1. World production and trade

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Historical background
World production
International trade
Rabbit meat quality


Best known for being prolific, rabbits are also herbivores which efficiently convert fodder to food. The whole point of meat production is to convert plant proteins of little or no to people as food into highvalue animal protein. In efficient production systems, rabbits can turn 20 percent of the proteins they eat into edible meat. Comparable figures for other species are 22-23 percent for broiler chickens, 16-18 percent for pigs and 8-12 percent for beef.

A similar calculation for the energy cost of these proteins is even more unfavourable to ruminants, as shown in Table 1. When cattle or sheep are raised for meat production, most of the energy consumed by the herd or flock is used to maintain breeding females which have a low prolificacy: a maximum of 0.8 to 1.4 young per year against 40 for female rabbits. Even with the theoretical lower energy cost when cattle are raised for both milk and beef (Table 1), rabbit meat is still more economical in terms of feed energy than beef. Rabbit meat production is therefore an attractive proposition, especially when the aim is to produce quality animal protein.

Rabbits can also easily convert the available proteins in cellulose-rich plants, whereas it is not economical to feed these to chickens and turkeys-the only animals with higher energetic and protein efficiency. The traditional grain and soycakes fed to these domestic poultry put them in direct competition with man for food. For countries with no cereal surpluses, rabbit meat production is thus especially interesting.

Historical background

The domestication of the major livestock species (cattle, sheep, pigs) and the small species (poultry) is lost in the dawn of prehistory. But rabbit domestication dates back no further than the present millenium.

Indeed the wild rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus of southern Europe and North Africa is thought to have been discovered by Phoenicians when they reached the shores of Spain about 1000 BC. In Roman times the rabbit was still emblematic of Spain. The Romans apparently spread the rabbit throughout the Roman Empire as a game animal. Like the Spaniards of that time, they ate foetuses or newborn rabbits, which they called laurices.

Rabbits had still not been domesticated, but Varron (116-27 BC) suggested that rabbits be kept in leporaria, stone-walled pens or parks, with hares and other wild species for hunting. These leporaria were the origin of the warrens or game parks that subsequently developed in the Middle Ages. It is known that monks were in the habit of eating laurices during Lent as they were "an aquatic dish" (sic). In France, it became the sole right of the lord of the manor to keep warrens. Rabbits were hunted little, and were captured with snares, nooses or nets.

Several breeds of rabbit were known in the 16th century and this is the first record we have of controlled breeding. Domestication can therefore be traced to the date Middle Ages. This was probably the work mainly of monks, since it provided them with a more delectable dish than the tougher wild rabbit.

In the 16th century breeding seems to have spread across France, Italy, Flanders and England. In 1595, Agricola mentions the existence of graybrown (wild), white, black, piebald (black and white) and ash grey rabbits. In 1606, Olivier de Serres classified 3 types of rabbit: the wild rabbit, the semiwild or "warren" rabbit raised inside walls or ditches, and the domesticated or hutch-bred rabbit. The meat of the last is described as insipid, and that of the wild or semiwild type as delicate.


  No. of young per breeding female per year Live- weight of breeding female Live- weight at slaughter Slaughter yield Daily weight increase Fat content of carcass Food kcal per g of usable protein
    kg   % g g/kgW0.75 %  
Broilers 100 30 20 63 31 305 130 80
Turkeys 60 10 101 79 65 192 130 87
Rabbits 40 45 32 60 32 223 68 105
Pigs 12 170 100 73 540 284 320 151
Sheep 14 70 50 50 220 182 360 427
Beef cattle 08 500 475 61 950 148 320 442
Dairy cattle1 08 500 475 61 950 148 320 184

SOURCE: Dickerson, 1978.

NOTE: Performance levels noted by Dickerson for each species are not peaks, but fall within the easy range of most breeders.
Theoretical calculation for beef production of a dairy cattle breed, arbitrarily assigning total reproduction and maintenance costs of adult animals to milk production, retaining only feed portion consumed by slaughter animal, ie, 43.6 percent of total energy expenditure.

At the beginning of the 19th century, after the abolition of seigneurial privileges, rabbit rearing in hutches sprang up all over rural western Europe and also in city suburbs. During the same period, European colonial expansion saw the introduction of the rabbit in many countries where it was unknown, such as Australia and New Zealand.

In Europe, breeders usually had a few does and a stock of fattening animals, from which they took according to their needs, as from a larder.

The animals were fed mainly on green forage picked daily. In winter the breeders supplemented forage with hay, beetroots and even grains, often from the stocks intended for large livestock. Rabbits were kept in the backyard, with the poultry. Reproduction was extensive (2-3 litters a year).

From that time on there is frequent mention of the fur as a byproduct (the breed now called Champagne d'Argent was described as "rich"), and the already long-existing Angora mutant was recorded.


Beginning in the late 19th century and picking up speed in the 20th, hutch rearing led to a rabbit population explosion made possible by the selection, protection and multiplication of breeds and mutants unadapted to the wild. Breeders formed associations. Breeding techniques were rationalized and hutch hygiene improved.

Breeding standards were laid down: each adult breeding animal was raised in a separate hutch because rabbits kept in a confined space became aggressive. Young rabbits for fattening were left together, but in this case the males were castrated. Feeding was the same as in the previous century, green fodder and grains, but the first feeding trials produced certain guidelines. The second world war saw the extensive development of rabbit production throughout Europe and Japan to cope with meat shortages. Under these demanding conditions, rabbits demonstrated their highly efficient feed conversion capacity.

In the 1950s, production slumped in Japan and the northern European countries as other meats with more flavour became available, such as frozen beef from the Southern Hemisphere. But in the Latin countries of Europe where people know how to cook rabbit, particularly in France, rabbits were Still produced. In the late 1950s, New Zealand rabbits, wiremesh cages and balanced pelleted feeds were all introduced into

France and Italy from the United States. At the same time, diseases hitherto unknown and apparently linked with the new production techniques (mucoid enteritis and respiratory ailments) appeared, and others disappeared (cenuriasis) or tapered off (coccidiosis).

These new techniques, originally better adapted to the climate of California than to that of northern Italy or France, demanded many modifications in production which were often discovered by trial and error. The hutches especially, which had always been kept outside, were put in closed buildings. Ventilation and lighting problems had to be solved.

The time spent on cleaning cages and collecting food shrank abruptly. This freed breeders to spend more time on the animals themselves. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the work of authors such as Prud'hon et al. ( 1969) led to a sharp drop in weaning age, from eight weeks to four weeks. Post-kindling matings replaced post-weaning matings. Breeders were able to put into practice Hammond's early observations (1925) about postkindling fertilization of does because feeds were so much improved as to obviate the danger of abortion in lactating pregnant does through malnutrition.

At the same time came the explosion of the New Zealand White rabbit and its offshoot, the Californian. The traditional European breeds (Burgundy Fawn, Champagne d'Argent, French Lop, Flemish Giant, Termonde White, German and Spanish Giant, Giant Chinchilla) underwent a regression. As adults it is difficult for these breeds to live on the mesh floors of the cages-the pads of their paws not being adapted like those of the New Zealand White and Californian rabbits.

French and Italian breeders worked to improve substantially the first New Zealand White and Californian rabbits imported from the United States. In France, the 2 breeds were combined to produce specialized hybrid strains according to the design conceived by the French National Agricultural Research Institute (INRA). In the late 1970s, these strains crossed the French borders to Italy, Spain, Belgium and the Federal Republic of Germany, where in large commercial production units they tended to supplant the traditional breeds. Other hybrid strains were produced at the same time, especially in Hungary and the United Kingdom, but in almost every case new strains were bred from these original 2 breeds.

Traditional varicoloured rabbits were gradually replaced by white rabbits. This is having a considerable impact on the market for skins. Before the 1970s, furriers tended to favour the easy-to-dye white skins. Today the reverse is true-white skins are too common. At the same time, improved production techniques have lowered the slaughter age of rabbits in Europe which has reduced the value of the fur. The hair of the skins is "loose" because the animals are too young.


Criteria 1950 1960 1970 1980
Rabbits produced (sold) per breeding doe        
20-25 30 45 60
Average interval between litters (days)        
90-100 70 54 42
Concentrate feed necessary to produce 1 kg live rabbit (kg)        
(*) 6 4 5 3 6
Type of rabbit Common, of no specific breed Pure breeds Specialized does crossed with improv- er buck hybrid strains
Man-hours per doe per year        
16 16 10 7 5
Labour used to produce 1 kg carcass (minutes)        
27 22 9 5 6 2
No of breeding does in breeding units        
80- 100 100-150 200-250 350-400
up to 1000
Percentage of investment in retail price of rabbit (%)        
< 3 5-8 12-15 18-20

Source: Lebas 1981

* Rabbits were not fed concentrates at this date.

Productivity trends in France since the 1950s arc given in Table 2. Industrial rabbit production (specialists prefer the word "rational" to industrial, as the breeder's know-how is still very important) in Europe today is typically in units of 200-1 000 hybrid does reared in buildings with artificial or controlled ventilation. The breeding females are under artificial lighting for 15-16 hours a day and produce all through the year. All animals are reared in 1-4 storey mesh cages (flat-deck and batteries). Male and female breeding animals are raised in separate cages. Young animals for slaughter are raised in cages in groups of 5-10 (France, Spain) or 1-3 (Italy). Young males are not castrated because they are sold for slaughter before or just at puberty. All the animals are fed exclusively with balanced pelleted feed. Drinking water is automatically distributed to every cage.

At the same time there is a sizable increase in private (sophisticated buildings and breeding installations) and producer group investments (technical advisers). Typically, rational production consists of a very quick succession of all phases of the reproduction cycle. This demands extremely close and time-consuming supervision by the breeder. The technical adviser, not being directly involved in these day-to-day tasks, is of great assistance in the medium- and long-term running of a unit. His salary and ancillary costs amount to a sizable investment for a group of producers (1-3 percent of the sale price of a rabbit).

In many countries of eastern and western Europe (Poland, Hungary, France, Italy, Belgium, for example), a more traditional production system, very similar to that of the first 40 or 50 years of this century, still contributes a considerable part of the national output: over 90 percent in Hungary and nearly 40 percent in France. These traditional units are usually very small, with 2-12 breeding females.

World production

National statistics generally do not include rabbit production. But a few basic statistics from an FAO survey and various personal contacts suggest a possible world output of roughly 1 million tonnes of carcasses. This would mean an annual consumption of approximately 200 g of rabbit meat per person. But this is theoretical, as in many countries most people eat no rabbit meat whereas rural people in France eat nearly 10 kg a year.


Country Estimated production (carcass weight)
  Thousand tonnes
USSR 210
France 180
Italy 160
Spain 120
China1 60
Hungary 40
Poland 25
Portugal 20
German Dem Rep 20
Germany (Fed Rep of) 15
United Kingdom 15
United States 15
Total 880
Other countries 120
Grand total 1000

1 Estimate based on exports and assuming domestic consumption to be negligible.


Country Carcass weight kg Country kg Carcass weigh
Malta 4.30 Germany (Fed. Rep. of) 0.33
Hungary 4.00 United Kingdom 0.27
France 3.60 Egypt 0.22
Spain 3.60 Ghana 0.20
Italy 2.80 Peru 0.13
Portugal 2.00 Algeria 0.12
USSR 0.96 Colombia 0.12
Cyprus 0.89 United States 0.07
German Dem. Rep 0.88 Mexico 0.06
Poland 0.76 South Africa 0.04

Europe is indeed the centre of world rabbit production (Table 3). The foremost world producers, far surpassing all other countries, are the USSR (principally Russia and the Ukraine), France, Italy and Spain (Figure ] ). In all, Europe accounts for 85 percent of total world output. Production areas outside Europe are mainly in Central America, a few regions of Africa and in the Republic of Korea and China. Rabbits are not reared in most Arab countries. Table 4 estimates annual per caput rabbit production in producer countries.


National production in the USSR is difficult to estimate as home consumption is not taken into account. But over the last 20 years there certainly seems to have been an increase in overall output: a probable rise of 20 000 tonnes to the present figure of 200 000-220 000 tonnes. In fact, sizable research efforts are made in the USSR to adapt western European methods and especially to develop systems and techniques suited to the country's potential.

The situation in France is somewhat different. Output stabilized at about 270 000 tonnes a year from 1965 to 1972, then slumped abruptly and now stands at roughly 180 000 tonnes. This situation is in line with the rapid drop in the number of very small producers who themselves used most of their production but who, because there were so many of them, supplied an appreciable share of the rabbits marketed. During this same period many newly established rational units of 50-500 does not only closed the small-scale producer gap, but also managed to increase slightly the tonnage of rabbits marketed, which rose from 110 000-120 000 tonnes in the years 1960-65 to 130 000-140 000 tonnes at present. A considerable research effort aimed at improving production techniques was responsible for this increase.

FIGURE 1. Estimate of annual production of rabbit carcasses in different countries, in thousand tonnes (INFRA-FAO Survey, 1981; Lebas, 1981)

The traditional production sector in Spain produced little during the 1960s. The many rational units set up from 1970 onwards made possible a spectacular leap in the output and marketing of rabbit meat. The present total is 120 000 tonnes. The production models were transposed directly from France.

Italy is between these two countries: it is unable to meet domestic demand and has to import sizable tonnages. But here again, newly established units are mostly large (500-1 000 breeder does).

Rabbit meat production and consumption in other western European countries are still low. However, there seems to be a slight increase in consumption in the Federal Republic of Germany, where breeders are being encouraged to increase their output. There is a large number of fancy breeders in the Federal Republic who raise a few pedigree animals as a hobby, and also eat a small proportion of the rabbits produced for this purpose. Production and consumption in Sweden and Norway are very low. Rabbit breeding is still a tradition in Denmark, though the national output, once exported mostly to the Federal Republic of Germany, has now dropped.

Among eastern European countries Hungary is the biggest producer. In this predominantly agricultural country family-scale rabbit production is encouraged. At the same time large production complexes with 10 000-15 000 breeding females have been set up. The young fattened animals from both systems are collected and the great majority exported to Italy. In the early 1970s, exports to Italy consisted mainly of live animals. The rabbits were slaughtered in the Milan area. Most rabbits from Hungary are now exported as fresh carcasses.

In Poland, small backyard rabbitries (5-20 breeding females) are still the rule. The rabbits produced are expected to provide good quality meat as well as fur for marketing. Therefore they are usually slaughtered late (4-6 months) for better skin quality. Some animals are collected as in Hungary, but exported as frozen carcasses (generally heavy). Recently rabbit production units of 5 000 breeding females have been established in Romania using French techniques and equipment.


Rabbit production and consumption in the United States are concentrated mainly in the three Pacific States. Young rabbits of approximately 1.8 kg liveweight are eaten as "fryers". On the East Coast there is virtually no market and the only rabbits are pets. Rabbit production in Canada is modest, mainly concentrated in the Quebec province where it is subsidized by the provincial government. The slaughtered carcasses are a little heavier than in the United States.

In Mexico, the promotion of backyard rabbitries in rural areas has led to a total annual output of over 7 000 tonnes from these backyard units (producing mainly for home consumption) and commercial units combined. The latter are small (20-100 does) and use balanced concentrate feeds almost exclusively. The family units rely on forage (alfalfa, maize, or sorghum stems) and kitchen wastes.

In the Caribbean area, rabbit production is basically family style, using forage. The rabbits are often small local breeds, descended from animals imported some hundreds of years ago. However, notable efforts have been made in Cuba to develop improved breeds and use more intensive production methods. In Guadeloupe and Martinique, intensive commercial production in small units of 15-20 does has grown side by side with traditional production in the last decade. This development is based on animals and concentrate feeds imported from France. Output is good: does produce 30-40 young a year and these are sold at 2.2-2.4 kg, at about 80 days.

In South America the biggest producers are Brazil and Uruguay. In both countries the commercial units are large, with thousands of breeding females. The animals are raised intensively and fed locally manufactured balanced concentrate feeds.


Rabbit production does not seem to have developed in Asia except in the Republic of Korea and, minimally, in Japan. The exception is China. No official statistics are published in China on the production and consumption of rabbit meat and it is difficult to approach the question of production in a country of a thousand million inhabitants without official statistics. However, it does appear that rabbits for export (mainly to Europe) are raised in a very special manner.

About 20 million Angora rabbits are farmed. They are usually slaughtered very young, after the second or third clipping at most. Production is therefore mixed, Angora wool plus meat. Thus, financially, meat appears to be the byproduct and Angora wool the main product, fetching 55-70 percent of the gross return for each animal. The animals are fed forage and a little grain and grain byproducts.

Production units do not appear to be spread throughout China, but rather concentrated in certain villages. This enables better support facilities to be provided and facilitates the organizing and marketing of a production which remains, in principle, at a traditional level.


The two main African producers are Ghana and Egypt both with 7 000-8 000 tonnes of carcasses a year. Far behind come Algeria and the Sudan, with 1 000-2 000 tonnes a year.

Although commercial production exists in these countries most rabbitries are family owned, with a part of the output going to the market. The national rabbit production development programme in Ghana, for example, proposes a system where small family units keep only 3-6 breeding animals, so they can be fed on what is growing locally-forage, cassava, etc.-and produce surplus animals for sale.


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