7 Ways to Improve a Rare Breed With a Gene “Puddle”

A. Volodov / freeimages.com

A. Volodov / freeimages.com

Let’s face it: In some breeds we don’t see a gene “pool,” we see a gene “puddle”! This can be extremely challenging, especially if you don’t have the luxury of an extraordinarily large rabbitry and unlimited bank account! Recently there was an interesting conversation going on the Rare Breed Rabbits facebook page. In a nutshell, the original poster asked, “How do you improve a breed when the gene pool is tiny to begin?”

This is a great question, and one we have faced ourselves raising our rare breed rabbits. For example, when we started raising Blanc de Hotot there were only about six breeders we could find in the continental U.S. raising them. Every rabbit we have has one particular buck in their pedigree – and we’ve worked to bring as many diverse lines in as possible from all areas of the continent!

Here are some excellent suggestions generated by the discussion:

  1. Get other breeders involved. I am a firm believer that if you’re raising a rare breed your first step should be to work your hardest to get your breed OFF the rare breed list! While there’s a certain amount of prestige to raising a rare breed, the reality is that a rare breed means you don’t have the volume of rabbits being bred and culled. Over time this can significantly, negatively impact the overall health, appearance, and efficiency of the breed. So, recruit, promote, and network with others to widen the impact of the breed!
  2. Be willing to travel/transport. Raising rare breeds means you’re going to have to be willing to either travel yourself to get rabbits or jump through the hoops necessary to have rabbits transported to you. When we started our rare breeds the closest breeder to us was seven hours away. If you aren’t a fan of buying sight-unseen rabbits off of the internet or going off of the reputation of other breeders… don’t choose a rare breed.
  3. Buy new stock whenever possible. Utilize larger shows, like the ARBA national show, breed nationals, West Coast Classic, or PSRBA, or Ohio Mini Convention to purchase new stock. (Trading for new animals is even better!) Don’t miss any opportunities to widen the gene pool. The larger shows are great because with the number of people moving across the country during those times it’s easier to find transportation. (And don’t forget to institute a quarantine area for at least six weeks whenever you bring a new rabbit into your rabbitry.)
  4. Take risks. It’s absolutely possible you’ll add a new line to your rabbitry and end up breeding a lot of animals better suited for the stew pot – some genetic lines just don’t play well with others. It’s still worth it to try. We have a general rule that every doe has a litter with every buck before we make a decision, and our bucks typically represent different lines. Also, perhaps the original parents don’t create beautiful animals that are an improvement, but their offspring crossed back might make some show stoppers! Don’t be hasty in your judgements.
  5. Breed hard. We tend to keep our rabbits working all year round because we don’t want fat rabbits! You’ve got to breed the rabbits in order to see whether you’re making any progress in the breed, as well as know your lines and what they produce.
  6. Cull HARDER. We are personally experiencing this right now! This spring we had five of our Blanc de Hotot does have two litters each. That resulted in 50+ hotot juniors! (And a general feeling that our rabbitry has gone monochromatic with all the black and white rockstar bunnies! Haha!) So far we have already filled our freezer with 42 of those juniors. At this point we are actually excited about three of the juniors (although we’ll be saving more than that back for genetic diversity and the breed backs to lines I mentioned above). We’ve also kept rabbits we can’t be absolutely certain about to see how they look with a few more weeks growth on them. It is incredibly discouraging to see so many rabbits culled out of the program… but we can see a noticeable difference in the ones we’ve kept back and we’re hoping next spring we’ll have far more keepers because we’re making the hard choices right now to improve our breeding stock.
  7. Outcross. This is the last point of the options because it really stinks. If you have a rare breed rabbit you want to keep the bloodlines as pure as you can, right? Outcrossing to another breed shoots that philosophy in the foot. That being said, in wisdom, an outcross might be the best thing to improve the breed. (There is one longtime breeder who does an outcross every fourth generation in his rabbits to increase the hybrid vigor and type. The philosophy is working – his rabbits have won their class/variety so much their rabbitry is a legend in their breed.) If you do decide to outcross, make it to another breed that is compatible with the one you’re working with, and make sure it is a bang-up representation of the qualities you’re trying to improve upon. Keep accurate records and disclose the outcross to potential buyers.

What are your suggestions?

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3 thoughts on “7 Ways to Improve a Rare Breed With a Gene “Puddle”

  1. Mardi Storm August 22, 2015 at 7:32 am Reply

    I disagree with the need to outcross on a limited gene pool, on a regular basis. If you read the book “Managing Rare Breeds for a Sustainable Future” by the Livestock Conservancy you will find within its pages diagrams and maps on how to build entirely unique gene pools even with starting with only 3 rabbits. By maintaining unique lines via line breeding in specific ways, you can create your own infusion of “new genes” into each line when you cross your lines. This is how the best breeders of rare breeds maintain their stock. Is the point of managing a rare breed to look good on the show table? By all means, you will get there faster by outcrossing to another breed. If you read the above book you will also learn why we are managing rare breeds to begin with – NOT just because they are pretty, but for the unique genetic characteristics they’ve been selected for, over many many generations, and many breeds are uniquely adapted to different strengths. If you outcross every fourth generation you are NOT maintaining the genes of that rare breed, you are slowly siphoning them away, chipping away selecting for rabbits that LOOK the part but genetically are some other breed. Its a shame anyone would choose that route for a rare breed. Now I do know that critically rare breeds have had another breed mixed in initially to bring some quality in such as health – however, this shouldn’t be kept up as regular practice, especially in this day and age when its so much easier to get new stock. If you have to outcross to get the right hips, shoulders, health, then something has gone terribly wrong with the selection process and mainentance of that rare breed. It tells me the lines aren’t stable. As a rare breed breeder my goal is to stabilize my lines and have consistency. If my rabbits aren’t holding their type, I’m not breeding right. By the way, we also end up with a homogenized gene pool if we all just breed to unrelated rabbits in the “puddle”. I think I just talked myself into more heavily line breeding 🙂 I have to be honest, when I’ve purchased rabbits and bred the new blood into my stock, I often get lesser rabbits than my beautiful lines I’ve been grooming. I now choose to breed slightly related stock to select for characteristics, and will be working up to having separate lines in my herd.

  2. Britt September 10, 2015 at 8:25 pm Reply

    Great post! I’ve only met one other Blanc de Hotot breeder before. Beautiful animals.

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