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Credit for the actual domestication of rabbits goes to the early French Catholic monks. Because they lived in seclusion, the monks appreciated an easily obtainable meat supply, and their need to find a food suitable for Lent caused them to fall back on an item much loved by the Romans - unborn or newly born rabbits, which are called “Laurices.” (Laurice was officially classified as “fish” in 600 A.D. by Pope Gregory I, and thus permissible during Lent.) This strange taste, combined with the need to keep rabbits within the monastery walls, created the conditions that led to proper domestication and the inevitable selection of breeding stock for various characteristics and traits.
Rabbits were introduced to Britain by the Romans who kept them in fenced off warrens and harvested their meat and fur. The earliest known written records of rabbits in Britain date from the 12th Century. They were first described as “conies,” after the second part of their scientific name Oryctolagus cuniculus.
In the middle of the 16th century, black, white, and piebald rabbits were described by the writer Agricola, a monk from Verona, Italy, who was responsible for his monastery's gardens and livestock. He also reported rabbits in Verona as four times the size of the normal ones. “Silver plated” rabbits, reported in France in the mid-1500s, were believed to be the Champagne d' Argents. Champagne refers to the region of France, and De Argent, meaning silver. Silver rabbits are reported as early as 1631 by Gervaise Markham. English sailors brought the first Angola (Angora) rabbits to the Bordeaux region of France in 1723.
By 1858, Himalayan rabbits are mentioned in literature. In the mid 1800s, thousands of rabbits were being sent weekly to the London market from the port of Ostend, Belgium. They were selected for their markings, creating the Dutch rabbit breed. As early as 1822, lop-eared rabbits were reported in England, and the first rabbit show in England was in the mid-1820s. In 1840 the first Lop Club was formed. By mid-1870s, Himalayans, Angoras, and Silvers were allowed to be shown. Other breeds continued to be developed by selection and cross-breeding up to the present day.
No domestic breeds have developed from the American wild rabbit, though they were likely an important source of meat for early European immigrants. While there is very little evidence of domestic rabbits in America prior to the 1840s, it seems likely that rabbits were brought to the New World at an earlier time and raised very casually on farms and in back gardens. We know that by the 1840s, Lop and Angora rabbits had been imported into America. The first importation of the Belgian Hare breed, in 1888, caused a flurry of excitement and many other breeds were subsequently imported by the turn of the century. The National Pet Stock Association of America was formed in 1910 with a total of 13 members. They held their first convention in Grand Rapids, MI, in 1917. By 1946, there were 8,000 members. In 1952 the name was officially changed to The American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA). Today the ARBA is a strong and successful organization, with 45 recognized breeds, and around 30,000 members.
There is no doubt that genetic diversity embodied in the array of historic rabbit breeds deserves conservation attention.
Excerpted from A Brief Rabbit History from ALBC News, Sept/Oct 2005, by Donald E. Bixby and Bob Whitman.