There are some 35 rabbit breeders that breed for meat in the Netherlands. It is a niche livestock sector that is not often discussed. What does a rabbit breeding farm look like, and how is animal welfare ensured? Five questions for Jorine Rommers, animal welfare researcher at Wageningen Livestock Research.
35 Rabbit farms. That does not sound like many?
'Indeed, yet the combined production is sufficient for the internal market. Especially around Christmas, rabbit meat is in high demand. Nevertheless, we also import rabbit meat. The Netherlands no longer has rabbit slaughterhouses, so the animals are mainly slaughtered in Belgium. The meat is subsequently sold as Dutch rabbit on the national market, but is also partly exported abroad. In order to still be able to meet the Dutch demand, we import meat from China and Hungary. The largest producers in the world are France, Italy and Spain.'
What is a meat rabbit’s life cycle like?
'A meat rabbit is nursed by the mother for the first five weeks. This is followed by a finishing period, during which the rabbits are kept with others of the same age, both male and female. This is possible as they are not yet sexually active at this stage. During this period, they grow to approximately two to two-and-a-half kilos, depending on the size of the buck that sired them. The weight of the kit is determined primarily by the buck. The animals are slaughtered at around eleven weeks.'
What is the state of animal welfare?
'WUR research has led to significant improvements in animal welfare over the past three decades. Welfare pens have been mandatory since 2016. These are larger cages with an elevation that the doe can use to escape from the suckling kits. The cages are lined with a plastic mat to prevent the rabbits from damaging their paws, which they did in the past. This mat is a direct result of WUR research and is also widely applied abroad.'
'Meat rabbits are held in so-called parks, large pens measuring at least 1.8 metres in length, allowing the animals to hop. The cages also have an elevation and pipes in which the rabbits can hide. Moreover, the animals are fed roughage and twigs. All of this encourages the animals to display natural social behaviour. A change from their former circumstances, when they were kept in small cages containing eight individual rabbits each.'
So, there are the meat rabbits and the does, but they are kept separately?
'Does are housed separately and not with other does. Much research has been done. Does have a strict hierarchy. If you house a doe with unknown other does, they will attempt to establish a hierarchy, which may result in fierce fighting, and severe injuries. As researchers, we have found this to be the case without any form of judgement. It is up to policymakers and society to decide how the animals are kept. Consider, for example, chicken beaks. The beaks are no longer trimmed. The downside is that the hens may peck each other.
Our research has also contributed to the fact that also in rabbit breeding, the Beter Leven hallmark of the Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals has now been introduced. This is awarded to meat from breeding farms that house does in groups at least part of the time. An additional requirement is that the meat rabbits are housed in parks. The Dutch rabbit sector is thus a forerunner in the world.
The does’ well-being is further enhanced by a ten-day recovery period after giving birth. In natural circumstances, the doe is bred immediately after giving birth. However, at the breeding farm, she is allowed a ten-day respite before being inseminated again. This enables her to regain her strength in between pregnancy and nursing. Moreover, breeders will hold off inseminating until they are up to twenty weeks old. In contrast, this used to be thirteen to fourteen weeks.'
Are there any other hot topics in the world of rabbit breeding?
'We are currently doing research on young animals, combined with a future perspective for your rabbit breeders. How can we optimally support the animals during their first few weeks? As is the case with pig farming, there is infant mortality among rabbits as well. We are currently focusing on this issue. Moreover, there are quite some uncertainties with regard to investments your rabbit farmers are expected to make. What standards must be met for the accommodations to remain adequate for the coming two decades?'