Rabbits have been domesticated fairly recently, compared to other domesticated animals. The ancestor of both farmed and pet rabbits is the wild European rabbit we still see today. Wild rabbits live in varying habitats including forests, woodland, meadows, savannah, deserts and wetland and are found in several parts of the world. Domestic rabbits behave very similarly to wild rabbits.
The natural life of rabbits
Rabbits are prey animals and to avoid predators they mainly feed at dusk and dawn. They are herbivores and eat a variety of plants including grass. While above ground, rabbits will frequently check for predators by sitting up on their back legs or against objects with their ears pricked to listen for potential danger; this is part of their natural behaviour.
They have an excellent sense of smell and peripheral vision and are very good diggers. When chased by a predator, their long, powerful hind legs allow them to run very fast. Some can reach speeds of 35 miles/hour. They can also jump over a metre high.
Rabbits are highly social animals and live in family groups of 2-9 females, 1-3 males and their offspring. The family will share their home range and live in a network of burrows, called a ‘warren’, which they will defend against predators and other rabbits. A warren contains different areas which are used for specific activities such as sleeping and nesting. Mutual grooming is important to reinforce social bonds.
Female rabbits (‘does’) tend to reproduce when the climate is favourable. Before giving birth a doe will build a nest, lining it with her own fur, in an isolated part of the warren. After the kits (young rabbits) are born she leaves them alone for most of the time. She only enters the nest for a few minutes once a day to feed the kits, and seals up the nest entrance afterwards to keep them safe.
Rabbit farming today
Over one billion rabbits are slaughtered annually for meat worldwide; around 50% of these are produced in China. Rabbits are the second most farmed species in the European Union with an estimated 330 million rabbits slaughtered for meat ever year; the majority of which are produced in Italy, Spain and France (FAOSTAT, 2014).
Nearly all rabbits farmed for meat and fur are kept in small, barren cages where their natural behaviour is severely restricted. Rabbits in intensive farming systems experience very bad welfare.