Northwest Rare & Heritage Rabbit Breeders' Club

Protecting Rare and Endangered Rabbit Breeds ~ Promoting Heritage Uses

Heritage Use

History

September 1, 2005

Interesting Rabbit Domestication History

Some Interesting History on Rabbits
     The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) has long been recognized as the source for reliable information regarding breeds of livestock. With the addition of rabbits to ALBC's conservation mission, there is a need for accurate information regarding the role of rabbits as livestock. Working with the American Rabbit Breeders Association and recognized rabbit authority Bob Whitman, ALBC has compiled information on the ten rabbit breeds that have qualified for inclusion to the ALBC conservation mission, and some interesting information having to do with the domestication of rabbits.

When were rabbits domesticated?
     The domestic rabbit is a descendant of the European wild rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, which was and is a popular game animal and source of food in many countries. Despite being one of the last species to be domesticated, they have played a strong role in European agriculture as an important source of efficient protein production. Today, rabbits are still valued for meat, skins, and fiber as well as for their critical importance in medical research.

    Credit for the actual domestication of rabbits goes to the early French Catholic monks. Because they lived in seclusion, the monks appreciated an easily obtainable meat supply. Their need to find a food suitable for Lent caused them to fall back on an item much loved by the Romans - unborn or newly born rabbits, which are called 'Laurices'. (Laurice was officially classified as 'fish' in 600 A.D. by Pope Gregory I, and thus permissible during Lent.) This strange taste, combined with the need to keep rabbits within the monastery walls, created the conditions that led to proper domestication and the inevitable selection of breeding stock for various characteristics and traits.

    Rabbits were introduced to Britain by the Romans who kept them in fenced off warrens and harvested their meat and fur. The earliest known written records of rabbits in Britain date from the 12th Century. They were first described as conies, after the second part of their scientific name Oryctolagus cuniculus.

When were breeds developed?
     In the middle of the 16th century, black, white, and piebald rabbits appeared in literature, as written by Agricola, a monk from Verona, Italy who was responsible for his monastery's gardens and livestock. He also reported rabbits in Verona as four times the size of the normal ones. 'Silver plated' rabbits, reported in France in the mid-1500s, were believed to be the Champagne d' Argent's. Champagne refers to the region of France, and De Argent, meaning silver. Silver rabbits are reported as early as 1631 by Gervaise Markham. English sailors brought the first Angola (Angora) rabbits to the Bordeaux region of France in 1723.

    By 1858, Himalayan rabbits are mentioned in the literature. In the mid 1800s, thousands of rabbits were being sent weekly to the London market from the port of Ostend, Belgium. They were selected for their markings creating the Dutch rabbit breed. As early as 1822, Lop Eared rabbits were reported in England, however, the first rabbit show in England was in the mid-1820s. In 1840 the first Lop Club was formed. By mid-1870s, Himalayan, Angora, and Silvers were allowed to be shown. Other breeds continued to be developed by selection and cross-breeding up to the present day.

Rabbits in the New World
     There are no domestic breeds that have developed from the American wild rabbit, though they were likely an important source of meat for early European immigrants. While there is very little evidence of domestic rabbits in America prior to the 1840s, it seems likely that rabbits were brought to the New World at an earlier time and raised very casually on farms and in back gardens. We know that by the 1840s, Lop and Angora rabbits had been imported into America. The first importation of the Belgian Hare breed, in 1888, caused a flurry and many other breeds were subsequently imported by the turn of the century. The National Pet Stock Association of America was formed in 1910 with a total of 13 members. They held their first convention in Grand Rapids, MI in 1917. By 1946, there were 8,000 members. In 1952 the name was officially changed to The American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA). Today the ARBA is a strong and successful organization, with 45 recognized breeds, and around 30,000 members.

For more information, contact:
The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, P.O. Box 477, Pittsboro, NC 27312, (919) 542-5704,
editor@albc-usa.org, www.albc-usa.org.

Used with permission from the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy

Meat

    A great many of the rare heritage rabbit breeds are excellent for family meat production. Rabbits are versatile, valuable animals especially for the small homestead. Since a rabbit can produce ten times it's weight in meat per year, and each adult generates up to fifty pounds of manure per year, a trio of rabbits can provide a family with enjoyable pets, a source of high quality meat and the world's best fertilizer for the garden. All at a reasonable price and requiring little space and time for upkeep.

    Rabbit meat is a popular food on all continents and in many cultures around the world. Yet, Americans still think of rabbits just as cute pets. The gulf between European and American consumption is astronomical. However, the tide is changing! Many fine restaurants across the country have added rabbit entrees to their menu and are garnering rave reviews.

    Domestic rabbit, known as the 'elite meat', is all white, fine-grained and mild, with no fat or gristle. Most aficionados agree it does not "taste like chicken", but when cooked correctly is more tender and flavorful than it's barnyard companions! Of all meats readily available, rabbit is the most nutritious; being higher in protein, lower in fat and calories, cholesterol, uric acid and sodium (U.S.D.A. circular #549). Rabbit meets all the human amino acid requirements and is high in Omega-3 fatty acids as well. It is easily digested and recommended by physicians for ones with stomach disorders, the elderly, and heart disease patients. And, a little goes a long way. Years ago the U.S. Navy realized this when they served rabbit to sailors and found that a 6-ounce portion was as filling as 12-ounces of chicken!

    Rabbit meat is ideal during hot summer months because it does not contain heating properties like most other meats. It is one of the most versatile meats in the world. It can be dressed up for special occasions or simply barbecued, and can be substituted for any recipe calling for veal or poultry. In fact, domestic rabbit meat compares very favorably with veal, at half the price! A good fryer size would be 2 to 2 pounds; larger ones are best if roasted, stewed or ground. Many cooks prefer 4 to 6 month old roasters for a richer, fuller flavor and more beautiful grain. No matter what the age, rabbit should be cooked thoroughly in all recipes. Due to it's low fat, delicate nature, rabbit meat benefits from lower temperatures and longer cooking times.

    Butcher shops usually carry domestic rabbit meat, as do many health/whole foods stores. For recipes, the A.R.B.A. publishes the most complete rabbit cookbook in the world. So, catch the wave! Taste for yourself why everyone is getting into the rabbit habit.

     Meat Type
    % Protein
   % Fat
    Calories per lb.
Rabbit
       20.8
    4.5
             795
Veal
       19.1
   12.0
             840
Chicken
       20.0
   17.9
             810
Turkey
       20.1
   20.0
          1,190
Lamb
       15.7
   27.7
          1,420
Beef
       16.3
   28.0
          1,440
Duck
       16.0
   28.6
          1,015
Pork
       11.9
   45.0
          2,050


Used with permission from Two Hunnyz Rabbitry.

Basic Butchering

Coming Soon!

Fiber

Coming Soon!

Tanning

    Rabbit breeders for generations have known that their home-raised rabbits provide healthy, nutritious meat for their family table; perhaps never more so than in recent years. Unfortunately, many such people have gotten away from utilizing rabbit skins through the traditional process of tanning. Most believe tanning to be either expensive, difficult, time-consuming, or a combination of the above. In actuality, it costs very little, is easy to learn, and requires a minimum of equipment. Tanning can add a whole new dimension to your rabbit-raising endeavors, as well as provide you with beautiful products to sell or barter.

    Below, you'll find a download-able file with instructions on tanning rabbit skins by the salt and Alum method:

How to Tan Rabbit Hides.pdf

Fur

What to do with that stack of beautiful, silky furs? Rabbit fur is noted for being the great imitator because of its ability to imitate just about any other fur. Well-tanned skins can be fashioned into a wide variety of attractive items: trim on crafts, doll clothes, as jewelry displays, for fly fishing, to line gloves, trim collars and cuffs, to make mittens, hats, caps, hoods, cat toys, baby booties, and vests; not to mention blankets, pillows, and bedspreads.

Being a thin leather, working with rabbit pelts isn't very different from working with thick fabric. Anyone who sews should have no problem making the transition from fabric to fur. While it is much easier with a fur machine, rabbit skins can be sewn together using regular thread and a sewing machine walking foot or by hand using a furriers needle and waxed linen thread.

~ Basic Fur-Sewing Instructions Coming Soon! ~