SOPHIE BROWNSON tried out working with award-winning rabbit breeder Kerry Gwillym.
WHEN I was asked to be a rabbit breeder for the day along with award-winning breeder Kerry Gwillym, I didn’t know quite what to expect from the experience.
Welcoming me in to her Cwmbran home, Ms Gwillym was as warm and friendly as you could hope for, asking me whether I was OK with children, dogs and of course rabbits, before talking about the task at hand.
“Basically I started off by putting two together and hoped for the best,” Ms Gwillym said of the initial breeding process, which has since expanded to 30 to 40 rabbits of various breeds including Himalayan, Dutch and English Lop.
“I enter them into all of the local shows including Chepstow, The Royal Welsh Show, Castleton, Neath, Machen and the Welsh Nationals,” Ms Gwillym told me.
“Rabbit breeding is a hobby and I only went into it for a laugh and to do something.
“But people take it very seriously.
“Financially it is quite cheap to do and you only need to feed them once a day.
“But some breeds can sell up to £100 per rabbit, and fuel and bridge tolls are our main costs to get to shows.”
Ms Gwillym explained how most prize money breaks even with the travelling costs, however some shows bring in the big money such as the Bradford show – where the winners can receive up to £1,000 depending on how many rabbits enter the show.
“Some people just buy the rabbits and show them as their own work but I like to breed really nice quality rabbits,” Ms Gwillym added.
Explaining the system of breeds to me, Ms Gwillym said: “They are only classed as rare breeds if they don’t have a club.”
I learnt that some breeds can be considered as ‘rare’ but they have their own club, so they are technically not.
Before we go out to the large shed in the garden where the rabbits live, Ms Gwillym brings an English Lop rabbit into the house to show me how this breed walks on its ears, which could cause damage to them if they have long nails.
This damage would ‘write them off’ and they would be unable to compete in shows.
“Because of this I cut their nails really short and let them run around the house to prevent damage,” Ms Gwillym said.
Entering the shed I am confronted with dozens of rabbits.
Ms Gwillym shows me around explaining the different types of breeds and characteristics.
Taking it on board, I am shown a hutch where a nest has been created sheltering the newest bunnies.
I learn that professional breeders like Ms Gwillym prefer to keep the birthing process as natural as possible and so she helps them to create a nest where the bunnies remain covered unless their mother uncovers them to feed them.
“You can’t split them up from their mother too soon,” Ms Gwillym explained as she handed me the tiniest newborn rabbit.
“Or they would go into shock and sometimes go into a state where they can’t eat.
“So I generally give it at least 12 weeks.
“Some of them are already ‘damaged’ from birth – imperfections which make them unshowable.”
“I then would breed them from nine months to a year old.
“With rabbits they aren’t fussy and mothers would even breed with their children.”
Putting the bunny back, I ask how she would know when a litter would be born – a crucial part of the breeding process.
“When the mother starts to make a nest or pull out her fur, I know that she will give birth soon,” she said.
“Rabbits have a 30 day pregnancy, but if they get a scare when pregnant they can decide to abort them.”
Being passed a heat lamp, I hold it above the hutch holding the Himalayan rabbits to keep them warm while Ms Gwillym explained to me how rabbits are tagged by the British Rabbit Council.
I learnt that rabbits have a silver ring around their leg with their year of birth to help identify them.
I took this moment to ask how she goes about identifying the sex of the rabbit.
Grabbing a rabbit by the scruff of its neck (this is the correct way to handle difficult rabbits I am told) she turns it on its back and shows me the difference between male and females.
Feeling like I am back in biology lessons at school I decide to move on.
My next task is checking that the rabbits are all fed and watered daily.
Filling their water bottle from a milk carton, I then attached each bottle using a wire grip to each hutch door, before squeezing them to make sure that the water was coming out and it wasn’t frozen in the cold weather.
Grabbing some commercial pellets I used a scooper to distribute them across the hutch floor.
Then I picked up a knife and chopped some ‘greens’ which I also distributed across the hutch floor.
Once this is done for every cage, I had a go at preparing an empty cage for prospective rabbits; I grabbed some disinfectant and squirted the hutch making sure I paid careful attention to the corners where the rabbits go to the toilet, before covering the floor with hay.
So having fed, watered and cleaned the rabbits Ms Gwillym told me that my work for the day was done. I certainly left with a lot more knowledge on rabbits than I had when I first entered the house.