by Christy Cole
Let’s just get it out of the way first. Rabbits are cute. Cute from their sweet twitchy noses to their bobbed cotton tails. When I first mentioned to my very patient husband that I thought we should raise meat rabbits, he pointed out that I could barely butcher an evil-eyed rooster that attacked me every time I came near. Could I really butcher and eat a bunny? As it turns out, I can. But more on that later.
Regular readers of this column may recall that our family raises broiler chickens for meat. We love growing them from fuzzballs into fryers, but it always bothered me that even though our chickens free range, we needed to supplement their local backyard diet with commercially prepared grains. We wanted to raise animals that could grow and thrive on what grows wild and well here in the Driftless and what comes out of our garden. We knew from raising chickens that what they ate was the most important component of how they tasted, and we wanted our home-raised meat to taste like our hills and valleys. Since we don’t have adequate fences for larger farm animals like cattle or sheep, we decided to try rabbits. Along with meat, I was very excited about completing the local nutrient cycle of our food by using composted rabbit manure around our fruit trees and in the garden.
I was very fortunate both to have a generous friend with experience raising rabbits and to find a rabbit breeder who set us up with a breeding pair. They were not pretty rabbits, but rather the red-eyed white kind that a magician might pull out of a hat. They were big when we got them, and they kept growing until they were both well over 10 pounds at maturity. Our daughter named them Flower and Tree. In addition to this hefty working pair, we soon got our daughter a miniature lionhead bunny as a preemptive apology to her for when she really realized what was going to happen to Flower and Tree’s babies.
I loved knowing I could provide amazing meat for my family with a little time, some water, and weedy hay. Butchering made me feel competent and strong and connected to my animals and my landscape.
A few months after Flower and Tree moved in with us, they had their first litter of eight kits. All of them died. A month after that, they had their second litter of nine, and they all survived and grew. After a few weeks of nursing from Mama Tree, it was time for us to introduce them to our terroir more directly. We tried putting them in an open-bottomed pasture pen like we used for raising broiler chickens, but they tunneled out after just a few hours and scattered around our yard, sampling everything from saplings to carrot tops. After we put a wire bottom on the pen, we delivered them armfuls of alfalfa and dandelions and watermelon rinds. We brought back bags of windfall apples from walks, and I filled the trunk of my little car with pumpkins every time I passed our neighbor’s produce wagon. We clipped sunflower heads and tree branches and wild chamomile and the rabbits ate and grew in the late summer sun.
After about three months of fattening our meat rabbits up on the vegetation of our local farms and fields, it was time to butcher our first litter. A skilled friend and a pottery visitor who just happened to be stopping by helped me to dispatch them quickly and humanely, and worked with me to clean and process them. We had them ready for the freezer within an hour. I could not eat a rabbit for a week or two after butchering. I needed a little time away from the process, some space between the docile bunnies my daughter dressed in doll clothes to the rabbits in our freezer. But when the time came for us to eat them, as with the chickens, the work we put into making sure our animals experienced our landscape paid us back with complex and rich flavor at the kitchen table.
With Tree and Flower, we raised a few more litters, alternating between successes and failures. It is hard to know when to end something, especially when it is something that makes you feel productive and secure. I loved knowing I could provide amazing meat for my family with a little time, some water and weedy hay. Butchering made me feel competent and strong and connected to my animals and my landscape. After a year of rabbits, though, I was overwhelmed with family and business and gardens, so I sold or gave away all of our rabbits except for our daughter’s pet, who has gotten chubby and even cuter on a diet of sunflower seeds and greens. The only rabbits in the yard now are the thin and wild ones, sampling from our garden before heading deep into their burrows as the coyotes howl on Windy Ridge.
Christy lives at Windy Ridge Pottery near Mineral Point with her husband, Joe, and daughter, Cleo Inez.
Driftless Terroir (ter-WAHR) is a series featuring guest voices celebrating the intersection of land and culture — the essence of life in the Driftless Area — with topics including art and architecture, farming and gardening, cooking and eating, fermenting and drinking, and more. To read past columns, see voiceoftherivervalley.com. To contribute to Driftless Terroir, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.