If you raise or own rabbits, then you’ve probably noticed a few main breeds dominating the industry – New Zealands, Californians, Mini Rex, Holland Lops – and for good reason. These breeds all do their jobs well. New Zealands and Californians are the most popular breeds for meat producers because they grow fast and have pretty large litters. They’re very well accustomed to intensive management because that’s what they are designed to do. Mini Rex, Holland Lops, and other little cute breeds like that, are incredibly popular in the pet industry because they are all just that – little and cute – exactly what pet owners want in a bunny.
I’m a bit of a non-conformist. I raise Silver rabbits. Although they are commonly confused with two other breeds – Silver Fox and Silver Marten – they are very different from both of those. Silvers are much smaller than Silver Foxes and have absolutely no characteristics in common with Silver Martens at all. The Silver is a very small breed, they can range from 3 to 7 pounds, but mine are on the small end. My biggest Silver is probably 4 to 4 1/2 pounds. And, see, I can’t really compare mine to others size wise because my Silvers are the only Silvers I’ve ever seen in person. At one point there was another breeder that I showed against, and then he gave his two Silver rabbits to me, so we’re back to “the only ones I’ve ever seen are mine.”
I don’t raise Silvers because they’re stellar meat producers, because they aren’t. I raise another heritage breed, the American Chinchilla, because they are stellar meat producers. I don’t raise Silvers for the pet market, because they’re sort of strange personality wise. It’d be like raising Border Collies for pet stores – it just wouldn’t work for a million different reasons. Nor do I raise Silvers for fur. Can you picture the pelt from a 4-pound rabbit? It’d make a nice half-a-mitten. I raise Silvers because when I am holding my little brown doe Minerva, I’m holding a piece of history.
Looking at me right now, in my yoga pants and pink hoodie and glittery toenails, you probably wouldn’t picture me being a history buff. I’m pretty sure I look like your generic blonde bonehead. Seriously, though, I love history. When I was a kid, my grandma took me to the American Girl store in Chicago. I didn’t want to see the American Girl of the Year, she was too modern for me. I wanted to wander around the historical section. I coveted the dolls’ record players and spinning wheels and authentic Nez Perce outfits. Back then, I did look like a nerd. I just discovered Glamour magazine, that’s the only difference from College Cattle Cait and Tween Cattle Cait.
Silvers are arguably the oldest domestic breed of rabbit. They were raised in warrens in the Middle Ages but breeders are uncertain of their exact origin. So, Minerva could be French, or Italian, or Chilean, but I’m going to go with my gut and assume she’s probably English or French. I hold Minerva, or her husband Murdoch, or my other Silvers, and for a split second I could be some random medieval woman grabbing supper. I probably wouldn’t turn Minerva into supper though, she’s too cute. Maybe her sister Bellatrix. We don’t hold Bellatrix, and for good reason (she’s evil). If I was a medieval woman getting supper, I’d eat Bellatrix. They are intelligent and have crazy fast reflexes, which make them ideal for free range and colony raising. Unfortunately, this is why they've been rapidly losing popularity because they never adjusted well to confinement systems. I often say that they're the most "rabbity" of domestic rabbits.
Forrest enjoying the summer sun
I don’t know if it’s like that for other historical rabbit breed raisers, but that’s how it is for me. It’s important to preserve rare, heritage breeds like this – they’re a part of our history. If we don’t make it a priority to propagate rare breeds like Silvers, they will disappear. It happens more often than you might think.
I do believe that we should crossbreed when necessary to encourage traits that we want; that’s the beauty of having domestic animals. I once had a fantastic line of meat rabbits that were a conglomeration of American Chinchilla, New Zealand, Palomino, Satin, Champagne d’Argent, and several others. They did everything I needed them to, and if I had continued to develop them, I’m positive that they had potential to become a real breed. However, crossbreeding should never be done casually, and it should not screw up an existing breed. Those crossbreds I had never made it on the show table, and they were not bred back into my purebred American Chinchillas or Palominos. They were an experiment gone wonderfully right, and then I ran out of money and had to sell. It was sad, but it happens.
Long story short, check out your rare breeds. The Livestock Conservancy is a great place to start – they have a very helpful breed list that shows what breeds are in need of help, and what level of rarity they are at. Keep in mind though that many rabbit breeds that are in need of preservation are not on that list because they are either not considered to be of historical importance or there has been too much crossbreeding. In most circumstances like that, crossbreeding has been done to save a breed that is near extinction, and without the crosses the breed would have been lost, but I’m not picking that bone today. So, when you’re looking for a meat breed, instead of quickly snapping up a New Zealand (don’t get me wrong, a beautiful breed that I’ve raised before and I quite liked) check out, say, American Sables, or Palominos, or Cinnamons. If you want something smaller, maybe look at the Thrianta. And, if you’re looking for a handsome, intelligent rabbit with the personality of a Jack Russell Terrier, please give the Silver a chance. They’re worth it.
Minerva, before realizing that she was loose
Minerva, after realizing that she was loose