The Belgian Hare is a fancy breed of domestic rabbit, that was developed through selective breeding to closely resemble the wild hare in physical appearance. Averaging 6 to 9 pounds in weight, the Belgian Hare is characterized by its long, slender body and agile legs that closely resemble those of a hare, and can live up to ten years or more.
The first Belgian Hares were bred in Belgium in the early 18th century out of selective breeding between domestic and wild European rabbits, with the intent of creating a practical meat rabbit. In 1874, they were imported to England and called the "Belgian Hare." English breeders made the Belgian Hare appear more spirited, like wild English rabbits. By 1877 the first Belgian Hares were shown in America, where it immediately rose in popularity, giving rise to thousands of Belgian Hare clubs around the country, thousands were bred, and some sold for as much as 1,000 US dollars.
The first of these clubs was known as the "American Belgian Hare Association". With a wide and scattered membership the club lasted not much more than a year. In 1897 the "National Belgian Hare Club" was formed. Twelve years after the formation of the National Belgian Hare Club of America, and as additional breeds were introduced in the US, a new "all-breed" club, the "National Pet Stock Association" was formed. After several name changes, the National Pet Stock Association became the American Rabbit Breeders Association As years passed, the National Belgian Hare club of America also passed from existence. In June, 1972, a group of Belgian Hare breeders gathered together to apply for a specialty club charter from the American Rabbit Breeders Association to replace the National Belgian Hare Club of America. In July, 1972, the charter was granted and the last, and most prominent of these groups, the "American Belgian Hare Club" was established, that continues to exist to this day.
In 1917, their popularity began to fade away, and one of the reasons attributed to this decline is the failed attempt by many breeders to turn the Belgian Hare, a naturally race rabbit, into a meat rabbit, a role to which they were physically and behaviourally unsuited. However, today, true Belgian Hares are rare, due partly to the degree of difficulty many have had in breeding them.
The Belgian Hare is most known for its distinctively close resemblance to a hare, with a long, fine body with muscular flank, and distinctly arched back with loins and well-rounded hind quarters. Their head is long and their tail straight and carried in line with the backbone. The fore feet of a Belgian Hare is usually long and fine-boned and perfectly straight, while their hind feet long are fine and flat. They are believed to be the only breed of domestic breed featuring a deep red, rich chestnut color of the Belgian Hare, together with black ticking of a wavy or blotchy appearance and an extended down the sides.
Due to their difference from other breeds of domestic rabbit, the Belgian Hare may require different dietary and housing requirements to other rabbits, and as a result, they may demand more attention and care.
Due to their size and energetic nature, it is recommended that the Belgian Hare be provided with a large hutch or cage to enable them to move freely. For an outdoor rabbit the ideal home is a wooden hutch made of a heavy wood with a waterproof roof, and raised off the ground. If the rabbit is going to live indoors then a wooden hutch can also be used or a cage. They should have a cage with at least a 24 by 60-inch floor for it to run around in and a height of 24 inches. A breeding or brood cage should be 36 by 72 inches, at least. In addition, the floor needs to be solid, as opposed to wire, to support the Belgian Hare's feet. The cage should have proper ventilation, and a plastic or wire base with a wire lid fixed to the base. Add straw, shredded paper or anything similar for the bottom of the cage. It is important for your Belgian Hare to stretch and one good way to ensure this is to have their water placed high in the cage
All rabbits must have an adequate exercise area, whether it is an outside run or an enclosed area in the house. Softwood shavings should not be used for the floor of the hutch or cage as they can cause respiratory problems. Fine sawdust can cause eye irritations so this should be avoided. Bedding material should be provided especially in cold and wet weather for the outdoor rabbit. A recommended practise is to place the straw on top of a layer of the hardwood shavings in the sleeping compartment, in order to ensure warmth and insulation for an outdoor Belgian Hare. The rabbit home should be cleaned out weekly and any old food removed. If it is necessary to wash the home then only use a cleaner specifically designed for cleaning rabbit hutches.
The Belgian Hare has a short coat and if kept clean, requires little grooming other than an occasional rub over to remove any dead coat. When in moult the coat benefits from a good combing through every other day to remove the old coat. This will help bring the new coat through faster and minimize the old fluffy undercoat matting up when it's on its way out.
The Belgian Hare is one of the most intelligent and energetic rabbits. Rabbits can become trained to learn their name. Due to their active nature and alert temperament, they can very easily be startled by sudden noise or movement, and a recommended practise by owners of this breed is to have a radio constantly playing near them, so they can get used to noise. As a result of their active personality, they have been called "the poor man's racehorse". The Belgian Hare is known to be responsive to handling, particularly when trained from an early age, however, it is recommended that the Belgian Hare should not be handled by children mainly due to their large size and speed that may cause injury.
As the Belgian Hare has a very high metabolic rate, it may require more food and more consistent feeding than other breeds of domestic rabbit. The specific dietary requirements of a Belgian Hare do not differ significantly from other breeds of domestic rabbit, and like the majority of rabbits, the most important component of the diet of a Belgian Hare is hay, a roughage that reduces the chance of blockages and malocclusion whilst providing indigestible fiber necessary to keep the gut moving. Grass hays such as timothy are generally preferred over legume hays like clover and alfalfa. Legume hays are higher in protein, calories, and calcium, which in excess can cause kidney stones and loose stool. This type of hay should be reserved for young kits or lactating does.
It is recommended that the Belgian Hare, like other rabbits, receive a standard intake of 2 cups of chopped dark, green, leafy vegetables per 6 pounds of body weight (although this should be provided after four months of age to prevent enteritis) and up to 2 tablespoons of fruit or carrots per 6 pounds of body weight daily. It is common for some owners to provide treats, although in very limited quantities, which can include a few pellets, a slice of strawberry, or other healthy foods. Commercial treats are available in the pet stores can be fed, but owneers should stay away from anything with a yoghurt coating, or other ingredients that the rabbit would not encounter in the wild. Some of the vegetables that rabbits enjoy are romaine lettuce, escarole, turnips, collard, kale, parsley, thyme, cilantro, dandelion, and basil. The green, leafy tops of radish and carrots also are excellent sources of nutrients, but should be fed sparingly due to the high calcium content. New vegetables should be introduced slowly due to the delicate digestive systems of rabbits. It is recommended that cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage be avoided, as they cause gas and can lead to gastrointestinal stasis, which can be fatal. Vegetables such as potatoes and corn should also avoided due to their high starch content. Belgian Hares also require an unlimited amount of fresh water, usually provided for in a water crock, tip-proof ceramic pet dish, or hanging water bottle.
The ideal age for the female Belgian Hare to start breeding is about 9 months of age, and can produce large litters of between 4 to 8 babies, with a gestation period of between 28 to 31 days. On average, they give birth at 30 to 32 days.
As different bucks and does react to the breeding situation differently, one must be prepared to adapt their breeding practices to the Hare's preferences.
Like all rabbits, Belgian Hares are induced ovulators (a doe can immediately ovulate at the time of breeding). However, the doe has a 10-14 day receptivity cycle. During her receptivity period she will accept the buck readily. A receptive doe can be identified by the dark pink, moist, appearance of her vulva. If you have a receptive doe to breed, by all means, try placing her in your buck's cage first, but watch them carefully. In many instances, the buck, the doe, or both animals can become so upset by the appearance of the other Hare, that they will either attack (and you will have a real fight on your hands) or retreat to a corner and cower.
A method of breeding used very successfully by some breeders is the "honeymoon cottage". In this method, a large cage, at least 60 inches long is partitioned into two parts with a plywood wall. The smaller part should be about 18 inches long, and the larger, 42 inches. The plywood wall should have a 6 inch round hole through it at the doe's shoulder height. A clean, sterilized cage should be used so that there are no other animal odors on it. In other words, the cage should be "neutral ground". It is recommended that the doe and buck be placed together for 10 – 14 days to bond with each other, and eventually mate. Initially, it is expected that the two may chase each other around back and forth through the hole, and after a while, the doe will discover that when the buck's amorous advances became too much, she can defend her territory, i.e., her side of the cage, by standing with her head in the hole. They will mate when both buck and does are ready. Ten to fourteen days through her gestation period, the buck should be removed, and the larger part of the cage should be cleaned, leaving the cardboard covered smaller part alone. After a while, the doe will make a nest on the floor of the darkened, smaller, part of the cage, and conceive at the end of her gestation period. Following a period of eight weeks after the conception, it is recommended that the litter be weaned by removing the doe, and the doe and buck be separated.
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