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Chapter 8 PRODUCTION OF RABBIT SKINS AND HAIR FOR TEXTILES


Rabbit skins: A by-product of meat
Production of quality furs
Collection, preservation and storage of pelts
Curing and glossing
Conclusions on fur production
Angora
Angora: Characteristics
Raising Angora rabbits
Sources of variation in angora hair production
Prospects for angora wool production

Meat is definitely the main goal of rabbit production. Two by-products are usually also recovered from the skin: the pelt and the shorn hair, with no particular production constraint.

Angora rabbits, however, are produced solely for the hair. The only way the producer can be sure of quality hair is to apply a very specific methodology quite different from that used in meat-rabbit production.

The same can be said for the production of quality pelts from special strains such as the Rex. The appropriate techniques, intended primarily to obtain a good pelt, make meat a by-product of the skin. Bearing in mind the special vocabulary used in the fur industry, this chapter includes a small glossary to help the reader with the definition of some specialized terms.

Rabbit skins: A by-product of meat

Rabbit fur production is not comparable with the production of other fur species. Mink, which tops the list of species bred essentially for its fur, supplies a world total of about 25 million to 35 million pelts a year whereas rabbit pelts are estimated at one billion. In France alone annual rabbit skin production tops 70 million.

Few skins are now retrieved from slaughterhouses: they are simply thrown away. Those that are used fall into three categories: fur pelts for dressing, pelts for shorn hair (hair removed from skin) and skins for use as fertilizer.

Origin of the by-product

Intensive meat-rabbit production techniques in Europe are usually incompatible with production standards for quality fur pelts. In fact, the raw skin represents only a small percentage of the value of the living animal. Thus more and more frequently rabbits are slaughtered at an age or time of year when their coats have not fully developed. This is usually at 10 to 12 weeks when they still have an infant coat or are beginning the subadult moult. These thin, unstable coats are not suitable for furs.

The only season when the adult coat is stable and homogeneous is winter. This is true of any animal over six months of age. The rest of the year there are always moult areas of greater or lesser size, so the coat is uneven and the hair is not firmly attached to the skin. Some summer coats can be homogeneous, especially those of rabbits that have completed the subadult moult, but the rabbits must be at least five months old. The summer coat is also thinner than the winter coat.

This rather inflexible growth cycle and seasonal changes in the coat make simultaneous fur and meat production a problem and so fur can only constitute a by-product, especially in intensive production. However, no research has been done on moulting patterns in subtropical countries; the figures given here only really apply to temperate regions.

The only quality skins are from adult rabbits, but the trend in modern rabbit production is to slaughter young, reducing the proportion of adult skins. In extensive production, rabbits are slaughtered at four to six months and this is the situation in many tropical countries. Therefore, quality skins could be produced in the tropics assuming the proper skinning and preserving techniques were used.

Sorting and grading pelts

Sorting. In an unsorted batch of rabbit skins valuable pelts can be found side by side with useless waste, so sorting and grading should be done as early as possible. Sorting, the first operation, determines the future use of the skin. Skins are sorted into three grades:

· Pelts for dressing (the term "dressing" instead of "tanning" is used for fur). These are the best skins, with regular shape, intact, homogeneous, dense, a well-formed coat, a flawless skin. Their price may be 20 times that of unsorted quality skins.

· Pelts for shorn hair. These usually lack the proper shape or are not homogeneous enough for fur products. The hair, however, is sufficiently long and healthy. It is therefore machine shorn and used for textiles or felting (although the hat trade is declining in many countries). The skin is cut into fine strips (vermicelli) and made into glue (another declining industry) or fertilizer. This technique allows much of the pelt to be recycled.

· Waste, unusable except for fertilizer (the hair is gnawed, cut, soiled, sweaty, parasite-ridden). Such skins push up the costs of labour, processing and transport.

In France, one of the foremost rabbit-producing countries, the proportion of pelts suitable for dressing is less than half of those collected. The figure differs from one author to another, which is not surprising in view of the difficulty in getting exact data on this product.

Classification. The customer buys the skins in commercial lots (from 0.5 to 5 tonnes) of matching quality.

The following grading system is used in France (and also in many other countries because of the number of French traders in the fur market).

For pelts for shorn hair.

· rejects - hair weight 10 to 18 percent of the dry pelt weight;
· ordinary - hair weight more than 18 percent of dry pelt weight;
· good quality, with guard hair removed - for glove-making.

For fur pelts. Grading is more complex for fur pelts, as colour, size and quality are all considered. The colours are white, range of grey, range of red (nankin), mixed and black.

Size is assessed by weight per 100 dry pelts:

· entre-deux: 12 to 13 kg/100 pelts (100 to 140 g per pelt);
· cage: 13 to 20 kg/100 pelts (150 to 210 g per pelt);
· heavy: 26 to 40 kg/100 pelts (250 to 350 g per pelt).

The gap between grades and the difference between weight per 100 pelts and unit weight stem from fluctuations in assessment.

Quality assessment covers the integrity of the pelt (proper cut, good fleshing, no knife marks or holes from skinning) and its structure (height of guard hair, compactness and height of downy undercoat and the homogeneity of the coat):

· pelts 4: poorest;
· pelts 3, 2 bis: medium;
· pelts 2 and 1: best.

This classification, which at first sight looks complex, is in fact relatively simple: traders and clients know exactly what merchandise is in question when they speak of a "cage 2 grey" or an "entre-deux 4 nankin".

The system, with slight variations, is the same in every country, understandably so considering rabbit pelts are an international trade item. In the United States, where rabbit production is not widespread and is undertaken by amateurs, United States Department of Agriculture grades are:

· firsts: no defects, thick and regular subhair. Used for furs;

· seconds: some hair defects and a certain lack of thickness, short subhair. For inferior fur and cutting;

· thirds: for cutting (felt) or toys;

· hatters: rejects, the best of which are used for cutting.

Firsts and seconds include five colours: white (price sometimes double that of colours as pelts can be dyed); red; blue; chinchilla; mixed.

Sorting and grading clearly show that it is in the interest of the breeder and the general economy of the country to produce the highest possible proportion of quality pelts or at least reduce the proportion of those which are unusable. It is also important to be able to constitute homogeneous commercial lots. This means that if production is low in a region the range of colours should be limited. The choice is not simple, given the ups and downs of fashion. The wisest choice would normally be white, as it generally commands a good price and once dyed can easily follow colour fashion trends. However, this is not the best advice at present, with long-haired fur in vogue and dyeing virtually in disuse.

White (not Angora) rabbit hair from shorn skins should not be considered a negligible item: it accounts for several thousand tonnes on the world market. France usually exports 100 to 200 tonnes of rabbit hair every year, and imports slightly less. Prices can be quite high: in 1984 to 1985 they held steady at 250 to 300 FF/kg, whereas the usual price is about 100 FF/kg as in 1992.

Production of quality furs

The main barrier to quality pelt production is slaughter age: the pelt must be big enough and the whole coat mature: i.e. a winter coat. The crucial times are moulting - juvenile moults for growing rabbits and seasonal moults for adults.

Quite apart from rabbits slaughtered too young and those raised under poor conditions, the two major defects that make rabbit fur a downmarket product are the fragile guard hairs (long coarse hairs in the coat) which break off very easily and the unequal growth of the hair during adult seasonal moulting (zones with shorter or looser hairs).

The Rex rabbit is free of the first defect because the coat contains no guard hairs, an advantage that places Rex furs in a select category of fur classification.

The second defect can be ironed out by production techniques that synchronize moulting in all parts of the body. The combination of this technique with Rex production has made it possible for some rabbit fur to attain formerly unthinkable pinnacles of quality.

Moulting

Seasonal moults in adults. Seasonal moults in adults, which are ruled by seasonal photoperiodicity, occur in spring and autumn. The spring moults are spectacular, with visible loss of winter hair, but they are slow and irregular and rarely give an entirely stable coat in summer. This summer coat, thin and short, is not among the most prized - it weighs only 50 g. The autumn moult, on the other hand, reactivates all the hair follicles in a relatively short time. It gives longer hairs and above all multiplies the secondary hair follicles which produce part of the undercoat. The winter coat, which remains stable for several months, weighs approximately 80 g. This coat is the most highly prized of all and often the only one used by furriers. In addition, the network of collagen fibres of the derma is contracted and produces a finer and stronger skin.

It is obviously preferable in a temperate climate to slaughter the animal at the onset of winter, as soon as the coat is mature, to ensure the least possible deterioration of the hair. Unfortunately no detailed study has been made in tropical or equatorial climates.

Juvenile coats. There are three types of juvenile coat: that of the newborn rabbit, infant coats and subadult coats. The first two are unusable because they are too small. The coat of the newborn rabbit stops growing when the animal reaches 0.4 kg (for an average size breed); it weighs only 8 to 10 g. The infant coat is mature at around nine weeks and its weight depends on the rabbit's weight, since the number of hair follicles in development depends on the size of the skin area of the growing animal. If a rabbit weighs 0.5 kg at nine weeks it carries 15 g of hair, against 30 g for a rabbit weighing 1.1 kg. The coat is thus still light in weight and the hair is fine.

The subadult coat becomes more interesting but the lengthy (four or five weeks) moult which produces it does not start until the rabbit reaches 1.7 to 1.9 kg. It matures, at the earliest, at four to five months (usually five). The weight of the coat, and hence hair length and density, also depends on the season in which the hair develops: 40 g in summer, 60 g in autumn or in winter, which is acceptable given the skin area. The subadult coat is therefore the first coat that could provide a fur.

As a consequence, it is very difficult to obtain pelts for fur in intensive meat-production systems (slaughter at 11 weeks). However, a breeder might attempt to produce acceptable pelts for shorn hair by using simple measures.

It is however quite possible to produce fur pelts under extensive production systems, by not pushing the animals' growth, feeding them a cheap but balanced diet and slaughtering them at the age of five or six months during the winter. It is also possible to produce fur pelts in intensive systems, provided that the rules detailed below are obeyed.

Conditions for quality fur production

Light. Newborn and subadult moults are not really ruled by seasonal photoperiodicity. They can be induced earlier by artificial lighting, but this calls for sophisticated installations (windowless housing) and the technique is complex (two different fattening periods with separate light regimes).

Temperature does not govern moults, but if it is too hot the discomfort will make the rabbit eat less, and the coat will suffer accordingly.

Hygiene. Any physiological imbalance or pathological disorder has immediate repercussions on the coat, even if it has reached maturity. It becomes dull and unkempt, the secretion of the sebaceous glands is disturbed and the rabbit neglects its grooming. A skin collected in this condition will never make a good fur. Normal hygienic procedures, valid whatever the production system, also favour the production of a quality pelt and help to avoid diseases which specifically affect the skin. This will be one of the most difficult problems for developing countries.

Choice of breed and selection

In making this choice there are two factors above all to be considered with relation to grading pelts: colour and size.

Colour is a question of fashion but, as mentioned earlier, white is the most suitable as it is impervious to fashion changes because it can be dyed. It must be remembered that the trader is interested only in lots of four or five tonnes. Large pelts are the most prized; without going so far as to produce giant rabbits this means that midget breeds should be rejected.

Finally, there is the structure of the coat: it should be homogeneous, with long hair and a thick undercoat well covered with silky guard hair.

As has already been mentioned, the Rex breed produces an interesting and original pelt which is softer to the touch but tougher, recalling prestige furs such as chinchilla, moleskin or otter.

Collection, preservation and storage of pelts

Skinning

Skinning should be carried out in a manner that ensures the largest possible skin surface, which is an important part of its value. The first cut is usually an incision at the hind feet, passing from one thigh to the other. The skin is then pulled off. The skin on the head is of no commercial value but it is preferable to keep it because it allows better stretching.

This operation should be done with care to avoid mutilation, knife marks, grease (which oxidizes and burns the skin) or bloodstains. All these defects reduce the value of the pelt, especially when the coat is originally of good quality. The sequence of skinning operations is illustrated in Figure 48.

Preservation

Rabbit pelts are preserved by drying. This is a simple operation which can be done anywhere and costs little (the salt used to preserve the skins of other species can be expensive). Drying should start immediately after the skin has been removed. It must cool off quickly and dry out to prevent the action of enzymes in the derma which attack the hair root and cause the hair to fall. If fresh pelts are left in a pile for even a short time (more than 15 minutes) a rapid bacterial fermentation will set in and cause the hair to fall out in patches. Many pelts are lost this way through lack of elementary care.

The skins are shaped on a frame. They should not be excessively stretched, nor should there be any creases. The frame can be a board or a steel wire frame (Figure 49). Straw should not be used as padding as it can deform the pelt in places.

During drying, air should circulate freely and the skins should not come into contact with one another. It is unacceptable to accelerate drying by exposing the skins to the sun or to hot air; above 50°C the collagen of the derma is altered irreversibly and the skin cannot be processed. They should be dried in the shade or in the dark in a well-aired dry place (optimum temperature 18° to 22°C).

Twenty-four hours later it is best to remove fatty deposits on the shoulders and belly to avoid local hotspots.

Packaging and storage

The pelts are arranged in piles when they are perfectly dry in a cool airy room, with insecticide (naphthaline) between each layer of skin. It is best to grade the pelts without delay, the grading being more or less elaborate according to the size of the stock in question. At least the different qualities should be separated immediately and the white pelts from the coloured.

Whether the destination of the pelt is fur or hair production, all operations from skinning to storage must be carried out with care and attention. The slightest fault in handling results in a lowering of grade, which is all the more serious when a high-quality skin is involved and all the work carried out previously is lost. The greater the homogeneity and quality of the pelts the more attractive they will be to the trader, which is particularly important at times of market depression.

If it is intended to extend rabbit production in a country for the profitable sale of the pelts, training should not be underestimated. Training will be needed not only in production, particularly in teaching producers how to recognize the state of maturity, but also in the care needed in skinning the animal and in preserving and storing the pelt. Experience with hides and skins of other species shows the extent of losses due to negligence (in some countries only one pelt remains from every three animals slaughtered). Perhaps bad habits can more easily be avoided when a new animal-production sector is introduced.

FIGURE 48 Skinning a rabbit - 1 Shin cut between the thighs

FIGURE 48 Skinning a rabbit - 2 Skin pulled off the hind legs

FIGURE 48 Skinning a rabbit - 3 Skin pulled to bare the trunk and then the forelegs

FIGURE 48 Skinning a rabbit - 4 Carcass skinned but not eviscerated

FIGURE 48 Skinning a rabbit - 5 Carcass opened, white viscera (Intestinal tract and lungs) removed

Curing and glossing

Developing countries are increasingly processing the cattle hides and sheep skins they produce. The first step is to turn out semi-finished products, for which the technology is simpler and more uniform, albeit demanding, and for which there is a wider market. Finished leather is a specialized product whose manufacture is far more delicate to undertake as expertise and imagination are both essential.

This is why developing countries are holding back their rough pelts to make semi-finished products such as wet-blues and hides (India, Pakistan). This system obviously has the advantage of using the local labour available, giving greater value to the exported product and facilitating packaging and storage.

Is the same development possible for rabbit pelts? This is difficult enough to answer with regard to other fur, which must always be perfect, and even more difficult for rabbit fur, towards which there is some consumer prejudice, also because European output, although of medium quality, is so high. On the other hand, shearing the pelt for the hair does not seem to pose any particular problem any more than does making use of the remainder of the skin, even if only for fertilizer. There is also the possible manufacture of small objects such as toys with pieces of low-quality fur; however, this is of relatively small economic importance and may involve difficulties with the hygiene regulations of potential importing countries.

Curing

Processing the pelt to the semi-finished stage requires a series of operations:

· dipping: rehydration of the pelts with water, salt and possibly soap, followed by rinsing;

· fleshing: the rabbit skin has a peculiarity, a thin collagenous film on the flesh side. This membrane, which is impervious to curing products, should be removed. This is a delicate, labour-intensive operation, carried out on the rehydrated skins;

· dressing: the special tanning for rabbit skins generally uses a specific blend of salt, alum and formol;

· thinning: it is necessary to thin down the thicker skins. This is highly specialized work, demanding great precision to avoid holes in the skin, cutting hair follicles and causing hair loss. A second dressing is carried out on the thinned skins;

· greasing: nourishing the skin with oil. This operation is labour-intensive;

· finishing: this gives the skin a pleasing appearance and consists of removing grease (stirring in a tub with absorbents), beating (tossing in a meshed cylinder to remove absorbents, sawdust, grit, kaolin) and lifting the hair to set it in place. Machines can be used for all three finishing stages.

FIGURE 49 Correct way to dry rabbit pelts (a)

FIGURE 49 Correct way to dry rabbit pelts (b)

Note: a = frame of thick steel wire (6 mm) if possible covered with plastic or sticking-paper; b = skin stretched over frame to dry, turned inside out with frame on inside, held down by clamps or domes pins.

Glossing

This is a complicated finishing operation, with variations such as shaving or colouring according to the final product required. It calls for much handling, expertise and imagination (mixing of dyes, special effects, etc.). These operations are too complex to describe here. However, it is often the furrier who, having chosen a lot of rough furs, decides on the final appearance they will be given. For a coat, 20 to 30 skins will be needed. The making up of "bodies" (remnants of fur sewn together and sold by length), which is labour-intensive and not highly automated, can be done in developing countries or in countries where the labour is less expensive (Greece, the Republic of Korea and, for mink pelts, Taiwan, Province of China).

Conclusions on fur production

There is no hope of supplying quality furs under current rational production conditions for meat rabbits, particularly those slaughtered at 11 weeks. Skins, however, may be recovered for the three separate purposes of hair (felt), hides (fertilizer, glue) and sometimes dressed skins.

Quality pelts can be produced in extensive rabbit production systems if the producer is mindful of the moulting periods and waits until the subadult pelt is mature before slaughtering the young rabbit. The fur will be even thicker and more compact if slaughter is scheduled for a favourable photo period, i.e. when the days are short.

As regards the introduction or extension of rabbit production for pelts in developing countries, the following points should be considered:

· training of the future producer, specifically in the production of quality pelts;

· production of quality pelts in sufficient quantity to make up homogeneous lots for trade, concentrating on a limited number of pelt types, in particular as concerns colour;

· coat structure (density, silkiness) and the size of the skin are important considerations in selecting the breed. There is not much point in pinning great hopes on obtaining high-quality pelts in hot climates.

Upmarket furs can also be produced in rational systems provided special strains such as the Rex are used. The look and feel of this fur is now much in demand. There must be specific production techniques geared to fur production (meat, even though it may be of better quality, is here the by-product). Compared with conventional intensive production, the fattening units must be modified: windowless buildings for artificial illumination, large individual cages. The diet must also be modified (rationing) and slaughter specifically timed. Skinning, drying and preservation require great care. The skins are usually sold raw to furriers, for small-scale tanning operations often lack the qualities to produce high value added upmarket furs.

Angora

Angora, the hair of Angora rabbits, is one of the five keratinic textile fibres of animal origin of significant economic value. Wool from sheep is of course by far the main fibre, at over 1.3 million tonnes per year (thoroughly washed). The four others: mohair, angora, cashmere and alpaca, each at outputs of 5 000 to 30 000 tonnes, exhibit original qualities of fineness, lustre and feel for the production of high value added luxury items. Angora is often considered one of the "noble" fibres.

Angora: Characteristics

Textile properties

In the matter of textiles, "angora" without any other qualification refers solely to the hair produced by Angora rabbits.

Its International Organization for Standardization (ISO) symbol is WA: W for wool, reserved for noble textile hair, as opposed to H used for ordinary hair. The letter A is for the Angora rabbit and distinguishes it from the mohair produced by the Angora goat, M. The symbol for mohair is thus WM. The short hair of the ordinary rabbit is designated HK (K = Kaninchen which is "rabbit" in German).

Length. Angora hair is unusually long owing to the prolongation of the active phase of the hair follicle cycle: the hair grows for approximately 14 weeks, whereas that of the rabbit with ordinary (short) hair grows at the same rate but for only five weeks. This is due to the presence of a recessive gene in Angora rabbits.

Apart from this great length, there is no other modification either in the hair's structure or in the composition of the coat, which contains the three classic types of rabbit hair.

· guide hairs: the longest (10 to 11 cm) and the roughest; they cover and guide the coat;

· guard hairs ("barbes"): shorter than guide hairs (8 cm); their rough points lie on the coat and hermetically seal it (covering hair); four to each guide hair;

· down: shortest hair (6 cm); rounded point, hardly visible, very fine body (14 m). Very numerous, 60 to a guide hair, they constitute the thermic isolation undercoat. The length of angora hair accounts for its textile value, because it permits cohesion in the thread.

Friction coefficient. The rabbit's hair has a characteristically low friction coefficient owing to the very slight relief of the cuticle scales. This results in a particular softness to the touch, but also an exceptional capacity for slipping. This is why the length of angora is important; the hair is twisted and stays in the thread. The use of ordinary rabbit hair to replace angora produces threads of bad quality which spread everywhere: this is a fraudulent process which reflects badly on the Angora industry.

Because of its softness angora hair is used for the manufacture of insulating underclothes (keratin). Ten percent angora in a mixture of wool, cotton and synthetic fibres makes an extremely soft fabric, very easy on the skin.

The kemp points and the covering hairs, which are more rigid, rise from the fabric, giving it a fluffy appearance which is much prized. Whole angora hairs obtained by depilation are the most suited for this purpose.

Other characteristics of angora hair

Although the Angora rabbit exists in all colours, only the albino strain is produced now. Its coat is entirely white, which is an advantage for dyeing. Coloured Angora rabbits are raised in India for the manufacture (by breeders themselves) of undyed artisanal fabric with muted colour motifs. The hairs are all medulated (hollow), which makes them lighter than wool (density 1.1 against 1.3) and increases their insulating properties. They have all the properties of keratin, notably insulation, water absorption and good dyeing quality.

Mini-glossary

Selected technical terms for fur production

Curing: tanning skins with hair.

Shearing: separating the hair from the skin in which it is implanted.

Knife marks: perforation or slit from skinner's knife.

Skinning: separating the skin (with hair) from the animal (carcass).

Brushing: gently brushing hair back into place at various stages in the curing process.

Pellicle: a thin collagenous film on the flesh side. The subskin muscle is removed with the dermis during skinning.

Fur: rabbit skin and hair.

Glossing: dyeing the hair of cured pelts.

Moulting: period of reactivation of hair follicle. The base of the former hair is hydrolized, freeing the hair canal for the emergence of the new hair.

Moulting zone: section of skin where hair follicles were active at slaughter. Seen as dark blue patches on the skin side of the pelt. The hair comes out easily or is still very short, its growth interrupted by slaughter.

The Angora rabbit's coat is 98.5 percent pure as cutaneous secretions (restricted to those of the sebaceous glands) are very slight and the animal grooms itself frequently (a sheep's fleece is only 50 percent pure because of the presence of suint). Angora wool goes straight to the card without previous washing: it is imperative that the producer keep constant control over the cleanliness of the animals.

Commercial qualities

There are several grades of hair, identified by length, type of animal and cleanliness. First-quality hair which represents 70 percent of the coat must be over 6 cm in length (down) and clean. This grade was worth 950 FF a kg in 1984, but only 300 FF in 1981 to 1982. Since 1988, the price has ranged from 300 to 380 FF.

Second-quality hair is clean but too short (down less than 6 cm) or too woolly. It is grown on the belly and extremities and is worth about 20 percent less than the first-quality wool. The hair of the young Angora rabbit is shorter and softer. It is the product of the first and sometimes the second collection. The clean but felted hairs collected on the necks of females or breeding animals are worth only 15 percent of the value of first-quality hair.

Dirty hair of any length is virtually worthless. At best, it is worth less than shorn hair from ordinary rabbit breeds. Its value would be no more than 5 or 6 percent of the first quality. Clean hair is therefore absolutely essential in angora wool production.

Raising Angora rabbits

Angora rabbits are reared primarily for their hair. The production of this hair calls for an entirely different set of techniques from those used in meat-rabbit production. These techniques have historically reached the pinnacle of specialization in France, where the sole target has long been wool production, but some countries, headed by China, are now also developing this specialization.

Sexual balance. The adult female produces the hair: adult, because top-quality angora is only produced from the third collection at nine months, and female because the female produces more hair than the male - an average of 1 kg against 700 to 800 g for the male. Therefore the hair-producing stock is made up of adult females that are maintained as long as possible, with reproduction kept at a minimum. Gestation and especially lactation reduce hair production by one-third.

The number of breeding bucks is kept to a minimum. The proportion is only 2 or 3 percent in hair-production units. In France the males not destined for breeding are culled at birth, which hastens the development of the female young.

Harvesting schedule. The hair is collected every 90 to 100 days, when the follicles reach the resting stage and before hair starts falling, which would cause felting and reduce the value. The hair is cut with scissors or electric or manual shears, or collected by depilation. Depilation has long been the technique of choice in France, synchronizing the reactivation of hair follicles with a well-structured coat with good guide hairs. Since the 1980s French breeders have been using a depilatory fodder sold under the name LagodendronR (Société Proval, 27 rue de la gare de Reuilly, 75012 Paris). With careful use of this product, rabbits can be shaved more quickly and easily and less stressfully. Scissors is the more common technique in China, with shearing more common in Central Europe and South America. French-type Angora rabbit hair is better collected by depilation, whereas shearing or scissors are better for Chinese or German-type Angoras. The differences between their genotypes include, inter alia, the simultaneous resumption of hair follicle growth in accordance with the collection method.

Angora hair must be sorted into the different grades at collection, which is the best time. A skilled operator takes about half an hour: less than 20 minutes and more than 45 minutes are both very rare.

FIGURE 50 Comparative growth of hair types in Angora and common rabbits

Habitat

Angora rabbits must be reared in single cages, at least after the age of two months when the hair is first collected. The cage must be big enough (about 0.5 m2) and high enough (about 0.5 m). Wire-mesh floors are rarely recommended. Angora rabbits, particularly French ones, have very fragile paws for their weight of roughly 4 kg. As they are to be kept for several years it is better not to take chances.

French breeders have opted for cement hutches and straw litter, for clean hair and paw protection. The straw absorbs the urine. A little fresh straw is added each week and the entire litter changed every four or five weeks. Duckboard has been a frequent choice in other countries, with the slats made of bamboo (as in China) or plastic. Some breeders, for example in India, use German-type Angoras and have successfully raised them on wire-mesh floors as for meat-rabbit production (see Chapter 6).

Angoras do not like high temperatures (over 30°C). Low temperatures are a problem as well (below 10°C), but only during the days following hair collection. It is therefore not necessary to heat all production buildings (in fact open-air production has long been the practice in France); on the other hand, the denuded rabbit must be protected, particularly where depilation is the collection technique. Breeders use several methods: two-stage depilation at intervals of a few days, leaving a "back" which is subsequently removed; body-coat, warmers, post-depilation boxes, etc.

Feeding and hygiene

Feeding Angora rabbits involves several peculiarities compared with meat rabbits. Indeed, the Angora at peak production is an adult rabbit in a situation of maintenance from the physiological standpoint. Its growth is complete and reproduction is limited to a few animals. It must, however, produce over 2 kg of dry proteins a year -more than 1 kg of keratin (hair) and the same amount from the internal sheath of the hair follicle. This is the equivalent of 7 or 8 kg of muscle.

This explains the need for a high-protein diet - 17 percent. The keratin in the hair is rich in sulphur amino acids, exporting 35 g of sulphur a year, so the proper intake of these amino acids (0.8 percent in the ration) must be ensured. The high productivity of modern Angora strains (up to 1 400 g per year), make full productivity difficult under traditional feeds such as hay, alfalfa, oats, barley, etc. The amounts would be excessive and deficits in sulphur amino acids inevitable. For cost considerations (excluding labour costs) some French breeders still combine these feeds with balanced concentrates containing methionine, vitamin and mineral supplements. Almost all breeders use only pelleted feeds for Angoras which are easy to administer. In this case an average 170 to 180 g should be fed to each rabbit daily.

The Angora rabbit's feed requirements follow the cycle of collection (every three months) and hair regrowth. Requirements increase after depilation as the animal is then hairless and energy losses by radiation are very great. By the second month the animal is again well covered, but this is when the hair grows fastest so the ration must of course remain adequate. In the third month, requirements decrease because the hair grows more slowly and, as collection time approaches, starts to fall. Daily rations need to be adjusted carefully to these variable requirements.

It is now the practice to give 190 to 210 g per day of dry matter during the first month, 170 to 180 g during the second month and 140 to 150 g during the third month. This is less imperative when the wool is sheared. It is also recommended that the rabbits not be fed one day a week so the stomach can empty, preventing or at least diminishing the risk of the hair balls that can form from self-grooming (very hard balls called trichobezoars that obstruct the pylorus and usually end in death).

Most losses of adult Angoras occur during the days following hair collection as the animals then have problems maintaining thermal balance. They become particularly sensitive to respiratory germs (pasteurella, coryza, etc.). The breeder must therefore be constantly on the alert regarding their general hygiene (frequent litter renewal, cleaning, disinfecting). Having to replace working females with young does lowers average production levels because first-year Angora output is appreciably lower: 650 g compared with 1 kg. The usual yearly rate of renewal is 25 to 35 percent.

Labour

Labour in Angora rabbit production may be subdivided into five categories:

· feeding;
· hair collection;
· cleaning and disinfection of the buildings;
· curative or preventive health care (vaccinations);
· reproduction.

Feeding is not labour-intensive provided the breeder distributes only balanced pelleted feeds in easily accessible feeders. In this case 40 minutes per day and 210 hours per year would be needed for a production unit of 400 Angora rabbits. The time is doubled for coarse feed such as hay and cereals. A daily distribution of straw or roughage, including fasting days, transport and sifting of feed must be reckoned in, raising the time spent on feeding to 400 hours per year.

Hair collection is the most time-consuming operation. The calculation needs to include not only the actual hair removal by shearing, cutting or depilation but also moving the rabbit from its hutch to the collecting table, the grooming phase to remove filth or plant matter from the coat, weighing different grades of hair, keeping records, returning the rabbit to the hutch, plus postharvest thermal stress reduction measures. All in all, some 1 000 hours per year are required for a 400-rabbit production unit.

Complete litter removal (cleaning) for hutches or cleaning out wire-mesh cages, disinfection procedures and sweeping takes at least 250 hours per year.

Veterinary care is basically preventive: vaccinations and general disease prevention can take up to 175 hours per year.

Reproduction-related work (handling breeding animals, checking gestation and kindling, sexing newborn rabbits, weaning) also requires 175 hours per year.

In all, a production unit of 400 Angora rabbits requires 2 000 working hours per year under rational production conditions.

Sources of variation in angora hair production

Genetic estimates of different strains

Although there are several strains of Angora rabbit, only the German, French and Chinese (Tanghang, Wan, etc.) strains are of economic interest at this time. The Chinese strains (including the German strain reared in China and South America) supply over 95 percent of the angora hair sold in the world. The European, French and German strains deserve mention for their specific features and because they have been selected for over 50 years.

Weight production. Hair-weight production has long been the sole focus in Angora rabbit selection. These genetic improvement efforts in France and Germany have produced highly similar acceleration of hair growth.

The annual output of does at the INRA experimental production unit in France rose from 885 g/year in 1980 to 1 086 g/year in 1986, a phenotypical gain of 31 g/year. Animals tested at the Neu-Ulrichstein Hesse Centre in Germany gained in productivity from 400 g/year in 1945 to 1 350 g/year in 1986: a phenotypical gain of 32 g/year. Production in the French and German commercial sectors lagged slightly behind these figures with an estimated annual production per doe of 1000 g/year under French and 1200 g/year under German production conditions.

There are major gaps in China by province and by production systems. The figures range from 261 g/year (unspecified Chinese strain, 1985) to 815 g/year (Wan strain, 1992) for does. Production conditions, particularly feeding, are highly influential because German rabbits under Chinese conditions are, according to the literature, producing from 422 to 820 g/year.

Non-genetic factors in quantitative hair output

Most of these factors are known today. The most important, judging by weight at each collection, is of course the interval between two collections. This effect is attenuated when considering annual output.

The collection technique (shearing or depilation) is an important factor, particularly for the (depilated) French strain, as shearing reduces adult doe productivity by about 30 percent.

The number of the hair collection is important up to the fifth collection for French strains: the first four collections successively represent 11 percent, 60 percent, 81 percent and 93 percent of adult production. The German strain is apparently more precocious, with several references citing the fourth and even the third collection as representing full potential productivity.

The sex factor is very marked in the French strain: male rabbits produce 20 percent less hair. This is not so true of the German strain, where the literature reports a difference of zero to 15 percent, with most citing a figure of 10 percent less for male rabbits. Live weight is fairly irrelevant, except during the growth period, but should be correlated with the collection number (first, second, etc.).

The seasonal factor should also be taken into account: winter collection is always heavier than summer collection, varying by 4 to 30 percent depending on the author. It does seem that the higher the productivity of the strain, the weaker the seasonal effect.

Other variation factors such as the season of birth have been studied, but new data are needed to confirm these findings. Undeniably, other factors such as diet (deficiencies), temperature and comfort do have a direct influence on quantitative productivity of hair.

Non-genetic variation factors in qualitative hair production

Angora hair quality parameters are length, the fineness of the down, guard-hair diameter and fur structure and composition. Concerning this last point, the basic distinction is between woolly fur and fur thick in guard hairs. The latter, in accordance with the proposed classification presented to the 1992 Corvallis Convention, include those in which over 70 percent of the guard hairs are full (i.e. with pointed ends) and where less than 1 percent of the fibre is shorter than 15 mm. The other furs are considered woolly. Felting or dirty fur is also considered a quality parameter.

The interval between hair collections is a decisive factor in hair length.

In the distinction between guard hair - obtained by depilation and woolly hair obtained by shearing, the collection procedure is fundamental.

The number of the collection is important (at least at the first harvest) for all rabbit strains and for the second and third collections in French strains, where the young rabbits still produce woolly fur, even after depilation.

The sex factor is less of a distinction and is weaker in the German than in the French strain but males do show a more marked tendency towards felting.

Live weight and season have less effect in adults; at most there is a structural difference: the length ratio of underfur to guard hair is less in summer than winter: 55 percent in summer as opposed to 65 percent in winter.

Prospects for angora wool production

A point to be considered very carefully is that Angora rabbit production is labour-intensive and also requires great expertise. The slightest mistake can mean the loss of productive adults: the animals have to be over a year old to return a profit. Hair collection is always a delicate operation and careless sorting irredeemably downgrades the product. Above all, not all climates are suitable: excessive heat and intense light (albinos) are very bad elements. In cold countries, or in countries with cold winters, the solution is to use buildings that shelter the animals against the rigours of the winter. Recently denuded animals require special care, however. The feed requirements of Angora rabbits are important: a poor, deficient diet will always mean qualitatively and quantitatively poor hair production.

Last and probably most important, the price of angora wool fluctuates: first, according to fashion, with a cycle of three to five years, but also and more abruptly, in classical supply and demand terms, when world production is structurally either excessive or insufficient compared with average utilization of the fibre. The price of angora (sheared wool) suddenly doubled between 1976 and 1978 (from US$13 to $28 per kilogram) because world production, estimated at 900 tonnes in 1977, was clearly insufficient. The price remained at this high level for about ten years, following the dollar; up to US$45 to $50/kg, and then in 1988, when world production had increased by a factor of ten to 9 000 tonnes, the market collapsed and the price had fallen to US$20/kg by the summer of 1991. There was a recent reversal of this slump in Chile, Argentina, Hungary and France (and China to a lesser extent), bringing the price up to US$30 in 1992. The volumes traded, and hence angora utilization, continue to rise: the production figure is likely to reach 10 000 tonnes per year again.

As for France, the only developed country to have maintained an angora output of original quality (the guard hair), the situation is one of unprecedented crisis. Production costs no longer permit the sale of French angora wool at less than US$75/kg and the gap between that and the world price appears immense to foreign buyers (the difference between world prices and the price for French angora conventionally being 40 to 50 percent). Quality French angora hair has remained virtually unexported since 1988, therefore, and is very difficult to market internally, either in the unprocessed form for manufacture or in manufactured form (e.g. sweaters).

Clearly this is a highly speculative production and should be approached with great caution. The utilization of the noble textile fibre, angora, continues to grow despite competition from other natural fibres and particularly from synthetic fibres. This is partly due to the new sectors that have opened, particularly for fabric, in combination with cashmere and silk. The price slump from 1987 to 1991 did indeed follow ten very favourable years, after decades of good angora prices. Better times could return again.


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