ALBC Logo

September 1, 2005

Interesting Rabbit Domestication History

Some Interesting History on Rabbits
The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) has long been recognized as the source for reliable information regarding breeds of livestock. With the addition of rabbits to ALBC’s conservation mission, there is a need for accurate information regarding the role of rabbits as livestock. Working with the American Rabbit Breeders Association and recognized rabbit authority Bob Whitman, ALBC has compiled information on the ten rabbits breeds that have qualified for inclusion to the ALBC conservation mission, and some interesting information having to do with the domestication of rabbits.

When were rabbits domesticated?
The domestic rabbit is a descendent of the European wild rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, which was and is a popular game animal and source of food in many countries. Despite being one of the last species to be domesticated, they have played a strong role in European agriculture as an important source of efficient protein production. Today, rabbits are still valued for meat, skins, and fiber as well as for their critical importance in medical research.

Credit for the actual domestication of rabbits goes to the early French Catholic monks. Because they lived in seclusion, the monks appreciated an easily obtainable meat supply. Their need to find a food suitable for Lent caused them to fall back on an item much loved by the Romans - unborn or newly born rabbits, which are called “Laurices.” (Laurice was officially classified as “fish” in 600 A.D. by Pope Gregory I, and thus permissible during Lent.) This strange taste, combined with the need to keep rabbits within the monastery walls, created the conditions that led to proper domestication and the inevitable selection of breeding stock for various characteristics and traits.

Rabbits were introduced to Britain by the Romans who kept them in fenced off warrens and harvested their meat and fur. The earliest known written records of rabbits in Britain date from the 12th Century. They were first described as conies, after the second part of their scientific name Oryctolagus cuniculus.

When were breeds developed?
In the middle of the 16th century, black, white, and piebald rabbits appeared in literature, as written by Agricola, a monk from Verona, Italy who was responsible for his monastery's gardens and livestock. He also reported rabbits in Verona as four times the size of the normal ones. “Silver plated” rabbits, reported in France in the mid-1500s, were believed to be the Champagne d' Argents. Champagne refers to the region of France, and De Argent, meaning silver. Silver rabbits are reported as early as 1631 by Gervaise Markham. English sailors brought the first Angola (Angora) rabbits to the Bordeaux region of France in 1723.

By 1858, Himalayan rabbits are mentioned in the literature. In the mid 1800s, thousands of rabbits were being sent weekly to the London market from the port of Ostend, Belgium. They were selected for their markings creating the Dutch rabbit breed. As early as 1822, Lop Eared rabbits were reported in England, however, the first rabbit show in England was in the mid-1820s. In 1840 the first Lop Club was formed. By mid-1870s, Himalayan, Angora, and Silvers were allowed to be shown. Other breeds continued to be developed by selection and cross-breeding up to the present day.

Rabbits in the New World
There are no domestic breeds that have developed from the American wild rabbit, though they were likely an important source of meat for early European immigrants. While there is very little evidence of domestic rabbits in America prior to the 1840s, it seems likely that rabbits were brought to the New World at an earlier time and raised very casually on farms and in back gardens. We know that by the 1840s, Lop and Angora rabbits had been imported into America. The first importation of the Belgian Hare breed, in 1888, caused a flurry and many other breeds were subsequently imported by the turn of the century. The National Pet Stock Association of America was formed in 1910 with a total of 13 members. They held their first convention in Grand Rapids, MI in 1917. By 1946, there were 8,000 members. In 1952 the name was officially changed to The American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA). Today the ARBA is a strong and successful organization, with 45 recognized breeds, and around 30,000 members.

For more information, contact:
The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, P.O. Box 477, Pittsboro, NC 27312, (919) 542-5704, editor@albc-usa.org, www.albc-usa.org.

The American Rabbit Breeders Association, P.O. Box 426, Bloomington, IL 61702, (309) 667-7500, ARBAPOST@aol.com, www.arba.net.

THE AMERICAN LIVESTOCK BREEDS CONSERVANCY, founded in 1977, is a non-profit membership organization working to protect over 150 breeds of cattle, goats, horses, asses, sheep, pigs, rabbits and poultry from extinction. It is the pioneer organization in the U.S. working to conserve heritage breeds and genetic diversity in livestock.