In this fact sheet: Farmed Rabbit Production & Welfare, Wool, Disease, Transport & Slaughter, References
Farmed rabbits are primarily kept for their meat with Angora rabbits being bred for their wool. In 2009, near to 4 million farmed rabbits and game birds were slaughtered (the figures for these are combined under the charging regulations and are not collected separately) (1). Between 50-60% of the world’s rabbit meat supply is produced via commercial rabbit farms (2). The UK produces around 2-3 thousand tonnes of rabbit meat per year, and it imports 5 thousand tonnes (mostly from China, Hungary and Poland) (3).
Farmed Rabbit Production & Welfare
The wild rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, is a social, colony animal which lives in burrows. As herbivores, their digestive systems are adapted for digestion of large quantities of forage. The breeds of rabbits most commonly used for meat production are New Zealand Whites, The California, Commercial White and hybrids. Rabbit meat has a high protein and low fat content.
Commercial rabbit farms vary in size from units with over 200 breeding does, a large farm can hold up to 12,000 breeding does (2). Most farms usually breed and fatten all their own rabbits and then send them to specialist packing centres, where they are killed and their carcasses marketed (4). Males are sexually mature around 4 months of age and females 5 months depending upon the breed of rabbit. Commercially, most breeding occurs by placing the female (doe) in with the male (buck). Artificial Insemination (AI) is not regularly used due to the high labour requirements involved. Females gestate for around 1 month and can produce 4 to 6 litters each year which consist of about 4 to 7 young (kits). Naturally, rabbits would give birth in nests which they have lined with fur plucked from their chests. Commercially, nursing mothers should be provided with a nesting box which should be large enough for the doe to get in and out of to feed her young without injuring them (5). The nest boxes used in farms do not allow nest site protection in the same way as in nature. This, alongside the confined space causes the doe to visit the nest more than the one time each day she would naturally to feed her kits. These repeated visits to the nest therefore increase the risk of the kits being stood on and crushed by the doe (2).
The natural weaning of kits is between 6 to 8 weeks, in commercial units however young are removed from their mothers at 4 weeks old. The normal profitable breeding life of does is around 3 years of age and rabbits can breed all year round (4). Does are usually re-mated when their young are 3 weeks old, however some farmers re-mate when kits are 2 weeks old allowing them to produce a greater number of litters (7 to 8) per annum. Farms usually feed rabbits on pellets made up of cereal, grass and high protein, such as fishmeal/soya bean meal, with a mineral and vitamin supplement (4). Farmers are required to provide an environment for rabbits which avoids heat stress and draughts, whilst allowing adequate ventilation with sufficient fresh air so as to prevent the accumulation of gases (such as ammonia) and dust (5). Their environment should be well lit utilizing natural light (lighting is used to control sexual activity) and all rabbits should be able to be clearly seen during hours of daylight. There should also be a period of darkness in each 24 hour cycle (5). Accommodation should be designed and maintained so as to avoid injury or distress to the rabbits. Most rabbits on commercial farms are kept in mesh cages with automatic food and water feeders, the cages are stacked in 2 or 3 tiers to utilise building space. The floor area of these cages must be large enough to allow rabbits to lie down comfortably, move around and eat and drink without any difficulty. The height should be enough to allow the rabbits to sit upright on all four feet without having their ears touching the top of the hutch or cage (5, 6).
Recommended space allowances for farmed rabbits (5)
SYSTEM and MINIMUM FLOOR SPACE
Doe and litter to 5 weeks of age / 0.56 m2 total area
Doe and litter to 8 weeks of age /0.74 m2 total area
Rabbits 5 to 12 weeks of age / 0.07 m2 per rabbit
Rabbits 12 weeks and over / 0.18 m2 per rabbit
(other than those used for breeding) (multiple occupation cages)
Adult does and bucks for breeding / 0.56 m2 per rabbit
Doe and litter to 5 weeks of age / 0.75 m2 total area
Doe and litter to 8 weeks of age / 0.93 m2 total area
Rabbits 5 to 12 weeks of age / 0.009 m2 per rabbit
Adults does and bucks for breeding / 0.75 m2 per rabbit
The most common method of identification of farmed rabbits is to tattoo an individual number in the ear. Marking should only be carried out by competent operators and care should be taken to avoid unnecessary pain or distress to the rabbits (5). Stockpersons are required to periodically shorten the toenails of adult rabbits to avoid overgrown nails catching on cage floors. As rabbits’ teeth grow constantly, if they are unable to wear them down, their incisors (front teeth) become overgrown. This can seriously interfere with feeding and drinking and cause damage to their lips/mouth. Where tooth-trimming is necessary it should be performed by a veterinary surgeon or trained operator (5). The clipping of front teeth is no longer recommended as it places extreme forces on the tooth which compresses the sensitive pulp further up the tooth and sending a shock wave through the skull. Alongside causing pain, it can also shatter the tooth roots leading to infection (7).
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