Whether you are considering raising rabbits or have made the commitment, congratulations! I applaud anyone looking for ways to become more self-sufficient and those looking into Colony life for rabbits, even for pet or show rabbits, are choosing something less conventional and more humane!
- What is a Rabbit Colony?
A colony is an area that is designated for rabbits to live in a social community. Rabbit communities are not just for meat rabbits, many also have them for show and pet rabbits. Rabbits are very social animals and benefit from living in groups.
- Why build a colony
Colonies are a humane way to raise rabbits versus the conventional way of small cages and hutches. Having a certain type of colony could reduce feed costs. Colonies usually require less work and are fun to watch.
- Where do I start?
Colonies vary as much as their owners, they can be indoors, outdoors, or both, they can be housed or completely free, they can be all does, bucks and does and some have grow out areas, they can house rabbits and chickens, they can be ground level or built to let droppings fall… the options continue, but you are here to figure out what is best for you. To get the ideas rolling, check out the different pictures below all sent to me by others, and to submit yours post a photo, brief description on my Facebook page page or if you would like to remain anonymous visit one of my pages and send me a message.
To start you need to know what you are zoned for and while I am not saying break the laws, if you know you are not zoned for rabbits, having them out in the open won’t be a good idea. Assuming you have an idea of how many breeding rabbits you will need, know you will need a bare minimum of 10 square feet of space per rabbit, and I would say if you can go bigger, do so, you will not regret it! Next, I would consider your climate. Does it get really hot, really cold or really rainy, these are things that will come into play. Lastly, do you have predators…the answer is yes, as a raccoon, snakes and neighbor’s dogs are all potential predators and that will need to be planned for as well.
The above is the short list of considerations, there will be more, each colony is unique with unique issues, as the colony pictures above show, but to begin with, lets dive into my colony and then go over the pro’s and cons of some of the options.
Our Garage Colony
To produce the rabbit meat I need for my family, we require 3 does, 1 buck and the minimum of 40 square feet. If you are like me and have kids and dogs and limited space, that may be all that you can spare for the rabbits. I live in a home that is 110 years old, our garage was an add on in the 50’s and is so very small housing a van was really out of the question. When considering our rabbit colony we decided the attached garage would work great. It is attached to the house, saving us from wading thru the snow, it wouldn’t take away yard that is used for our kids, dogs and garden and it can be easily heated and cooled. We built an enclosure in the garage that is 7’x7′ with additional 16 square feet of space that is vertical, meaning places that they can hop up to from the ground level, giving me a total of 65 square feet. We could probably have 5 does and a buck but the highest I would probably go is 4 does and a buck, simply because the more space, the happier the does, meaning more babies and that is the plan!
Given our particular situation, we chose the garage, it gets natural light, we are never far and we are able to cool it with an air conditioner during the 2 really hot months and heat it during the 2 really cold months. Opening the garage and having a fan circulates the air and we still have space in our garage for other items. We also added a 2’x7′ grow out pen that houses the older kits between about 10 weeks and butchering, earlier if main area is getting crowded. However, my situation might not be for you.
Using a Shed or Similar Structure
If like me, you live in town I would assume there are regulations on housing your rabbits, but unlike me, you might need and use your garage or maybe you have a lot of space but aren’t keen on just letting your rabbits run your land. Setting up a shed or outside space or maybe a combination of both might be a good option for you, what is important is that you do so with your rabbits in mind. Rabbits like to dig and chew. Setting up an enclosure outside, regardless if you live on a spacious farm or a town lot, will require the thought that your rabbits will do all they can to get out. If considering a shed, light, air flow, extreme temps and the ability to escape are things to think about and I would consider adding a fenced in outside area attached to the shed, allowing them to go from shed to the outdoors freely, giving them an area like a dog run.
Whether you have a shed you want to convert or are considering building one, the floor is the major concern. You can not just leave a dirt floor, your rabbits will dig 2 feet down and then tunnel right out of there. The best way I have seen this handled was in an article in Grit Barnyard Series, Guide to Backyard Rabbits, written by Luilla P. Thompson, where she spread 6 inches of gravel over the dirt floor, covered it with corrugated tin sheets, leaving 1/4 inch of space around the edges of each sheet for drainage and anchoring the tin sheets with large spikes, then covering it with 12 inches of straw. Another way that might work would be to cover the dirt floor with hardware cloth, which is stainless steel, bringing edges up onto the walls of the shed about 4 inches, stapling to the wall and then sandwiching the cloth between the shed wall and a 2×4 that you screw or nail into the shed studs, to which you could top with dirt. Another option would be to put your shed on a concrete slab, which would require some wood shavings, hay and a weekly cleaning out.
Adding a Rabbit Run or Building a Complete Outdoor Enclosure
To add an attached outdoor area or to build complete outdoor structure, I would dig about 6 inches down in the entire space, dig an additional 2 feet and concrete in support posts (4×4 wood posts or posts for chain link fences) around the perimeter of the area every 4-10 feet depending on enclosure material, lay chicken wire over the ground in the entire area (stapling to the wood posts or pulling over chain link posts), next I would attach the outer material, either chain link fencing which I would concrete in all the way around or hardware cloth which I would staple to the wood posts, replace the dirt and add a hole from the shed into the rabbit run, this could be an actual hole or a manufactured cat or dog door.
Height, a gate and a covering to prevent hawks, raccoons or cats would be some things to consider. Getting in is important and whether you add a gate or have a walk-thru shed to the enclosure, is simply a matter of form and function, but make sure you consider an opening big enough for a wheelbarrow. Regarding height, you might think you will not go in the rabbit run or enclosure much and walking bent over in a structure a foot shorter than yourself would be fine, however, you will go in there more than you think and it is better to build it to suite your height. Enclosing the top is a must and if you don’t you will lose rabbits, adding chicken wire or hardware cloth to the top and securing should be plenty.
Additional things to consider are snakes, I do not live in an area that really has an issue with this and do not feel qualified to comment too much on them, but if you live in an area where snakes roam, it needs to be considered and maybe an outdoor run won’t be an option. Also, if you are foregoing the shed and only want an outdoor structure, remember your rabbits need shade, a place to stay dry, a place to nest and feel safe and plenty of water. This can be done by adding hutches in the space, building a small enclosure, I have even seen plastic bins with holes cut out of them scattered throughout an enclosure, the sky is the limit once the needs are met.
Heating and Cooling the Shed and/or Rabbit Run
If you live in an area that has extreme weather, hot and/or cold, having a way to heat and cool the rabbits will be important. Rabbits tolerate cold better than heat, but there is a point where cold is too cold, especially for the kits. If it gets too cold, rabbits will hold off having litters and if it gets too hot in the summer, you might notice a drop of litters in the fall, bucks can go temporarily sterile from the heat. Our first summer was hot and we did not have an air conditioner, we only had a fan. To help we made sure they had plenty of clean, cool water and we made sure that on really hot days we placed half gallon mason jars, filled with ice and water, in the pen with the rabbits. Our colony sits on a concrete slab which was nice and cool to them, they would just dig the shavings and hay out of the way and nestle into a cool spot. This year the plan was to have the air conditioner in, and though we have it, it just never got warm enough to run it. Our first winter was the coldest winter on record and we only had hanging heat lamps above the nests, but instead of running many this year, we are going to have a heat source, to run only on the days where the kits will be effected.
Many think that adding the extra cost of heating and cooling takes away from the process and do not offer any help to their colony. I only see the increase in costs a few months a year, most being well within a rabbit’s tolerance range and don’t see the harm. Others don’t have the ability to really get a heating or cooling source to their rabbits and do their best. Only you know what will be best for you and your set up but these are thoughts to consider.
Bringing water to your colony
I am going to go over watering systems better in the Caring for Rabbits page, but getting water to the colony, whether you have a system or big bowl, is something to think about. You will need to be able to get a hose to where you are or be comfortable bringing water from another source.
Letting the Rabbits Run Free and Free Range
If you live on a farm or open area, acquiring rabbits and allowing them to free range on your property might be an option. Free ranging rabbits mean less cost, because there is no real cost toward an enclosure and less cost in food as they will live happily on your grass and garden, which might be bad, though some plan gardens especially for this, however, it is still a good idea to supply some pellets or fodder. Your rabbits will likely build underground dens though having a few small wood boxes placed here and there wouldn’t hurt and during the colder months you would want to supply more pellets or fodder. Rabbits are especially good at making dens that keep them cool in summer and warm in winter, though if you are worried you could add a heat lamp to the food area, though that is an additional cost to consider.
This summer I took the kids to a movie each week, the movie started at 9:30 am and the theater is located about 30 minutes from us. The highlight of the trip for us was passing a house in the country, on a traveled road, that had a yard dotted with rabbits. Rabbits were everywhere, just eating grass in the yard, they never seemed to get close to the road and didn’t seemed bothered by the cars, I mean you’d see at least 100 white, grey, brown, black rabbits just loving life. I would just love to have that! However, I am sure that all comes with a price. Those rabbits are probably often picked off by hawks, coyotes, dogs, cars and who knows what. A few might freeze in the winter and some might just wonder off, but it seems that even with all of that, this farm is thriving with free ranged rabbits. So, it is possible for you, this is probably the least expensive way to keep them, if you can handle losing some to untimely deaths or disappearances, and if you can do it, I would consider it.
Use Your Rabbits to Mow Your Lawn
I mentioned above about free ranging rabbits, but for some, like me, that isn’t possible, or is it? Well, it is possible to build what is called a bunny tractor to move around your yard, which allows the rabbits to eat the grass as you go. You won’t be able to have a clean cut yard in an hour but this will help on food costs. Of course this only applies to those are zoned for rabbits, if you are not and are choosing to have rabbits anyway, I wouldn’t risk it.
If Colonies Are So Awesome, Why Isn’t Everyone Doing It?
Well honestly, I don’t know! I think because it goes against the conventional way, people feel that cages are more efficient. Having a colony, especially like mine where I house the buck with the does, keeping records can get challenging, but a sure way to fix that is to house the does together and have a separate pen for the bucks, bringing the doe to the males to breed and then putting her back with the does, however, a too long of a visit, more than a day can cause aggression when the doe returns.
It is possible that they have heard a horror story about someone’s colony or read an article and just thought it too much to handle or consider. I know I have read about stories of does fighting aggressively, in fact I had a doe badly injured in my colony, but the doe injured was removed from the colony for about a month and was not accepted back, this is just a fact, does can get territorial, some much more than others. To eliminate that, do your best not to remove does from the colony for more than a day at a time, introduce new does very carefully in a freshly cleaned out cage or a totally new environment all together and make sure your colony is big enough to house all of your rabbits and if a doe is too aggressive for your liking, then that doe needs to be removed (housed alone perhaps in a cage, given to a farm that free ranges, to a friend as a pet or butchered).
A book to pick up might by Rabbits In Colonies (pictured left). There is a bit of a mixed bag on reviews for this book, but overall there is some useful info and as colonies are not conventional, publications are rarer.
Truth is, that a colony done right will not only reap rewards but be fun and educational, lack most issues and will house happier rabbits. My hope is that more people will take the plunge into the colony lifestyle!
Bet + Fam 🙂