Herby, the free-range bun

We haven’t had a ton of visitors to the farm lately, but when we have they often get alarmed to see a domestic rabbit hopping around the area. “Oh, that’s just Herby” we’ll say.

Raising rabbits has been a journey. Last year we had loads of success, which was really hard-won. I could write about it in more detail, but I’ll give you the short version. It went like: we decided we wanted to raise rabbits for a number of reasons, but felt critical of cage raising and opted for raising them on the ground together in a colony style. This was awesome and worked very well for one year exactly.

After that first year of success, we started having lots of deaths happen to bunnies at weaning age. They’d be healthy and happy and then over the course of about a day they would slow down, get bloated and have loose stools, and then die what looked like a miserable and painful death. At first it was a smaller percentage, maybe 25% of the total population. Each time we had new litters the percentage went up, until we were at virtually 100% mortality. It was heartbreaking. We removed the buck to control breeding, and through lots of research and thinking we determined that this was about a build up of a protozoan parasite called coccidia. It lives in the soil and, while mature rabbits’ (and goats, too) immune systems can generally handle it, the young weanlings are particularly susceptible.

I started to seek out support, and I made a new online friend through the process. She dealt with similar things and it’s only because of her unique set up that she’s been able to beat the issue and keep her rabbits in a colony setting. I was still so dedicated to colony raising that we opted to halt breeding and pour a concrete slab and rebuild the “rabbitat” to have no contact with soil. This worked only partially. The adult rabbits do well on the concrete with some bedding, but we found it impossible to keep it all clean enough for the babies. We still had too many deaths, although it was improved.

In the end we decided to do a blended approach. We let the does and buck live colony style while breeding, and then we move each bred doe up to a roomy cage for the birth and then the first 5 weeks or so of life for the babies. At that point we move them out onto grass in rabbit tractors that we move daily. Once breeding is done for the year, the mamas go down into the colony and have free range of the space together all winter, and our buck goes up into an extra large cage until early spring. We had a few random deaths of the young rabbits, but it was really minimal.

This experience taught me a lot about living into systems vs assuming my research would deliver. I was recently part of an online discussion about ethically raising rabbits, and someone claimed that cage raising was cruel and that colony raising is the way to go. They sited the same old blog posts that I had initially come across, none of which mentioned pathogens or the delicate health of domesticated rabbits being raised in these ways. They claimed that many people have long term success with on-ground colony raised rabbits, and I asked to be put in touch with literally anyone who does this. I’m still waiting on it!

I’m not saying it’s impossible (like I said, I do know of one person who does it successfully in a pretty controlled environment that doesn’t encounter other wildlife, and she still had to go to some lengths to eradicate it in her colony. My main issue ended up being that I felt that most of the online resources didn’t have the lived experience to really responsibly recommend what they did. I learned the hard way about idealizing these things. In the end, it was a really valuable lesson for me. It was years of adjustments and research and trying new things and grieving and worrying and then landing in something that actually felt responsible and kind and met all our needs. So hard to do, especially when I could have just quit.

Since then I am more resigned to the fact that I just have to earn these things myself, you can’t bypass the true initiation process. I can ask questions, and do research, and try to learn quickly and not prolong unnecessary suffering. But the reality for many of us back-to-the-landers is that we don’t have the longer term wisdom or time tested infrastructure passed down to us from older generations. There’s a gap there. Despite the deluge of information available, there’s just no substitute for living knowledge worked into a place over time.

This is in part because living systems are only replicable to a point. There’s an element of spirit there, of circumstance, of personalities, of all the wild things you can’t harness or communicate on the page. It’s literally all alive and in relationship with me. I’m much less proud/shy about seeking out mentors and asking questions. If I see someone who’s earned it, especially with animals, I lean in. And I’ve found that for the most part they are super happy to share and connect. We are a dying breed- there’s an instant sense of solidarity between us. I can feel my natural sense of generosity perk whenever a new-to-whatever person asks me questions. But still, I know we all have to get to a point with these things where it’s bone-deep. Where I have a knowing sense that I can’t control for a lot of what life has to offer, and within that surrender I can know more fully where my domain is.

This ends up being an internal conversation that is less about coccidia and rabbits and whatever, and more about: What are we asking of this place or of these non-human beings? What do we want them to do for us? Is it reasonable? What are we offering in return? What are the choices? What have I missed, am I listening fully? Where am I needed? Have I gotten snagged by some cultural idea of control that has pulled me out of true service?

Anyway. It becomes a much more spiritual journey the longer I’m on it. And so then it yields interesting moments, like when Herby the free range rabbit decided to fling himself out of Jeff’s arms on a harvest day. He flew 8 feet into the air and landed several feet away from us. He was the last one to go of that batch, and we just looked at him and he sat and looked back at us. Jeff and I briefly contemplated grabbing our net and catching him, but we quickly decided against it. We felt that he’d chosen not to go that day. And we respected him and have been feeding him ever since, allowing him to live freely around the place. This happened to us once before with a duck. The same stillness settled over Jeff and I, in the middle of a butchering day, where we knew that this one was a solid “no”. It sounds silly, but I’ve just started to accept some of these non-rational experiences. My intuition peaks, and I trust it as part of the mysterious feedback that this place has to offer.


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