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Rabbits - a 'hare' raising experience?

Rabbit production is set to increase in the Mediterranean region after the creation of the 'International Observatory on Rabbit breeding in Mediterranean countries'. Delegates from 14 countries and specialized organizations, led by the Italian rabbit-breeding society ANCI (Associazione Nazionale Conglicoltori Italiani), supported the first meeting, which was held in March 1999 at FAO headquarters in Rome. Rabbits can be raised easily by women and childrenThe network is to provide information and training on all aspects of rabbit production from breeding to marketing.

Despite the notorious fecundity of rabbits (up to 40 offspring/yr) and the popularity of the meat in many temperate countries, including those in the Mediterranean, backyard rabbit raising in developing countries has not fulfilled its potential. For a number of reasons, rabbits are unique among small livestock for food and income-generation:

  • They adapt easily to different environments and are easy to handle, so rabbit production is an ideal activity for vulnerable members of the household (women and children) in peri-urban or rural areas
  • Investment and labour costs are low
  • As herbivores they are cheap and easy to feed although a balanced diet is essential
  • They are highly nutritious providing a juicy, low fat, low cholesterol meat rich in vitamins and minerals. They are also a convenient 'one meal size' reducing waste or the need for storage
  • Extra income can be generated from marketing the meat, fur and skin.

However, there are several constraints to the widespread uptake of rabbitry. Poor management is a common difficulty and despite the apparent ease with which rabbits breed, people do require training in good husbandry practice. Disease can also be a problem. Rabbits originated from Spain and Portugal and, although they are now found worldwide, they must be protected from the stress of high temperatures, high humidity and wet conditions, which can lead to respiratory disorders and even sudden death. Dirty and/or wet cages can also result in serious mortalities from relatively minor complaints (sores, mites, ringworm and diarrhoea) but, even with good management, severe losses can be caused by certain diseases:

  • Coccidiosisis a major problem in most regions and is particularly harmful to young rabbits just after weaning. Coccidia - internal parasites usually found in the intestine - are common in rabbits and can be present without causing any ill effects. However, stress caused by bad weather or weaning can result in rapid development of the disease and high mortalities.
  • Epizootic haemorrhagic disease is a viral disease which has become a particularly serious threat to large rabbit units throughout the world. It is highly contagious and mortality rates can be as high as 80-90%. However, it is unlikely to be a problem in small units in areas where there are few rabbits although it is always advisable to isolate rabbits bought in from outside the region.

But, with support and training, Dr René Branckaert, an FAO small livestock production specialist, believes that rabbits may emerge as a low-cost answer to hunger, undernourishment and rural poverty. Along with governments and NGO development organisations, FAO has already supported and developed rabbit projects in many countries including Egypt, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Haiti, Mexico, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe and the Republic of Congo. Countries such as Ghana and Mexico have been particularly successful in raising the profile of rearing rabbits. In this latest initiative in the Mediterranean, it is hoped that Arab countries in particular will benefit from improved information and training on rabbit production.

Further info on rabbits:
FAO: Primary Health Care Manual Chapter 8: the rabbit
FAO: The rabbit husbandry, health and production
Rabbits: The Tropical Agriculturist Series

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