New Zealand White Rabbits are pure white rabbits with pink ears and pink eyes. Very tame, very friendly, ideal pets. They are very large rabbits and are bred for meat in some countries.
Baby rabbits, like kittens, are born blind and deaf and without any fur. Their mother makes a nest of hay and lines it with some of her own fur to keep the babies warm. Babies can be weaned (moved away from their mother) at 6 weeks of age and at 10 weeks are ready to go to new homes and, at this age, it is possible to distinguish the sexes.
Rabbits need hay to eat as well as rabbit pellets or rabbit mix and they need a constant supply of fresh water – or water changed every day. They are quite clean and will usually keep one corner of their pen to use as a toilet. It is also possible to house train rabbits – and some of my rabbits are now ‘house pets’ and sit and watch TV with their owners.
New Zealand Whites have furry pads on their feet so they are quite happy living in cages which makes cleaning much easier as their droppings fall through – they still choose one corner of their cages to use as a toilet.
Diet is very important with young rabbits as they can easily die from digestive upsets. My breeding rabbits enjoy lots of different plants from the garden – see list below – but until they are at least 10 weeks old it is better to stick to just pellets and ad lib hay. Insufficient hay can also cause digestive problems – as I have learned by experience.
If young rabbits are given greens – even grass – they often refuse to eat pellets and hay and do not get enough roughage which is absolutely vital – and they just die. So, however tempted I am to give them some of the plants their mums’ love, I now make sure I wait until they are old enough.
At 6 months old, they are ready to mate – they will mate before this but it’s better to wait until they have developed properly and litters will be bigger and healthier. I always separate does and bucks at around 10 weeks old. New Zealand Whites can have very large litters – I have had as many as 16 babies in one litter – although not all of them survived.
Gestation (time between mating and birth) is 31 days. Maintenance ration is 4 oz of pellets per day but I increase this to 8 oz per day 14 days before the babies are due and provide mum-to-be with a nest box of soft hay 5 days before she is due to give birth – she usually gets really excited, picking up the hay in her mouth and rearranging it, then lining the nest with fur they day before (or sometimes hours before) the birth.
Many breeds of rabbits are very protective of their young and have been known to kill their babies if they are interfered with. My rabbits know me and I have always been able to check the babies as soon as they are born without any mishap. In the wild, if a rabbit is threatened she may even eat her babies rather than let a predator get them. (It might sound awful but it makes sense if you think about it as she will have the nourishment to produce another litter sooner – rather than the predator getting the benefit!)
The most wonderful part of rabbit keeping for me is when the babies get to about three weeks old and their fur has all grown and their eyes open for the first time. They jump around the cage and are so happy and funny it’s a real pleasure to watch them.
Being such a large breed, New Zealand Whites are large enough at 10-12 weeks old to be sold as meat rabbits. Much older and the meat becomes fattier. Rabbit meat is one of the most healthy meats as it is very low in cholesterol. Unlike hens who, in their natural habitat, would forage on the forest floor and roost in trees, rabbits are used to confined spaces, living in burrows. In the wild they live in constant fear of predators and suffer from fleas as well as diseases such as myxomatosis.
Pet rabbits can also contract myxomatosis by:
Bites from mosquitoes carrying the Myxoma virus.
Bites from fleas carrying the Myxoma virus (fleas can survive for months in hay)
Cheyletiella fur mites
Contact with infected rabbits
Again keeping rabbits in cages well above floor level reduces risk of infection.
Pet rabbits kept in cages or well cleaned out pens probably have a much better (and certainly longer) life than wild rabbits. Some people may not like the idea of rabbits being bred in cages for meat but I wonder if they eat chicken from hens that have been kept in cages?
Food plants that rabbits like: * feed in moderation
*Apple – whole fruit, peelings,
Twigs and leaves of most fruit trees including hawthorn
Borage – young leaves and flowers
*Brassicas – broccoli, sprouts, cabbage,cauliflower, kale – feed sparingly to avoid urinary problems
Carrot tops and thinnings (contrary to popular belief, rabbits are not keen on carrot roots but they do love carrot tops)
Chickweed (although I find hens prefer this – particularly chicks)
Clover (they love Clover)
Parsley (useful tonic)
Plantain – young leaves only – avoid roots and seeds
Raspberry – young leaves – good for pregnant does (as we humans have raspberry tea when birth is imminent!)
Sage – young leaves useful for digestive upsets – in moderation
Shepherd’s purse – also useful for digestive upsets – ad lib
*Spring onion and onion – green tops
Sow thistle (not common or creeping thistle)
*Spinach thinnings or young leaves
*Strawberry – young leaves
Rabbits form an integral part of my recycling programme as they like the plants my hens and ducks do not like so I can recycle nearly all the weeds in my vegetable garden and the peelings (eg apple) and trimmings (eg spring onion tops). Also any surplus vegetables provide food – my hens love courgettes – and marrows if I’ve missed one! And the ducks and hens love slugs and snails – and caterpillars and other insects that damage my plants.
Every day I get real pleasure from digging up some choice titbits for the hens, ducks and rabbits and watching them enjoy them along with their regular food.
Some of the meals we eat are prepared totally from what I have grown in the garden – fruit, vegetables, eggs and meat – and it’s very satisfying – and healthy.
If I can be of help with advice on the management of a vegetable garden with ducks, hens and rabbits please contact me.
Problems with Litters
NZ Whites can be very sensitive to their surroundings, they don’t like changes, different people, strange noises – some breeders have a radio on all day so the rabbits get used to different sounds. I leave the shed door open all the while so the rabbits can see what’s going on outside and get used to different noises – so my rabbits are used to different things and the babies are too.
I’ve had problems with new does, sometimes it’s because they are new mums with their first litters and they really don’t seem to know what to do! I have had stillborn and abandoned litters, and often the babies manage to get out of the nest box somehow so every morning and night I check properly that there are none getting cold away from the nest.
Many people have solved the problem with crossing NZ Whites with Californian rabbits. They are also white but with black tips to their ears – they are a large breed but generally not quite as big as NZ Whites. They are however far less sensitive and traumatised, they seem altogether a much hardier breed and if you are breeding meat rabbits would offer an ideal solution.
I have also had problems with rats eating tiny baby rabbits. Finding half eaten babies in the morning is not one of my fonder memories! After persevering with rat traps for ages, we finally had to resort to rat poison – you can buy packets of liquorice smelling poison that you don’t have to open but just place in the boxes. The council used to come out but they don’t any more – although you can still get advice from your local council. They provided us with safe rat poison boxes which are placed along the rat runs. I keep an eye open for any rat droppings which acts as a reminder to put poison down again. It doesn’t matter how careful you are with never leaving food lying around, rats always find a way – and they cause so much damage eating holes in everything too.
The importance of separating the boys and the girls at around 10 – 12 weeks of age.
Last year I was contacted by a lady who had bought two does at an auction. She thought one of them might be pregnant. I explained that when does reach maturity (around 6 months old) if they haven’t mated they may still think they are pregnant and make a nest – they pick up hay in their mouths and carry it to their chosen site – and sometimes they will even go as far as pulling out their fur to line the nest. I told her that there was nothing she needed to do except ensure the doe was making her nest in a safe place – sheltered from the weather. Both does had the run of her fairly small garden with a choice of several boxes to shelter in.
It’s really important that does and bucks are separated at 10 – 12 weeks of age to be absolutely sure that they have not mated. If does are too young when they have their first litter they get really stressed, sometimes they make several nests, sometimes they don’t make a nest at all, they can have some babies in one place – and the rest somewhere else – if they are disturbed they may just abandon the babies – and if they feel threatened they may even eat them!
Of course, any of these things can happen even if you do everything right – but it’s far less likely.
If does and bucks are left together the doe can get pregnant twice and have two litters days or weeks apart – and very often none of them survive.
Once your doe has had her babies, all you can really do is check on the babies as often as possible and make sure they are all together in one place so none of them get cold – if some have moved you can gently move them back to the nest. Make sure the doe has plenty of food, hay and fresh water – and leave her to it. When the babies are around 10 days old, their eyes open – by three weeks they are hopping around the hutch looking to get into mischief!
At six weeks old the kits can survive without Mum but if it’s a big litter I leave them a bit longer. By 8 weeks you can try and sex them – but it’s much easier – and more positive if you leave it until 10 weeks – and then you can separate the girls from the boys.