To forage or not to forage, that is the question?
For a number of years now I have been a big fan of foraged foods. It seems to give for much healthier, happier bunnies. Even tiny youngsters do well on forage. The two (rescue, not bred) litters I’ve raised here in the past couple of years have been raised straight from the nest onto forage. A couple of years back I took in a bunch of 5 week old babies who were incredibly malnourished and weak. They too thrived on forage. I’m no expert but I think it’s because it’s a natural source of fibre, which isn’t engineered for added nutrition like our shop-bought vegetables.
I’ve seen the question asked – and indeed I asked it myself – about foraging while RHD2 seems to be so prevalent. The general response seems to be that the benefits outweigh the risks (indeed our hay and shop bought vegetables are also grown in fields which are likely to see visits from wild rabbits, so could also potentially be affected too) but to take sensible precautions like not foraging from areas where there are wild rabbits and foraging from the longer cuts of grass etc not the low, heavily grazed and trafficked areas. Even if there aren’t wild rabbits in an area, if the area is frequented by dog walkers, off-road bikers etc, there’s the possibility that the virus could be brought in to that area from other places on shoes, dogs’ feet, tyres etc.
We live on a large plot of our own, which means that I can do the vast majority of foraging in my own garden. We have wild rabbits in the garden too. A couple of years ago there was a myxo outbreak and they were mostly wiped out. All my rabbits were (and still are) vaccinated, and I had one rabbit who developed a single myxo nodule on her lip which caused no problems, and all the rest were fine. Be in no doubt that vaccination works for the diseases it is intended to protect against! With RHD2, I had taken the view that the virus is so easy to transfer between surfaces, that if the wild rabbits in the garden had it, there’s no way I could stop it from transferring to my own rabbits anyway. Aside from the larger predators and the cats, who are no respecters of foot dips and biosecurity, it only takes a squirrel, which is no respecter of fences either, to trample some of the virus around, and before you know it, it’s pretty much everywhere. So I carried on foraging from around my garden as normal. Pretty much the only thing that doesn’t grow in my garden is cow parsley, so I have to go off down the lane to acquire that, but again it’s in the domain of the existing set of wild rabbits. I also scrumpied some cow parsley seeds from my brother’s garden which I scattered down in our wildlife section, in the hope that I can get some to grow here next season. “You’re weird” muttered my brother, “most people are trying to get rid of the damn stuff”.
Anyway, back to the question in hand: do I still subscribe to the view of foraging that I held at the time? My behaviour changed, which would suggest no. I absolutely think that foraging is the best way to feed rabbits, and I still think it’s true that in a plot like ours it’s pretty impossible to stop it spreading if the wild bunnies do get it. But I also think there are some sensible precautions that can be taken, particularly before rabbits are vaccinated against RHD2.
As soon as there was the possibility that we had RHD2, I stopped picking low-level forage and only gathered from high up – hawthorn hedges (although it did occur to me after the event that feeding a blood-thinning plant to a rabbit with RHD might not be the best idea), willow, birch, high growing bramble and rose, that sort of thing. From everywhere except on our enclosed patio area, I stopped picking ground-level plants like grass, dandelion and plantain. Reflecting, I suppose my logic must have been that by doing so, even though I can’t stop it from spreading entirely, I can lessen the risk of putting my rabbits into direct contact with it.
In approximately 1 hour 45 minutes time, we will have reached the 7-day milestone. The RHD2 vaccine filavac takes 7 days for the rabbits to develop their full immunity. This means that from today, I can breathe very slightly easier and hopefully slightly reduce my paranoia about whether I’m carrying virus and whether I’m spreading it around the rabbits. They could all do with a thorough clean out (I had been trying to lean in and clean/swap litter trays etc without stepping into the enclosures) and my single one needs lots of fuss after a couple of weeks of minimal contact. I can at least now start to get back into the normal routine of things . It’s still another 9 days until I can properly breathe, because it’s still possible that they have picked up the infection since they had the vaccine, but at least if they come across it from now on, they should be safe. And I guess it’s pretty unlikely from now on, as if they came across it while developing the immunity, if it didn’t overload them and make them sick pretty quickly, they stand a better chance of fighting it. Thus speaketh someone who did some immunology about 20 years ago and has completely forgotten virtually everything about it, so don’t take my word for that.
So, in summary: I think foraging is the best way forward for healthy, happy bunnies. It gives them a great natural source of fibre, a diet close to that of their wild cousins, and it keeps them entertained and interested. But I also think that, particularly if your own rabbits are not vaccinated against RHD2, the sensible thing to do would be to forage from sources high up. Maybe grow your own grass! I used to do this some time ago (really must do it again), grow it in a tray and cover the top of the tray with mesh so that the bunnies can eat the grass when it grows through the mesh but can’t trample it or dig it up. The Hay Experts sell seeds so you can grow your own dandelion/plantain etc. Between grow-your-own forage and selecting from sources which are less likely to come into contact with the virus, there are ways of getting that natural fibre into them while keeping the risks as low as possible.