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
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
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
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, firstname.lastname@example.org,
The American Rabbit Breeders Association, P.O. Box 426, Bloomington,
IL 61702, (309) 667-7500, ARBAPOST@aol.com,
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.