The domesticated rabbit movement hit the United States in the early 1900s, but it wasn’t until World War I that people really began to take the rabbit industry seriously. During wartimes, food prices increased, and domestic-bred rabbits became an affordable delicacy. People also discovered the protein value in rabbit meat was higher than that in chicken, beef, veal and other meats.
The animal’s history is ancient, but in this day and age, many rabbit breeds are disappearing from the agricultural landscape. Requiring little space and producing many byproducts such as meat, fur and fertilizer, rabbits can be a great option for the small sustainable farm.
A true American original, the American is one of only six rabbit breeds developed in the United States. It was first exhibited in 1917 by Lewis H. Salsbury of Pasadena, California. While Salsbury is credited with creating the breed, the American’s exact origins are uncertain. It’s thought that much like “America the melting pot,” the American breed is a melting pot of a variety of breeds including the Blue Vienna, Blue Beveren, Blue Imperial and Blue Flemish Giant. The American rabbit was originally named the German Blue Vienna. With the United States’ entrance into World War I against Germany, the name was changed to the American Blue.
The American is a large breed, with mature bucks weighing 9 to 11 pounds and does weighing 10 to 12 pounds. Americans are recognized in both blue and white varieties. Both colors should have mandolin-shaped bodies. The American is a hardy, docile breed that produces large litters. It’s an ideal choice for anyone looking for food, fur or fancy. Americans are a fast-growing rabbit, reaching market weight fairly quickly, and they are easily kept in wire-bottom hutches. Since the 1950s, breeders and the public have lost interest in the American, and it is one of the rarest rabbit breeds in the United States.
The Belgian Hare is not a hare at all. In fact, it’s the domesticated rabbit breed that began the U.S. “rabbit era” in the early 1900s. The Belgian Hare, as its name suggests, was originally from Belgium, but it was the British who perfected the breed. In 1888, the first Belgian Hares were imported into the United States by E.M. Hughes of Albany, New York. Within a year, the animals grew in popularity, and from 1898 to 1901, thousands of Belgian Hares were brought to the country. Rabbits were being sold for thousands of dollars, including one male that brought a record price of $5,000. Millionaires of the day, such as J. P. Morgan, Rockefeller and DuPont, saw the potential for money to be made, and they, too, jumped on the Belgian Hare bandwagon. Eventually the market became oversaturated, causing prices for the breed to drop. By the 1940s, the breed faced extinction.
The Belgian Hare was developed to look like a wild hare. It has a very fine-boned, lean body. It has a deep, rich red color with a black-waved ticking to the fur. Mature bucks and does will weigh 6 to 9 pounds. The Belgian Hare is not the hardiest rabbit breed, but it is very active. Because of its active nature, the breed needs room to move around and exercise. Today they are considered threatened, but new interest in showing and breeding are helping the Belgian Hare make a comeback.
Blanc de Hotot
While this breed may have a fancy French name, it actually translates to “white of Hotot” after the Hotot-en-Auge region of France. The breed was developed by Eugenie Bernhard, chatelaine du Calvados. Bernhard is the second woman ever to be credited with developing a new rabbit breed, since in the early 1900s, rabbit breeding was a man’s venture. Bernhard wanted to create a white rabbit with black eyes that was good for both meat and fur. She first tried to cross several breeds, but was unsuccessful in reaching her goal. She then decided to breed and select from the Giant Papillon Francais.
More than 500 matings and selections later, she had created the Blanc de Hotot. The breed was first brought to the United States in 1921 or 1922, but it quickly died out. It wasn’t until 1978 that Bob Whitman of Texas imported eight Blanc de Hotots. The breed was officially recognized by the American Rabbit Breeders Association in 1979. Because of the very small gene pool, U.S. breeders were forced to cross Blanc de Hotots with other breeds. In 2004, additional Blanc de Hotot stock was imported into America from Germany, Holland and England.
The Blanc de Hotot is a large rabbit breed with bucks weighing 8 to 10 pounds and mature does 9 to 11 pounds. The breed is known for its lustrous white fur and the black ring around the eyes. Careful selection is necessary to ensure proper markings. The Blanc de Hotot is an active, hardy breed. Hotots make great mothers and have good-sized litters. The breed is multipurpose and can be raised for meat, fur or fun. While the numbers are growing in the United States, the breed still remains globally endangered.
Silver Fox Rabbit
The Silver Fox was the third rabbit breed developed in the United States. It was created by Walter B. Garland of North Canton, Ohio. With its large, meaty body and beautiful fur, the Silver Fox makes a great multipurpose breed. Originally called the American Heavyweight Silver, the breed’s name was eventually changed to American Silver Fox, and then to Silver Fox. Young Silver Fox rabbits, however, are not silver at all. They are born black or blue, and similar to how a Dalmatian gets its spots, young Silver Fox rabbits develop their “silvering” over the course of several months.
The Silver Fox is a large rabbit breed with adult bucks weighing up to 11 pounds and adult does reaching 12 pounds. The only color recognized by the standard is the black, though blue varieties do exist and were recognized by the breed standard until the 1970s. The Silver Fox was the first large rabbit breed that dressed out at 65 percent of its live weight, making it an excellent choice for meat production. Their extremely dense fur is 11⁄2 to 2 inches in length and makes an ideal pelt. Silver Fox rabbits are very docile and friendly. They have large litters and make excellent mothers. Today, the Silver Fox is facing extinction. In 2010, the breed had an estimated global population of fewer than 500 breeding animals.
The Giant Chinchilla was created by Edward H. Stahl, a true pioneer of the rabbit industry in the United
States. In 1919, Stahl was one of the first to get his hands on a new breed imported into the United States – the Chinchilla. He knew the breed would be a hit, but the standard Chinchilla was just too small. Stahl sought to create the “Giant Chinchilla,” hoping to give additional size and value to the Chinchilla breed. On Christmas morning 1921, after several years of experimental breeding, a Giant Chinchilla doe was born that Stahl considered the ideal. Her name was Million Dollar Princess; and a million dollar princess she was. Stahl eventually went on to become the first and only individual to ever make a million dollars from the sale of rabbit breeding stock. He’s often considered the father of the domestic rabbit industry in America.
Giant Chinchillas are a large breed with mature bucks weighing in at 12 to 15 pounds and does at 13 to 16 pounds. The breed is gentle in nature, making them a good option for novice rabbit keepers. Does have large litters and make good mothers. The Giant Chinchilla makes a good multipurpose breed, providing rich meat and quality furs. Due to their large size, hutches with all wooden floors and a heavy bedding of shavings and straw are needed. Youngsters grow very fast, producing meat quickly and cost efficiently. It is easy to produce a 7-pound fryer in just two months.
Carolina born and raised, Jennifer Kendall resides in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband, Bassett Hound and Orange Tabby, and dreams of one day owning some of these heritage breeds.
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