
Tiers of hutches mean more outlay but are cheaper individually because they share walls. There is one advertised at E40 for a tier of three. Be sure you are buying outdoor quality housing, built for the job; there are cheaper, flimsy cages and wire ones made specifically for indoor rabbits. It is impossible to estimate how cheaply you could make one yourself as it depends on what materials you can get hold off. Study several types before building your own.
Many breeders now use wire cages for indoor hutches because they are easier to clean. Wood may be more difficult to disinfect, but it is far warmer and essential for outdoor rabbits. For this reason I prefer wooden housing. Exterior grade plywood, 1/2 in thick, covered externally with felt is what we bought for making hutches when there was no second hand wood available.
Likewise, wooden floors make for more cleaning out, as wire cages have neat droppings trays. But I think rabbits prefer solid floors and they are much warmer. Wire-floor enthusiasts remind me that rabbits can get soiled on wooden floors, which soak up moisture to a certain extent, and this can lead to sore hocks. This can be true and it is very un-pleasant. But I would rather clean them out more often than change to wire, which can also make their feet sore some-times.
If your floors are wet and the rabbits get dirty, try a change of bedding material. Clean them out more often – or make a toilet for the rabbit in one corner! My father, rem-embers rabbit toilets being suggested many years ago and a recent article in Fur and Feather suggested them again. They consist of a wire-covered hole in the floor, under which is a plastic box to catch the effluent. To begin with, you scatter droppings in the box and round the hole to give the rabbit the idea. Some rabbits apparently use the toilet and their bedding lasts much longer.
What sort of bedding is best? There are several possibilities and you can buy bedding, but I would try to get hold of a free supply somewhere! Sawdust is quite good, but can get into the babies’ eyes – wood shavings are rather better. Straw could possibly be exchanged with a farmer for garden produce or meat; or you could make hay in the summer from dried grass and weeds. If it was really good, fine hay it would be best to use it for food, but anything you make which is not too nutritious could be used for bedding. Fine dried grass is the best thing for the nest box.
So much for the floor. The front of the hutch can be hinged, and also grooved so that the whole front lifts out when you want to clean the hutch. There is nothing worse than trying to clean out a hutch through a small door, watched by an uncooperative rabbit. The wire should be nailed to the inside of the door to stop the rabbits gnawing at the wooden corners. Cleaning out, if your rabbits have no toilets, is best done with an old-fashioned coal rake and fire shovel, or similar implements. A three sided modern scraper will cost you a few dollars.
Nest boxes are needed for doe hutches. These used to be made from margarine boxes, but goods are shipped in card-board now instead of useful wood. If you can find a box about 15 in square you can cut a doorway in it, 6 in wide for the doe to enter. Some people nail the box to 2 in runners so that the bottom is raised off the floor of the hutch; they can then drill holes in the corners of the nest box for drainage.
Other hutch furniture you will need; a hay rack which saves hay by keeping it off the floor. One inch mesh wire netting is stapled like a pouch onto a square of 1/2 in boarding.
This can be detachable, having a hole drilled in the back by which it is hung from a nail in the hutch. You can then take it out to fill it up.
Feeding dishes and drinking bowls need not be elaborate but watch to see that they are big enough. Glazed earthenware pots sold for cats and dogs will do and they are easy to clean. We used to make wooden troughs for mash, the rabbits gnawed at them but it did them no harm.
Rabbits need a lot of water, especially milking does and in hot weather. Wild rabbits seem to drink little water, but they usually have a choice of succulent foods. With dry foods more water will be needed and with swedes, less. But clean water should always be available. Little pots are not realistic, especially if you are out at work all day and only see the rabbits morning and night. Pet shops supply a plastic bottle which is upended, with a nozzle which goes into the pen through the wire. The bottle is fastened to the outside of the pen. Rabbits use these happily, they prevent fouling of the water and you can see at a glance whether more is needed. Although I am keeping equipment down to a minimum for our backyard rabbits, I feel that this is an item which would be worth buying. A more solid kind of drinker we have made from a large bottle inverted over a shallow tray, with the mouth under water like a poultry drinker. The poultry equipment firm of Eltex also market one of these. The bottle is supported by wire.
An adult rabbit will drink up to half a pint a day. A heavily pregnant doe will need her pint, and when the litter is born, they are drinking and she is producing milk, the family can account for up to a gallon of water a day in hot weather.
It is an unpleasant fact of life that where you are keeping rabbits, or poultry, or pigs, the food about is likely to attract rats. Thus it is best to keep foods such as bran or oats in bins with tight lids. This also prevents contamination by cats or dogs, which is important. Tape worms can be carried to rabbits in the droppings of infected cats and dogs and also the fleas which spread the dreaded myxomatosis could just have migrated to a cat or dog from a dead rabbit.
To discourage rats, keep hutches a few inches clear of the wall and keep the whole place as clear of rubbish as possible so that there are no hiding places. Once you have rats it is very difficult to get rid of them.
- Why Why Keep Rabbits?
- Rabbits Past and Present
- Some Basic Information
- Making a Start
- Growing Crops for Rabbits
- Harvesting the Wild Rabbits
- The Harvest
- Using Rabbit Meat
- Fur Production