The article “Historical Background” , was selected from a 250 page resource publication ” The Rabbit: Husbandry, Health and Production. Series No. 21 ” by FAO – Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. To view the entire publication click on the following link
A little history
The domestication of the major livestock species (cattle, sheep, pigs) and the small species (poultry) is lost in the dawn of prehistory. But rabbit domestication dates back no further than the present millenium.
Indeed, the wild rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus of southern Europe and North Africa is thought to have been discovered by Phoenicians when they reached the shores of Spain about 1000 BC. In Roman times the rabbit was still emblematic of Spain. The Romans apparently spread the rabbit throughout the Roman Empire as a game animal. Like the Spaniards of that time, they ate foetuses or newborn rabbits, which they called laurices.
Rabbits had still not been domesticated, but Varron (116 to 27 BC) suggested that rabbits be kept in leporaria, stone-walled pens or parks, with hares and other wild species for hunting. These leporaria were the origin of the warrens or game parks that subsequently developed in the Middle Ages. It is known that monks were in the habit of eating laurices during Lent as they were considered “an aquatic dish” (sic). In France, it became the sole right of the lord of the manor to keep warrens. Rabbits were hunted little, and were captured with snares, nooses or nets.
Several breeds of rabbit were known in the sixteenth century and this is the first indication of controlled breeding. Domestication can therefore be traced to the late Middle Ages. This was probably mainly the work of monks, since it provided them with a more delectable dish than the tougher wild rabbit.
During the sixteenth century breeding seems to have spread across France, Italy, Flanders and England. In 1595, Agricola mentioned the existence of grey-brown (wild), white, black, piebald (black and white) and ash-grey rabbits. In 1606, Olivier de Serres classified three types of rabbit: the wild rabbit, the semi-wild or “warren” rabbit raised inside walls or ditches, and the domesticated or hutch-bred rabbit. The meat of the last is described as insipid and that of the wild or semi-wild type as delicate.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, after the abolition of seigneurial privileges, rabbit rearing in hutches sprang up all over rural western Europe and also in city suburbs. European colonial expansion saw the introduction of the rabbit in many countries where it was unknown, such as Australia and New Zealand.
In Europe, breeders usually had a few does and a stock of fattening animals, from which they took according to their needs, as from a larder. The animals were fed mainly on green forage picked daily. In winter the breeders supplemented forage with hay, beetroots and even grains, often from stocks intended for large livestock. Rabbits were kept in the backyard, with the poultry. Reproduction was extensive (two or three litters a year).
From that time on there is frequent mention of the fur as a by-product (the breed now called Argenté de Champagne was described as “rich”), and the already long-existing Angora mutant was recorded.
From backyard to rational production
Beginning in the late nineteenth century and picking up speed in the twentieth, hutch rearing led to a rabbit population explosion made possible by the selection, protection and multiplication of breeds and mutants unadapted to the wild. Breeders formed associations. Breeding techniques were rationalized and hutch hygiene improved.
Breeding standards were laid down: each adult breeding animal was raised in a separate hutch because rabbits kept in a confined space became aggressive. Young rabbits for fattening were left together, but in this case the males were castrated. Feeding was the same as in the previous century, green fodder and grains, but the first feeding trials produced certain guidelines. The Second World War saw the extensive development of rabbit production throughout Europe and Japan to cope with meat shortages. Under these demanding conditions, rabbits demonstrated their highly efficient feed-conversion capacity.
In the 1950s, production slumped in Japan and the northern European countries as other meats with more flavour became available, such as frozen beef from the Southern Hemisphere. But in the Latin countries of Europe where people know how to cook rabbit, particularly in France, rabbits were still produced. In the late 1950s, New Zealand rabbits, wire-mesh cages and balanced pelleted feeds were all introduced into France and Italy from the United States. At the same time, diseases hitherto unknown and apparently linked with the new production techniques (mucoid enteritis and respiratory ailments) appeared and others disappeared (cenuriasis) or tapered off (coccidiosis).
These new techniques, originally better adapted to the climate of California than to that of northern Italy or France, demanded many modifications in production which were often discovered by trial and error. The hutches especially, which had always been kept outside, were put in closed buildings. Ventilation and lighting problems had to be solved.
The time spent on cleaning cages and collecting food was reduced abruptly. This freed breeders to spend more time on the animals themselves. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the work of authors such as Prud’hon et al. (1969) led to a sharp drop in weaning age, from eight to four weeks. Postkindling matings replaced postweaning matings. Breeders were able to put into practice Hammond and Marshall’s early observations (1925) about postkindling fertilization of does because feeds were so much improved as to obviate the danger of abortion in lactating pregnant does through malnutrition.
At the same time came the explosion of the New Zealand White rabbit and its offshoot, the Californian rabbit. The traditional European breeds (Fauve de Bourgogne, Argenté de Champagne, French Belier) underwent a regression. As adults it is difficult for these breeds to live on the mesh floors of the cages – the pads of their paws not being adapted like those of the New Zealand White and Californian rabbits.
French and Italian breeders worked to improve substantially the first New Zealand White and Californian rabbits imported from the United States. In France, the two breeds were combined to produce specialized hybrid strains according to the design conceived by the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA). In the late 1970s, these strains crossed the French border to Italy, Spain, Belgium and the Federal Republic of Germany where, in large commercial production units, they tended to supplant the traditional breeds. Other hybrid strains were produced at the same time, especially in Hungary and the United Kingdom, but in almost every case the new strains were bred from these original two breeds.
Traditional varicoloured rabbits have been gradually replaced by white rabbits. This is having a considerable impact on the market for skins. Before the 1970s, furriers tended to favour the easy-to-dye white skins. Today the reverse is true – white skins are too common. At the same time, improved production techniques have lowered the slaughter age of rabbits in Europe which has reduced the value of the fur. The hair of the skins is “loose” because the animals are too young.
Production trends in France since the 1950s are given in Table 2. Industrial rabbit production (specialists prefer the word “rational” to industrial, as the breeder’s expertise is still very important) in Europe today is typically in units of 200 to 1 000 hybrid does reared in buildings with artificial or controlled ventilation. The breeding females are under artificial lighting for 15 to 16 hours a day and produce all through the year. All animals are reared in one- to four-storey mesh cages (flat-deck and battery). Male and female breeding animals are raised in cages in groups of five to ten (France and Spain) or one to three (Italy). Young males are not castrated because they are sold for slaughter before or just at puberty. All the animals are fed exclusively with balanced pelleted feed. Drinking water is automatically distributed to every cage.
At the same time there is a sizeable increase in private (sophisticated buildings and breeding installations) and producer-group investments (technical advisers). Typically, rational production consists of a very quick succession of all phases of the reproduction cycle. This demands extremely close and time-consuming supervision by the breeder. The technical adviser, not being directly involved in these day-to-day tasks, is of great assistance in the medium-and long-term running of a unit. His/her salary and ancillary costs amount to a sizeable investment for a group of producers (1 to 3 percent of the sale price of a rabbit).
In many countries of Eastern and Western Europe (e.g. Poland, Hungary, France, Italy and Belgium), a more traditional production system, very similar to that of the first 40 or 50 years of this century, still contributes a considerable part of the national output: over 90 percent in Hungary and nearly 40 percent in France. These traditional units are usually very small, with two to 12 breeding females.
© FAO Series No. 21, The Rabbit: Husbandry, Health and Production. Page number 1 – “Historical Background”