Fancy breeding bunnies


GIVEN a rabbit’s reputation for prolific breeding, people might assume owning a stud is as easy as a walk in the park.
But genetics is as fine-tuned for bunnies as for beef.
Take Peter rabbit, for example – Jades Peter, actually by name – a red-eyed white minilop, born 8 May 2009.
As champions go, Peter could be better. Perhaps, his gene pool became a bit too big, and so his ears and body are a bit too long. Not the best bunny on the table, is Peter. But he has fine bloodlines, a nice buffy head, and a placid personality: all hallmarks of class in his group.
Owner of Erinlea Rabbit Stud at Olinda, Vanita Van Berendonck, says breeders look for teaspoon-shaped ears, round heads, and short bodies. Peter’s son Erinlea Monty fits the image and carries the stud name.
Prohibitions apply on the importation of rabbits to Australia. That means the quest for the blue gene, the perfect coat, and the ever rounder big face needs to be a carefully calculated exercise among fanciers like Vanita. A stud bunny with a pedigree line going back before the ban on imports can become a valued creature for breeding.
A certain marking or a particular shape in newborns, called kits, can signal success or loss in a specialist breeding program.
Vanita set up Erinlea Stud nine months ago. She is aiming to preserve and develop some disappearing traits that will be lost if their genes are not protected.
“Without concentrated programs, many characteristics are in danger of fading out.”
Backyard cross-breeders are also threatening some variations.
Vanita’s program particularly concentrates on variations of blue point and seal point characteristics, much sought after by pet owners, and the elusive chocolate bunny, still a work in progress, she says.
Vanita is fairly new to the business, so she takes plenty of mentoring from others in the Rabbit Breeders Association of Victoria, particularly from the association’s Vija Hone, an expert who has taught her a great deal, Vanita says.
Vanita’s interest in genetics goes back a long way, to her family’s farm on Kangaroo Island, South Australia, where as a youngster she bred chickens.
“Kangaroo Island offered few opportunities for girls as they finished school, so I eventually had to leave my poultry breeding and husbandry skills behind to find a career,” she says.
Now the ex Defence Force engineer and mother of five wants to give her own children the experience of hands-on animal breeding.
“The decline in farming everywhere means fewer children are growing up with the familiarity of animals and animal breeding patterns, and much knowledge of the general aspects of breeding small animals is being lost.”
Vanita and her husband Chris, also an ex Defence Force engineer, have found Olinda to be a suitable place to create a rabbitry. Their house has wide eaves and high balconies all around to accommodate the animals comfortably and safely.
“I keep them on the verandah so I can watch them constantly. It is protected from the weather, with cool air flow from beneath, and it means the rabbits are central to our family so the children can learn how to handle them too.”
The verandah houses about 20 bunnies and their babies.
Rabbits will not jump from the high balcony, and they will come back when called, so Vanita is able to let them out one at a time for a run without fear of their escaping.
Does can be territorial and more difficult to manage than bucks, she says.
“The girls can be very hormonal and sometimes aggressive. I don’t recommend girls for pets. But the boy bunnies are usually very friendly.”
In the wild, does dig burrows and defend their space from others in the colony. This explains the tendency of girl bunnies to be territorial.
At three days old, a kit is little bigger than a clothes peg. At eight days, it is covered in fur and has big, sticky-up ears.
By day 18 those ears stick straight out horizontally, and by five weeks they have flopped right down.
Vanita watches closely as the colours appear on the babies and the tiny animals take shape. She looks for signs of orange, blue, black, grey, or white, or combinations, as genetic indications. She takes dimensions, and she notices behavioural traits too.
Her children, Kyle, Brody, Riley, Taleah, and Marcus, aged from 13 to two years, are the first generation of her Kangaroo Island farming family not to grow up on the land. But they enjoy a close substitute at Olinda, where towering Mountain Ash trees surround the Van Berendonck property. Three of the children participate in rabbit shows with Vanita regularly.
What distinguishes Vanita from most other rabbit breeders is that she designs and builds by hand her own pens, employing her own engineering skills. The result is five-star accommodation for the stud bucks and does and their babies.
“Pet shops don’t really cater for the requirements of rabbit breeders, Vanita said.
“Mosquito-proofing is essential. I couldn’t find any mosquito-proof hutches to buy, so I decided to make my own.”
Rabbits’ rooms have to be carefully designed to give the animals a sense of their own space.
“Control is crucial. That is why cages need to be elevated.”
Vanita starts with tough, pet-proof wire, concealed at the edges so the rabbits can’t munch on it, polycarbonate windows with beading to give a finishing touch, treated pine fencing planks for the floor decks, and strong latches to prevent inquisitive little humans from releasing the animals.
“It is important to avoid any possibility of loss and subsequent accidental breeding.”
Shorter depth enables easy cleaning and stops shy bunnies from hiding at the back.
Each bunny compartment is about 60 centimetres high with a loft area for night sleeps and day naps, and a protected section for hay. The two-storey hutches also contain circular stairwells, two nest box areas, and hidden drop-down floors to quickly convert the spaces into smaller pens if it is necessary to separate the animals.
“A pen of about 1.8 metres wide by 64 centimetres deep is easy to clean and space-efficient,” Vanita says.
Sand covers the floor for ease of cleaning.
Larger cages outside on the ground need concrete floors to ensure protection from rodents and foxes.
Vanita has set up a website for Erinlea Stud, with hints for do-it-yourself builders.
Her management of the animals includes daily feeding and daily cleaning of the pens.
A mixture of rabbit pellets, bran, black sunflower seeds, and chaff, along with selected green vegetables and fruits, a permanent tray of fresh hay to munch, and a glass water dispenser protected from sunlight provide a combination gourmet feast for stud bucks and does.
Vanita likes to see her retired bunnies go to good homes, with adequate housing, so other children can learn animal husbandry the way she and her own children are learning.
She also advocates bunnies as environmentally friendly pets with a very small environmental footprint.
“Well cared for domestic bunnies don’t kill wildlife, they don’t consume meat, and they eat the scraps.”
Potato and other peelings can be poisonous.
How to read a rabbit: hopping is a sign of happiness; stomping is a sign of fear; soft grinding of teeth is a sign of contentment, grunting means “don’t tidy up my space”; rubbing the chin on items means “this is my territory”; and a high shrill means “I am in pain or dying”. (Source: the RBAV website)