Last year, just three weeks before our son was born, we moved into a dinky house with a big backyard – over a third of an acre. It was more than we had hoped for, and we were thrilled to have the space to become more self-sustaining. I nursed our baby while my husband and two-year-old daughter dug garden beds and transplanted berry bushes. I hoped free-ranging chickens would be next on our list. Then things took a different turn…a furry, big-eared turn. We embarked on an unexpected adventure; we ended up with five rabbits.
The Year of the Rabbit officially began February third, and will be, according to some interpretations, a year for slowing down and focusing on home and family. I imagine that my family will feel this energy as we move into spring with our herd of free-range backyard bunnies.
It is well known that rabbits and gardens do not mix – anyone who has suffered Disappearing Carrot Syndrome or read Beatrix Potter knows this to be true. But there is another, lesser known truth – rabbit manure and gardens get along tremendously well. Unlike chicken manure (which can burn plants), bunny ‘pellets’ can be placed directly in garden beds. The nutrient-rich droppings can also help improve and remediate the poor-quality soils often found in urban areas, and since rabbits produce a lot of them, they’re a relatively quick way to amend a garden plot.
When we saw that a local family was selling their rabbits and hutches for cheap, we envisioned a cute, fluffy source of organic fertilizer, as well as a great introduction to animal-keeping for our kids. My husband had kept rabbits as a boy, and I’d read all about them. It seemed easy enough: we would keep the rabbits in hutches behind the shed, feed them hay, rabbit feed, and vegetable scraps, and scoop their manure with a shovel to spread in the garden.
The rabbits arrived on a Saturday. My husband held the baby and our little girl bounced with excitement while I surveyed the somewhat neglected state of their hutches. The rabbits were lovely, but seemed a bit grungy, and the hutches reeked of urine. Rabbit poo and hay were encrusted in heaps in the corners, and before long I realized that I would have to let the rabbits out in order to clean effectively. With nothing to set the rabbits in, we reluctantly locked up the fence gates and let the rabbits out into the grass as I sprayed and scrubbed the hutches.
Emma squealed with delight and followed the bunnies as they hopped about nibbling the grass, and before long something struck me – the rabbits seemed to be incredibly happy. I am not normally one to anthropomorphize animals, but I also know happiness when I see it! They bounded about the yard, jumping up into the air and literally twirling with each jump, like figure skaters. They ran back and forth, jumping these spinning, joyful leaps in the sunshine until they wore themselves out, and stretched out on the grass for a breather.
When I was finished cleaning the hutches, I felt sorry to put them back. Still, we felt it would be risky to just let them run wild. I had never heard of anyone keeping free-range rabbits, and from what I had read, some organizations, like the House Rabbit Society, felt that keeping them outdoors was cruel and inhumane. Therefore after chasing them down, we popped them back in their hutches, and there they stayed for the next few weeks, while we fed them, watered them, and cleaned up their poo.
Then, a few things happened at once. The back lawn had grown to an unruly length that was wreaking havoc on our push mower. We had a deep freeze that killed off what was left of our garden for the year. And we got low on rabbit feed. I looked at the bunnies in their cramped quarters, at the lush crop of grass, and then at my husband cursing the mower. Then I thought of the price of bales of grass hay and feed. I thought of the rabbits’ strong back feet, made for hopping through meadows and thickets, sitting still all day in a cage.
So, I put the baby in the carrier and spent the morning plugging up every possible hole in the fence, wrapping chicken wire where it was needed, and building log stair steps to the rabbit hutch doors. When our yard seemed tight as a ship, I sprung the latches and let those bunnies loose.
It was a beautiful sunny day, and just as before, hours of four-footed frolicking ensued in the backyard. My neighbors paused to watch the midair pirouettes of the romping rabbits.
“Do they always do that?”
I nodded. “They do…when they’re happy!”
Months later, as we welcome the warmth of spring, our rabbit herd is a thriving, symbiotic part of our backyard ecosystem, a bridge between the domestic and the wild. (Yes, it really is called a herd!) The little guys live as they were intended, yet remain tame enough to nibble greens from tiny hands. They hop up into their open hutches now and then, but prefer to sleep in the cozy, shallow burrow they dug beneath a brush pile in the back of the lot. They get lots of observation from this curious family, but require little input. They basically sustain themselves, munching the grass, twigs, invasive blackberries and holly. In fact, it seems their favorite foods are the plants we need kept in check the most. And, of course, they provided fertilizer while the garden is sleeping. (Although we will definitely be fencing our garden off for the growing season, as the rabbits will undoubtedly feel inclined to chomp our vegetables.) They work like speed-composters, eating vegetable scraps and turning them almost immediately into garden gold. We have had to fill in a few paw-dug holes here and there, but the benefits of our bunnies outweigh the costs.
We can learn so much from watching animals – be they wild creatures or a farm flock. They offer insights into the web of interdependence in nature, and the cycles that create a thriving and fertile ecology. Our rabbits have taught us that the sticks and bark scraps we intended to burn this fall are much more useful as their forage. I can show my daughter their tracks in the snow, point out how the shape changes with the speed of the rabbit’s run. She can feel the marks of their teeth on a holly twig, spend hours running the yard, following their movement, dancing in and out of the rabbit world. We observe their daily rhythm, feel how it reflects and calls us to the rhythm of our own lives. Like rabbits all around the world, they follow the cycles of the sun and the universal ‘rabbit clock,’ emerging each morning and afternoon at the same hour to graze upon the grass, and retreating to their burrows when nature tells them. I have noticed that my son’s nursing times often coincide with the rabbits’ grazing hour.
When my husband and I became parents, and began to consider how we wanted to raise our children, we did not know much. Our heads were full of questions, not answers. But I did know this: I wanted to give my children a life entwined with the earth.
I hoped to raise kids with an intimate connection to the soil, plants, and trees, with hearts equipped to navigate the turning of the seasons. I hoped they would know wilderness, but also know what time of day to water the garden, when to pick peas; they could transplant seedlings and be handy with a hoe. I wanted them to know how to care for animals, to understand the hard work and right relationship needed in keeping other creatures, and feel gratitude for the gifts of eggs, milk, and fiber. I hoped they would be unafraid of the cycles of life and dirt, birth and death. I wanted to raise children in a way that would make my great-grandmothers proud.
Our rabbits are a beginning, and keeping them is a bridge we step across, as we learn to understand the ways of our animal neighbors and knit ourselves closer to the earth’s heartbeat.
Keeping free range rabbits, like all endeavors, has its pros and cons, and its opponents. Making a decision to raise rabbits this way, whether for meat, fur, angora fiber, garden fertilizer, or to have some furry friends, requires us to listen to good advice, and also to follow our hearts about what works best for our family, our herd, and our place. I am by no means an authority on rabbits, as I am just beginning to learn about these lovely creatures, and there is plenty of information available online and in print for those interested. Below are just a few things to keep in mind.
:: Fences are absolutely essential in this endeavor – before keeping free range rabbits, make sure you have adequate fencing. Ours is over five feet in height, to keep out predators and the keep the rabbits in. Rabbits can dig under fences as well, so you may want to bury fence underground as well to discourage digging. If you have a garden, you will want to fence it off while you are growing vegetables or risk them disappearing!
:: Be aware of local predators, and provide adequate shelter. It is best to keep a hutch or a similar structure that is accessible for the rabbits at all times, though they may create a burrow of their own. We live in an area without many resident predators – and we were careful to keep high, lockable fences in place to keep them out. Foxes and coyotes eat rabbits, and so do some birds of prey, so consider how you will keep them away from the bunnies. If you live in an area where mountain lions come through, backyard rabbits may not be a good idea!
:: Make sure they have enough to eat. They will do well on grass, greens, leaves, bark, and twigs if there is a good supply (we have a third of an acre and it is more than enough for five rabbits.) If they are used to eating a different diet, you will need to transition them slowly to avoid disrupting their digestive systems. Leave a bit of the food they’ve been eating in their home, a little less every day, for a week or two. Vegetables and fruits are fine in moderation, but don’t change their diet too quickly or overfeed something they are not used to eating.
:: Know the gender of your rabbits, and be conscious of the realities of keeping unneutered females — you may want to neuter them, or only keep rabbits of one gender, unless you want baby bunnies!
For more information about raising rabbits, you will find lots of useful articles at Mother Earth News.
Kate Johnson Kiefer lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest with her husband, daughter, and son. She loves to grow vegetables and work with wool. You can see examples of her work on her blog and at her Etsy Store.