When we decided to get into raising rabbits, it seemed logical to consider helping preserve a rare heritage breed at the same time. Our reasoning went something like this: Most likely, heritage rabbits will eat the same amount of food and take up the same amount of space as any other rabbit, so why not keep some classic genes alive? It turns out we were right, and with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s help, we were put on the path to preserving the Silver Fox, a rare rabbit breed, indeed.
The closest Silver Fox breeder we could find was in Wisconsin, and like many others, we were put on a “waiting list” for several months. We had decided upon a trio consisting of a buck and two does to start our breeding program.
After several months and a drive of a few hundred miles, we returned with our first Silver Fox Rabbits. Months later, the first litter of six kits arrived, and at that point we realized we had answered our calling to help preserve a magnificent, rare breed for future generations. It has been nonstop showing, sharing and expanding ever since.
Saving the silver
Named for its coarse coat, the Silver Fox’s 1½- to 2-inch-long fur stands up when stroked from tail to head. This so-called no-fly-back characteristic combined with white guard hairs causes the coat to resemble that of the Arctic Silver Fox. Once quite popular, the Silver Fox’s current status is listed as critical by the ALBC, due to fewer than 200 registrations in the United States and a global population of fewer than 2,000.
The Silver Fox Rabbit was the second rabbit to be truly American-bred, with the first being the American Blue. What is known about Silver Fox origins is that the breed was developed in the 1920s by W.B. Garland of North Canton, Ohio. Garland had an unusual black Checkered Giant doe with a large number of white hairs scattered over her body, and it is believed that he initially bred this female with an English Silver buck. Garland’s purpose was to develop a practical-sized breed that had the blocky shape and fur texture of the English Silver, but with flecks on the fur.
After many failed attempts, a successful mating occurred between an English Silver buck and the black Checkered Giant doe. From the first litter, the largest buck was bred back to his mother, and the largest does were bred back to their father. With about 40 hutches, and after 14 years of consistent culling, Garland had a rabbit that bred true to type and color and was the first rabbit of its day to dress out at a pound under its live weight.
Garland developed both the black and blue Silver Fox color types in this way. Bucks typically weigh 9 to 11 pounds, and does weigh between 10 and 12 pounds. The breed was accepted by the American Rabbit Breeders Association in 1925 as American Silver Giant, and the name was changed to the American Silver Fox in 1929.
Road to Riverwind Farms
While we now also raise and show Flemish Giant and Giant Chinchilla Rabbits (another rare heritage breed), the Silver Fox is our primary breed. We expanded our rabbitry in 2009 by remodeling an existing 12-by-17-foot shed to accommodate 30 holes for our Silver Fox Rabbits. Other renovations included adding heat and air conditioning, which enable us to breed year-round. We experimented with various cage and nesting box designs, settling on a 2-by-3-foot cage that stands 18 inches tall, with drop pans lined with pine wood chips. (NOTE: Never use cedar chips, as they are poisonous to rabbits.)
Brooder pens are 2 feet deep, 5 feet long and 2 feet tall, and include a nest box with a roof that doubles as a second floor for the doe to take a break from nursing her kits. These pens offer the kits room to grow through weaning at eight weeks of age. Breeding generally yields litters of six to eight kits. We have had litters as large as 13 and have successfully raised litters as large as 11 without any losses – proof that the Silver Fox is an exceptionally heavy milk producer. The Silver Fox has a gentle nature, loves attention and makes a wonderful mother. The breed is a logical choice for a child’s pet and 4-H projects at all levels.
Silver Fox rabbits need feed containing 18 percent to 21 percent protein if you plan to compete in the show ring. Lower protein feeds are fine for producing meat. Plenty of fresh water and a good quality grass/hay mix are also recommended. Hay with high alfalfa content can irritate the sensitive digestive tract of rabbits, and therefore is not recommended.
A good venting system is a must for any rabbitry in order to control ammonia, which can be toxic for rabbits over time. Litter pans under the cages should be changed weekly with fresh wood chips. Water bottles need to be sanitized with a mild bleach solution every few months. Whenever bringing any new rabbit into your rabbitry, it’s a good idea to conduct a two-week quarantine to monitor the rabbits for any signs of sickness, as well as to allow them to adapt to their new surroundings. Keep in mind, rabbits are creatures of habit, so any change in feed or cages, or any loud noises can stress your rabbits for several days.
When breeding, always remove the doe from her cage and place her in the buck’s cage. If you reverse this, often the buck will be more interested in rubbing his chin (a rabbit’s way of marking territory) on the new surroundings rather than focusing on the task at hand.
A doe is commonly bred when her previous litter is 6 weeks old, and there’s no need to wait for a doe to go into heat. Rabbits do not ovulate on a regular cycle; mating will stimulate egg production.
Gestation time for the doe is approximately 31 days; a nest box should be placed in with the doe three days prior to the kindle (parturition) date. Our nest boxes are lined with two to three inches of pine wood chips and a healthy amount of fresh, non-dusty hay. For Silver Fox Rabbits, nest boxes should be approximately 18 to 20 inches in length, 10 to 12 inches wide and no less than 10 inches high, with a partial roof or “perch” for the doe to sit on if she chooses.
We have found wooden nest boxes work best, helping control temperature better than metal versions. When the time comes for your Silver Fox to kindle, you’ll see a “rounded out” area within the wood chips, followed by the doe packing hay or straw in her mouth for nest building. Usually the doe will pull fur to line the nest before or shortly after kindling. Kits nurse only once or twice daily. A quick inspection of a healthy, nursing kit should reveal a “fat pot-belly” appearance, not severely wrinkled, which is a sign of dehydration.
If you would like to attend a rabbit show and learn more about the various breeds, as well as meet breeders, visit the American Rabbit Breeders Association’s website at www.ARBA.net.
Eric Tudor has a passion for historical preservation and research. His small farm specializes in Standard Cochin chickens and Silver Fox, Giant Chinchilla and Flemish Giant rabbits. He and his wife, Sarah, have been married 20 years and have two children.