Woolly wonders — why the Angora rabbit can be the perfect fit for craft-crazy smallholders with modest plots
With a resurgence of interest in creative crafts, wool-producing Angora rabbits may be the perfect business proposition for smallholders, finds Lee Connor (and, of course, they’re cute)
If you dream of producing your own wool but are sadly limited by a plot that is far too small to support a flock of sheep or even a couple of alpacas, don’t despair. There is an animal that is small and quiet and which can be comfortably kept in an average suburban garden and yet can still produce an abundance of quality fibre.
So, what is this wondrous creature? Well, it’s none other than a rabbit — the very special Angora rabbit to be precise.
There has recently been a resurgence of interest in creative crafts such as knitting and spinning and with this has come a whole new appreciation of natural fibres like Angora wool.
This revival was marred somewhat by reports from China, where 90% of Angora production now comes from. An infamous video released by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) exposed shocking and brutal cruelty to Angora rabbits in that country and, as a result, numerous fashion brands ceased using Angora wool in their products.
Angora production was never meant for the large, impersonal, commercial production such as that practised by the Chinese, though. It is, however, eminently suited to the smallholder and small-scale farming, where each rabbit can receive the individual care and attention it needs and where its wool is harvested without cruelty.
There are several breeds of Angora around the world, including the French, German, Mini and Giant. The British
Rabbit Council only recognises the standard for the English Angora. Some people own German, French and Satin Angoras, but these tend to be kept by those wanting a higher wool yield.
One would think that this aspect of Angora care would be relatively straightforward as we have housed rabbits in the traditional rabbit hutch (now usually purchased from a pet shop or online) for over 100 years, but this type of housing is, for a variety of reasons, not suitable for the Angora.
Lesley Hordon, owner of Skyrack Angoras and author of The Angora Rabbit: History, Science, Care and Crafts, recommends a minimum of a 2x2x4ft hutch.
“The rabbit should be able to stand on its hind legs without its ears touching the roof. The hutch can be longer if there is space, but it shouldn’t be deeper as you need to be able to reach your rabbit.”
The hutch should be made of tongue and groove wood with a weldmesh living compartment door and a waterproof felted roof. The floor should be painted with a bitumen paint such as Black Jack. Removable litterboards are helpful to stop bedding falling out when the hutch door is opened. Catches should be secure. Toggle catches, so common on cheap, commercially-produced hutches, can slip.
“I don’t use an internal partition for the sleeping compartment as the rabbit would abrade its wool on it. Omitting the partition also gives the rabbit more room to hop,” says Leslie, who also advises that the weldmesh used in a hutch should be small enough to exclude rodents. A fox-proof wood and weldmesh-lidded pen for outside exercise is essential, too, but it should be separate from the hutch and only used when it’s dry.
There are still some good hutch manufacturers which can be found easily online and which can, for those who are completely devoid of carpentry skills, make hutches to individual requirements. Some even deliver nationwide.
So, you’ve got yourself a good quality hutch, now how do you go about finding a good quality Angora to live in it?
Richard Grindey-Banks, top Angora exhibitor and judge, suggests that the first port of call for the budding Angora owner should be the breed club.
“If you’re wanting a quality Angora you must purchase from a knowledgeable breeder. The best way to do this is to get in touch with the UK National Angora Rabbit Club which can provide details of breeders close to you, and one that will provide you with the correct guidance for grooming care and husbandry,” he says.
Lesley agrees with this advice adding: “As with reputable dog breeders, club members don’t have a large stock of animals ready for sale and so sometimes people do have to wait a few months for the rabbits to become available. Again, as with dogs, be wary of advertisements on online pet selling sites. The National Angora Club has a welfare code for its breeders and it offers support along with clipping and grooming lessons where needed.”
WHAT MAKES A GOOD ANGORA?
What key points should you be looking out for in a quality Angora?
“A good density (thickness) to the coat, a short cobby body, a broad skull and a luxurious silky coat,” says Richard.
Lesley adds: “The Angora needs to be of a standard colour, exhibition quality and rung. Ringing is done by the breeder, who slips a numbered metal ring over the hock before the rabbit is eight weeks old. Only British Rabbit Council members can purchase these rings. Both exhibition and spinning rabbits need to have silky, non-matting coats. Exhibition rabbits should also have well furnished (with fur) ears and feet and good fringes.”
Both Lesley and Richard stress that prospective exhibitors should visit a show, see exhibition rabbits while there and talk to exhibitors to obtain their top tips and advice.
Feeding the Angora is simplicity itself. Richard suggests “a hard feed, ideally a pellet to prevent selective feeding”.
Lesley also feeds a good quality pellet and both give unlimited fresh hay with the addition of some green food in the form of kale, Swiss chard, dandelions and clover.
Variety, freshness and small amounts are important, and always introduce green food slowly if the rabbit isn’t used to it.
The Angora rabbit obviously requires a significant amount of grooming and coat care to keep it healthy and in good condition, which is something all potential keepers should carefully consider, even if only buying an Angora as a pet.
Online advice varies as to exactly how many times a week you should groom your Angora, but the experts are in full agreement — for exhibition animals when in exhibition coat it should be done daily. Both Richard and Lesley were also in complete agreement that even if the Angora is clipped off, the rabbit should be checked every day to make sure that it is clean and not struggling with a mucky bottom.
Lesley says: “As an exhibition coat can grow to 9in in length, it can be a lot of hard work.”
A spinning rabbit needs grooming one to three times weekly, depending on the length of coat. Angora wool grows at 1in per month. As a 3in staple is needed for spinning, rabbits are clipped three monthly, with the first clip at about three months of age. Clipping three monthly means that the coat is much easier to manage.
Lesley goes on to emphasise exactly why buying a quality rabbit is essential. “A rabbit with a poor quality coat — ‘cottony’ rather than silky — needs much more grooming and is harder to keep knot-free,” she says.
There are numerous online videos, including on YouTube and the UK National Angora Rabbit Club’s website, that show how to groom, but nothing beats getting advice, and preferably a demonstration, from a professional.
“Grooming an exhibition rabbit can be done by sitting the rabbit on a high stool indoors and blowing the coat with a blower,” says Lesley. “Knotted areas, particularly behind the neck, are teased out with the fingers. Special attention needs to be paid to the chest, armpits, legs and feet furnishings. The aim is to keep all the wool on the rabbit and not lose any during the grooming.
“A spinning rabbit should be inspected daily for knots and mats. I do this at feeding time, or when taking them out for a run in their pens.”
SPECIAL GROOMING TOOLS
Richard suggests using a cat swivel comb (where the teeth rotate 360 degrees), a Mason Pearson nylon pocket brush, a small slicker brush and a hair dryer that blows cold.
Lesley adds that Boots hairdressing scissors or Fiskars craft scissors can be used for clipping. Nail clippers are also needed.