Higher welfare alternatives
Indoor pen systems
Indoor pen systems for growing rabbits have been developed in Northern Europe in response to increasing public concern about conventional barren cages. The ‘Park’ system, which originated in Belgium, is designed to improve rabbit welfare. Similar barn systems have been implemented in Germany, in naturally lit barns.
The open pens provide more space for the rabbits to lie stretched out, to move around and hop and to stand on their hind legs. The growing rabbits are housed in groups for more social interaction and they are provided with enrichment such as platforms, gnawing blocks, hay and tubes for hiding.
The development of indoor pen systems in Europe is also influencing production in China (the world’s largest producer of rabbits) as more European companies see the benefits of higher welfare production. Leading German wholesaler BreFood has worked with its suppliers in China to introduce a system that meets the indoor rabbit pen housing standards that are certified by NGO Four Paws.
Despite several trials that have been undertaken to introduce group pens for breeding does, group housing of does is very limited. Further research and industry trials are needed to develop an optimal system which allows them the benefits of social contact and more space, whilst preventing major aggression.
Outdoor systems for rabbits do not exist on large commercial scale. Farms which do provide outdoor access are typically small-scale and organic. Mobile runs consist of covered pens with an enclosed sheltered area and a covered grass area; these are moved daily to provide fresh grass, prevent disease and stop over-grazing. These pens should provide sufficient height for rabbits to rear up on their hind legs, and further enrichment of their surroundings.
Free-range systems which give rabbits access to an open paddock and shelter are even more scarce. In these systems, pasture must be rotated, with rest periods between each group of rabbits to reduce the risk of disease and a build-up of pathogens on the land. This is the most natural system, but rabbits can suffer high mortality rates due to predators or disease. Management factors should be in place to reduce this risk. Breeding does are not usually kept free-range, but may be given outdoor access with the mobile runs.