Friday, March 27, 2015

Housing Winter Rabbits in Cold Climates

Here in Alaska, we raise rabbits, ducks, and chickens for food. By mid-February, we had more animals than housing, but, for various reasons (like age, body heat, and pregnant rabbits), we did not want to “dispatch” any. This prompted some new housing ideas for the rabbits that worked out exceptionally well, in, of all places, in the chicken coop and greenhouse.

Rabbits in the chicken coop:
Because we know a woman who houses her menagerie of goats, poultry and rabbits in the
Zen (the rabbit) is on watch while the ducks nap
(note their heads tucked in, feeling safe) 
same enclosure, we decided to install two of the female rabbits in the coop with our harlequin ducks and Rhode Island Red chickens. One ran away the next day when we opened the run for “duck recess.” Her distinctive foot prints traveled extensively throughout the snowy yard. She successfully evaded predators (including an owl that killed one of the ducks). Ultimately, she settled under the hutches of the other rabbits, where she created a snug, straw filled burrow under their raised building. I hear her banging around as I tend to the other rabbits. When I feed them, she waits below their wire floors, much as my dog used to sit below my children's highchairs, assured of bits and pieces, sure to fall below. She looks healthy and content and has never chosen to return to the coop.

The other rabbit remained with the poultry. She has such equanimity that I named her Zen. At first it was startling (and delightful) to open the lid of the nesting boxes and see not only laying hens but a rabbit – popping her head up to look around! Clearly, though, she is “one of the guys.” She eats and drinks out the same bowls as the birds, and enjoys many of the same snacks, like green peas and birdseed. The rabbit and chickens will gather round me to eat out of my hand. During cold weather, she enjoyed a quiet siesta inside the coop, in a soft depression that she skootched into the straw, while the noisy ducks are outside, hoovering up the snow and digging into rotted tree roots. On sunny afternoons, I raise the nesting box lid, and each box is occupied by a duck, a chicken, or a rabbit, enjoying the sun on their face and the wind-blocking boxes around them. They look like commuters on a train, or kids in a school bus.. As the snow starts to recede and lay bare tempting patches of brown around the trees, Zen follows the ducks' peregrinations, ultimately spending most of the day with them - they guarding her or she guarding them!  She is not the far flung explorer that her erstwhile rabbit companion turned out to be. Zen is more of a companionable homebody.  

Rabbits in the Greenhouse
Among rabbits, it is imperative to separate adult males (bucks) from others, since they fight each other, can kill junior males, and will constantly try to impregnate the females (does), who can aggressively defend themselves. So we had “no vacancy” among our five hutches, occupied both by our rabbits and those of a woman who couldn't keep hers anymore: two males, two pregnant females, and a kindling of one month old bunnies.  As these juniors thrived, it was clear that they would soon outgrow their space, so we moved them into the (unheated) greenhouse. This turned out to be a great idea, both for them and for the raised bed garden!
Young rabbits munching on weeds from our garden

Although just as cold at night as the hutches, the double layered plastic walls offer a much better windbreak and a warm space during a sunny day. In fact, I would often spend an hour or so in the room, some 50 degrees warmer than outside, and watch the rabbits' explorations of their new, giant playground. Even in February in Alaska, the dirt floor and raised bed garden were soft enough for digging and sniffing (which, as winter rabbits, they had never experienced before) and they enjoyed playing hide and seek among the planters and clambering over empty beehives.

By their nature, they benefited the the raised bed garden in several ways. With gusto, they depleted the dried stalks of last year's tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and pepper plants. As they moved around, they deposited their blueberry-size pellets throughout (which is just about the only manure that should be mixed fresh into a garden bed). Finally, like fuzzy rototillers, they dug a maze of underground paths and burrows throughout. The berm of frozen snow around the building's base protected them from weasels and other wily predators, like ravens and owls, whose tracks were evident just outside the building.

This test case was working so well, that when the temperature took a nose dive to minus 15 F, we tried bringing in the two does, one at a time, one of whom was the mother of this group. The reunion did not go well. All rabbits seemed alarmed, especially when Bandit chased the does, one of whom turned to fight him.

I learned from this experience that even a separation of six weeks is enough to make one group territorial... even to their mother! Whether it was encountering adult females, I don't know, but BOOM! All of a sudden puberty hit the juniors, even though they were less than three months old. Clearly Bandit and Hitler (because of the moustache and pathetic little tail) were males. Each tried to chase and hump all of the others (male or female), and Bandit started to fight Hitler. We tried various threesomes and decided to banish Bandit to solitary confinement in the hutches. The other three got along well, as (this) Hitler is more of a lover than a fighter. He did indeed try to bonk Go (for Gray One) about every ten minutes one day, but her tail was up so she was receptive. So we will count 30 days and see if she got pregnant.

The other female, Nursie, hid in a nesting box during that period. The next few days, I observed no more amorous efforts, but, as before, saw the three of them grooming each other and napping, side by side, in between youthful chases around the various bins and boxes.

When the snow started to pull away from the greenhouse, I worried that the rabbits inside would be  vulnerable to ground predators (like weasels).  Instead, they started to act like teenagers - they dug a hole, started exploring outside, and returned only for occasional meals! We do need to corral them, because I don't want a large future generation of rabbits to jump in and out of my greenhouse and gardens!  At this point, we have captured only Hitler, who awaits his doom while enjoying banana and squash peels in the hutches.  Most of the males, adults and adolescent, will be moved along to their next role, which is to feed us during the four to six week “Break Up” of the lake, (when no transportation is possible, to a store or anywhere else). Their departure to the pressure cooker will free up space suitable for additional rabbits to grow during the summer.
Greenhouse, shed and rabbit hutches

In prior years, I was psychologically unable to cook animals that I had named, but I have adjusted my point of view. As my husband says, our animals have only one bad day in their lives.  Yes, I admit it will feel weird to eat Bandit and Hitler. But I am trying to think differently.  Just as I thank the ducks and chickens every day for their eggs, I thank the rabbits in the pot.  We know where they have been, what they have eaten, and that they were healthy.  Up to that last day, I feed them well, protect them from predators, separate them from bullies, provide clean housing and entertainments, and endeavor to make adjustments, like the greenhouse, to enhance their quality of life.
(But Nursie and Go:  we do need you to come in now, especially if you are pregnant!)  

What are your past experiences or future hopes with rabbits?  Please leave a Comment as I would love to hear from you!


  1. I am wondering if rabbits would be a good replacement for chicken meat? If I add lard or bacon fat to rabbit meat, will that ensure that we are getting enough fat if we eat rabbit several times a week? I've never had rabbits, before, but it seems they would be easy to care for if kept in our barn at night, and in a large covered enclosure out on the grass in the daytime. Your blog is one of my favorites. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for your kind compliment and practical note. The article I wrote in July, 2014 may answer some of your questions. See the table down at the bottom of that article that compares protein/fat/water in rabbits, chickens, beef. You'll note that the fat difference between rabbits and chickens is only 1%. Like chicken, rabbit has a mild flavor that takes on whatever you add to it, so yes, it is easy to eat often. We do so once a week for an entree and then have broth and leftover that we use to flavor rice, pasta, etc. I prefer to cook it in a pressure cooker with liquid (since it is lean). If I smoke it, I smother it in BBQ sauce and baste it, too. Enjoy! Our rabbits have been very low maintenance and healthy. They can tolerate cold (protected from the wind and wet),so your barn should work. Note: two of our does did let their litters die in brutal cold spells, so we will set up a better nursery situation next winter.

  3. Love your passion for living off the land. I am curious if you could share the plans you used to create your shed/hutch/greenhouse. We live in N Indiana and the winters can be cold and brutal. We raise chickens and rabbits and would love to have a one-size-fits-all building.

  4. Dear Ms/Mr Bissontz. Thanks for your note and interest. We did not buy plans for our "multi-plex" building. We hired the man who built our chicken coop and other outbuildings and trusted him to combine the components we had in mind. Storey's Guide to Raising Rabbits guided the hutch design, our annual snow fall determined the angle of the roofs, and because we are in bear country, we "upped" the strength of the exterior wire for the hutches and the fuel shed above everything we read. The following elements have worked well for us: The rabbits' windbreak is the same double pane plastic as the greenhouse, dangling about 2 inches down from the top so they can sniff the air. We tried using cardboard as a floor in brutal weather but it got really gunky. Thick straw on the wire floor was more hygenic (sp). The shed and greenhouse are both 16 feet long. Along the northern side, we installed 5 hutches (larger than Storey's recommendation) with doors between them so some can double up for litters or big rabbits. In the doubles, we have one nesting box upright (a snug windbreak) and the other sideways (so they can jump on top of it or hide within it (a curtain of black garden fabric gives them the sense of a "den"). My husband was very clever to place access doors INSIDE the snowmachine shed (which is empty of the machines in winter). There, we can store their food and straw, the exterior wire walls are intact and strong, and our access to the animals is elevated and indoors - good for inclement weather. Beneath their hutches we store plastic sleds that collect their poop, which we dump on our gardens and brew in "compost tea."

    The greenhouse width is 8 feet and the southern wall is "dog legged" out for additional storage space below. It is not heated, but does have two electrical plugs inside which I use for fans when needed and for aerating "compost tea." Housing the rabbits in the greenhouse worked so well during the winter that we plan to store 8 of our trellis grids (2 x 6) in there in case we need to construct temporary or long term structures within the greenhouse to house several unrelated rabbits and litters at the same time. I'm not sure how wide the snow machine shed is, but we designed it to fit two machines side by side, with room to walk past. Doors to both the greenhouse and shed are elevated to ease snow shoveling. The shed has a sloping ramp, about 18" high. Above the door is a motion detector light to deter night-time predators. The fuel depot, on the far (east) side is 4 x 8 with wire doors for ventilation, and shelves above the height of 100 lb. propane tanks. We have installed (summer) gutters draining into 55 gallon drums for VERY handy water barrels useful for both the animals and the greenhouse.

    I hope this helps. Best wishes for your plans. I found wonderful building plans at one of the Universities of Tennessee, although we didn't use them. I believe they are free. Try googling that.