Rabbits are believed to originate from Spain. The Romans kept rabbits in walled gardens with deep foundations to the walls so that the rabbits could not burrow out. They were introduced into Britain by the Normans.
Pillow mounds and coneygarths
Originally the rabbit enclosure or “Coneygarth” as it was known, consisted of a small field surrounded by trees and hedgerow. (Only young rabbits were known as rabbits then, rabbits over a year old were called ‘coneys’.) Several pillow mounds would be created with stone rubble floors to stop the rabbits burrowing. A mound of soil was piled on top and the mound fenced in.
The rabbits kept in this way retained much of their wild characteristics.
True domestication seems to be due to the monks who wanted a food suitable for Lent. Unborn or newly born rabbits known as laurices and much favoured by the Romans.
Breeding experiments were taking place in French monasteries from the 6th Century but it wasn’t until the 16th Century that we have records of colour variations.
Domestic breeding began in earnest in the 17th Century. One later notable advocate of rabbit breeding was Emperor Napoleon III of France who established smallholdings for workers on condition that they bred rabbits as it would not have been possible to allocate each smallholder with enough land for pigs and goats.. This produced millions of rabbit pelts that were used to line soldier’s cloaks.
Exhibition and pet rabbits
Rabbits have been exhibited as show animals in the UK for over 200 years but it is only in the past 100 years that the many breeds of pet rabbits we know today started to develop according to the governing body for exhibition rabbits in the UK, the British Rabbit Council or BRC.
During the First and Second World Wars rabbits became an important source of food. Rabbit keeping became far more widespread because they could be fed on foraged food and scraps.
Source: Exhibition & Pet Rabbits by Meg Brown – Meg Brown is co-author of Rabbitlopaedia with vet Virginia Richardson.