The potential of the new year feels quite strong around the spring equinox – fruit trees in bloom, as well as native Indian Plum, and the world is greening up! With all that potential comes the enactment of plans to better our systems – specifically the rabbitat.
Rabbitat [rab – i – tat ]
the rabbits’ habitat, normally of human design, in which multiple rabbits live together in a colony setting
One of the biggest problems we’ve read about when researching colony style rabbit raising is disease build up in the soil. When the rabbits live in the same area, on a dirt floor no less, parasites and other disease can become a real issue. One way we’ve thought about mitigating this problem is the relatively simple task of moving the rabbitat to a new location every year. I don’t think the runs need to be in a new location, as a variety of plants are grown there multiple times a year, but we moved the runs as well.
When I say relatively simple, that makes it sound a whole lot easier than it actually was! Luckily I had the willing help of four interns who are staying at a friend’s farm, and one of my sisters (and a dolly!). The rabbitat was not built to be moved. As much as that was the idea (keeping the dimensions 4×8 feet so it could fit on a trailer), it is much too heavy to be considered a portable structure. I’m not sure how to remedy that for future designs, but one way may be to not use shingles on the roof, but rather metal or pvc roofing panels.
The new location was very not level, and, as the doors act funny when the house sits crookedly, I leveled it before anyone was here to help move.
We bought a 5-foot wide, 100-foot long roll of general purpose (2″x4″) fencing. I cut a length 9-feet long for the ground beneath the rabbitat. This time I made sure to have the wires running perpindicular to the door on top of the wires running parallel. This will (hopefully) make scraping with the hoe or flat shovel easier, with much less getting caught on the wire!
Laying Out the Runs
Using most of the rest of the 5-foot wide roll of general purpose fencing, I cut three 25-foot lengths (erring on the side of a couple inches more rather than being short). I put these lengths, where they overlapped, underneath the ground piece, ensuring that all the cut ends were pointing down, into the ground. These three lengths ran parallel to each other, creating some space between the ground piece and the run pieces, which I filled in with some lengths scavenged from the old runs.
At this point, help arrived, and we started dismantling the old runs. Most of it was salvageable, but a few sections (most notably the gates) of the stucco wire were beyond scavenging, except for individual strands of wire.
Moving the Rabbitat
The six of us had a bit of trouble moving this hunk of a structure at first (it may have been easier to clean it out first, you can see the pile of litter behind us), but, once we got a rhythm going, it didn’t take long. It was super heavy, though.
Setting up the Runs
We have the runs a lot bigger this time round. The last runs were approximately 10′ wide and 20 feet long. These runs are about 15′ wide and 30′ long. The run immediately in front of the photo is made of new fencing, and the run at the back and to the left is salvaged stucco wire from the previous run. We got some pieces of cedar lumber from a friend and used them as fence posts. They aren’t the strongest, but they will work for keeping the rabbits in. We had a few lengths of livestock fencing laying around the property, from before we moved here, and used them for the perimeter. Then we started the tedious detail work of attaching 1/2″ chicken wire to that fence to keep the rabbits from just hopping out (this took an obscene amount of time – two to four people working at least 6 hours!).
Once we were fairly certain the fence was rabbit proof, we released the beasts! They had three or four days with access to all the grass in the runs, giving us a bit of a break before we had to deal with more fencing.
The original plan was to divide each run into three, giving us a run for almost every day of the week to rotate the rabbits through. By the time we got to setting up the inside runs though, we were very tired of messing around with fencing, and only divided each run into two. We’ve been using this system for a week now, two days per run, and it seems to grow back to a couple inches tall. Hopefully this will carry on through the season!
What a Year Looks Like
While we were setting up the runs, the rabbits were in temporary ‘storage’ on our cement pathway leading to the back door, inside cold frames stacked upon each other. We burnt cedar and white sage inside the rabbitat, hoping to smoke out any lingering diseases, or at least to cleanse it in some fashion. We washed the shelves while they were removed from the rabbitat, and washed the walls and frame with oxygen bleach. You can see how much the rabbits chew at the inner frame! Future structures will probably be boarded up on the inside with plywood, leaving no surface to chew at (hopefully!).
In the future, before laying out the ground fencing for the runs, mowing the lawn pretty short would be a good idea. The fencing allowed some grass through, but most of it was flattened beneath the fence. This didn’t bother the rabbits too much, they just dug at the fence to release more greens, and, eventually, the grass should grow with no hindrance.
Winter is still going to be a problem. Mucky feet was a big problem for us this past winter, and we’re not sure what to do to remedy the situation besides locking them all up in individual cages, as per standard rabbit raising. We’re thinking of gathering leaves and hay and spreading it 6-12″ deep in a couple of the runs. The only problem I can see is this preventing the grass from growing back in the early spring, but then the rabbits would be preventing the growth of that grass.
We plan on building a hay dispenser inside the rabbitat, to hold the hay and hopefully lower our usage. The slats will be made of fruit tree branches (high in tannins, supposedly good against coccidiosis), and will be replaced as the rabbits chew them up.
We’re planning various forage species to plant around the perimeter of the runs, leaning heavily on this resource. Mint, deadnettle (a native plant that’s popping up everywhere in the garden!), raspberries, lemonbalm, nasturtium, cucumber, swiss chard, and malabar spinach are high on the list! We will be making a bamboo trellis arching over the runs as well, for the vining species (nasturtium, cucumber, and beans), giving shade from our hot summers, and more protection from aerial predators – as well as being aesthetically pleasing!
The runs themselves might be replaced with a variety of species known to be good forage or high protein – perhaps birdsfoot trefoil, fenugreek, wheat, rye, barley, peas, clover, and whatever else we discover along the way.
Stay tuned to see what the seasons bring!
What forage do you feed your rabbits?