It may seem like the idyllic lifestyle to leave our pet rabbits to roam freely in the garden; all that space to hop about without the confines of an enclosure. But is it really the right thing to do for the rabbits’ overall welfare? The simple answer is no. Your rabbit’s aren’t safe and many welfare driven organisations, like ourselves, agree that the benefits do not outweigh the risks involved with unsupervised free ranging in gardens.
Just because you’ve never had a problem, doesn’t mean you’ll never have a problem. We’ve learnt this the hard way ourselves when it came to a young fox climbing a tree to scale 6ft fencing and killing our chickens. We’d lived in harmony with our local fox population for 7 years prior, never having a single problem. It took one young fox to change that. Remarkably, a few months later a goshawk took one of the remaining chickens while I was close by. Another predator we’d never had a problem with before and wasn’t even aware was in the area. You may be thinking that this doesn’t apply to you as your rabbits are shut in overnight, well both these attacks happened while it was still light. The fox attack was on a summer evening at about 7pm and the goshawk was at around 12pm.
So what are the risks
Foxes are the most obvious concern for rabbit owners. Just because you’ve never seen one, does not mean they aren't in the area. While mainly nocturnal hunters, they are active during the day and they do pose a significant threat to pet rabbits. They are generally lazy predators, but very capable hunters, incredibly agile, able to dig quickly and efficiently, strong for their size, and intelligent. Your rabbit’s may outrun the proverbial lazy fox, but they could also go into shock and die through fright of the experience. Sadly, we have heard far too many stories of foxes killing pet rabbits which have either been left to free roam, contained in enclosures with open tops, or kept in housing which isn’t fox proof.
While cats don’t generally pose a big threat to domestic rabbits, that is not to say that there is no risk. It only takes one rogue cat to cause significant injury to your rabbits. Many years ago a cat attacked my rabbit, despite them being safely contained within their enclosure. The cat attacked the rabbit through the mesh of the aviary (traditional aviary mesh with 2cmx1cm holes) and the result was a significant injury to his eye which had to be removed. I have no doubt whatsoever that had my rabbits been free roaming in the garden, that this particular cat would have killed my rabbits. It was a small slender cat, not some giant beast of a feline, but it was an avid hunter who would attack anything that moved. Thankfully I was right by the kitchen window when I heard my rabbit scream and was able to get outside very quickly.
Birds of Prey
The risks posed by birds of prey are generally dependent on where you live. But that does not mean that they should not be a concern. Many people keep birds of prey as pets, and these birds do, on occasion, fly off. I once had a kite turn up in my garden and attempt to attack my budgies in an aviary. It had a tether on its leg, so it was not a wild bird. Ok so it was a small bird, which would not have posed a threat to a free roaming rabbit, but that does not mean bigger birds don’t fly off.
Polecats and Ferrets
It is unlikely for you to encounter a polecat in a town or city, but an escaped ferret is a serious threat to pet rabbits. These guys are excellent climbers, and able to squeeze through very small gaps. They are active during the day and very agile hunters. Many ferrets are found straying every year across the UK with the vast majority never claimed. They are unlikely to kill a larger breed of rabbit, but they can, and do, cause significant injury and it is highly likely for a rabbit attacked by a ferret to die from the shock of the attack.
An escaped or stray dog is also a serious potential threat to our pet rabbits. Some breeds find a 6ft fence absolutely no challenge at all, others are very good at digging underneath, and some will just chew at a fence until they can get through. A panicked and running rabbit is likely to trigger the prey drive of any dog and result in a chase, resulting in the rabbit dying of shock or the dog catching the rabbit.
The probability of such attacks may be low, but the probability of winning the lottery is even lower, yet millions of us buy a ticket! If we are happy to try our luck on the lottery, why are we trying our luck with our rabbits staying safe and well in the garden? If you don’t win the lottery you’ve lost £2.00, but in this game of probability our rabbits will pay with their lives. Is it really worth the risk, we don’t think so.
Allowing rabbits to roam in the garden is a lovely idea, but if you choose to do this you MUST stay outside with them. I was only about 20 yards away from the chickens when the goshawk killed one. I was only alerted to the problem by the 20 plus crows which gathered in the trees cawing. If you aren’t there watching the rabbits, then you could well be too late if there is suddenly a problem.
It is also a big misconception that allowing rabbits to roam freely during the day and shutting them in hutches at night will meet their needs. Rabbits are crepuscular, meaning that they are most active at dawn and dusk - the times at which they are enclosed. Rabbits need to have permanent access to a space no smaller than 60ft², for example this could be 6ftx10ft or 5ftx12ft, allowing them freedom of movement at all times of the day and night. You can find out more about creating a secure and happy enclosure for your rabbits here, and check out our rabbit housing blog here.