MAKING A CASE FOR FARMED RABBIT
Supermarkets are crying out for more UK-produced farmed
rabbit, yet farmers seem unwilling to venture into this area of
diversification. Why should that be, ponders David Cousins?
YOU can understand farmers not being terribly keen to encourage rabbits on to the farm. The two groups have been adversaries for centuries and for most arable farmers the only good rabbit is a dead one.
But perhaps they are missing a trick, wonders David Blythe. He set up Woldsway Foods in East Lincs back in 1986 and has now built it up to be Britains largest rabbit meat processor. It processes 130,000 rabbits a year, which is about half the farmed rabbits produced in the UK in any one year. He also has a 200-doe unit of his own, too.
Rabbit meat production in the UK is changing fast.
Ten years ago there were 500-600 small producers, many just rearing a few rabbits in their back gardens for a bit of extra cash. Total production was probably 1m rabbits a year.
Now there are 200-300 producers including a mere 8-10 big, full-time ones. Total production has shrunk to 250,000 a year, small beer compared with Frances 50m a year and Spains 30m a year output.
Compared with many EU countries, Britain is not a big rabbit consumer.
"There are a number of reasons why we consume so much less rabbit meat in the UK than abroad," says Mr Blythe. "The chief one is what I call the furry bunny effect, which is that many British people view rabbits as pets rather than to eat. But myxomatosis and lack of availability have also put people off."
About 40% of all farmed rabbit is bought through food outlets, most of it via Waitrose, Tesco or Sainsbury. While most Waitrose rabbit is Belgian and most Tesco French, Sainsbury buys all of its stock from UK producers via Woldsway Foods.
"Sainsbury sells two cuts of rabbit," says Mr Blythe. "One is a boneless leg and loin in a packet and the other is a cut-up whole rabbit on their meat counter. We supply them with 500 cases a week, a case being made up of either six packs of boneless meat or three whole rabbits."
The other 60% of farmed rabbit goes to the catering trade. And while the retail trade is declining slightly (because people cook less and there are no convenience meals based on rabbit), the use of rabbit in restaurants is on the rise.
"Rabbit is a fashionable meat and restaurants are continually on the lookout for novel meats," says Mr Blythe. "We deliver twice a week to five distributors in London alone and there seems no signs of this trend slowing."
* Scope for expansion?
With the slight decline in sales to supermarkets more than made up for by increased trade with restaurants, the rabbit meat market looks pretty steady.
Where there is scope for expansion, believes David Blythe, is in import replacement. This is particularly true at the moment because supermarkets are keen to be seen to be supplying UK produce.
"I reckon we could take an extra 250,000 rabbits a year – 5000 a week – and still not meet demand.
We know some people are getting into the business. For instance four farmers have put up specialist sheds in the past five years and are each producing 200 rabbits a week. But it is still not enough for us to go to Tesco or Waitrose and say we can supply all your needs.
"Farmed rabbit does have an image problem. I think many farmers view it as a hobby and a bit of a joke, while the fact that it has been pushed as a get-rich-quick business in the past has not always attracted the right type of producers."
* What does a rabbit fetch?
The rule of thumb in the rabbit industry is that your margin over feed should be £50-£75 a doe.
To be at the upper end of this scale you need to be buying your feed cheaply (ie be a big producer) and producing the necessary numbers of baby rabbits a year.
Woldsway pays producers according to numbers and whether they deliver or not. There are five volume bands ranging from 109p/kg (producer delivers) if you are supplying less than 25 a week up to 131p/kg if numbers exceed 75 a week. Prices reduce by 7p/kg if Woldsway does the picking up.
There is also a premium for quality, based on the meat yield from your batch of carcasses. This amounts to an extra 8p/kg for A2 band and an extra 12p/kg for A1 band. About 5% of producers are in the A1 band and another 65% are in the A2 band.
Woldsway is also offering existing producers a 20p/kg premium on additional production.
* How about collection?
If youre local to a producer like Woldsway, the sensible thing is to deliver the rabbits yourself.
But the firm also has an extensive collection network for its 80 producers.
"There are 20 collection points around the UK stretching from Devon to Manchester," he says, "and a lorry does the round every two or three weeks. Price is irrespective of the distance we have to pick up from."
* How much can you earn?
A typical 100-doe unit should produce 50-55 meat rabbits a doe a year.
That is a turnover of £160/ doe/year, ie £16,000 for the whole unit. But the range could well be from £150 to £200 a doe a year, depending on scale and how well you are doing the job.
After feed, veterinary and labour costs are deducted, that leaves a net profit of £50-£75 a doe, ie £5000-£7500 for a 100-doe unit.
* Labour and start-up costs
"One person can look after 300 does," says Mr Blythe.
"In fact there is not really much point in starting up at anything less than 100 does."
Start-up equipment costs (ie cages, drinkers) are about £50 a doe for new kit and £25 a doe for second-hand kit. Breeding stock costs £10-£15 a doe.
While many existing farm buildings (eg, ex-poultry sheds) will do fine, rabbits do not like extremes of temperature.
So be prepared to spend money on good insulation and ventilation. If you are putting up a new building, spray-on roof insulation and 9in Thermalite blocks will keep temperatures between 10 and 21C (50-70F) all year round.
* More info?
David Blythe is happy to give verbal information to potential producers. He can be contacted on 01754-890641 (tel) or 01754-890444 (fax). Peter Hussey, a long-established producer, is also happy to giver verbal information on 07957-970062.
Above and below: 40% of farmed rabbit goes through retail outlets, 60% through the catering trade. Inset: David Blythe of Woldsway Foods.