On Hasen; A Compost Bunny

Our beloved compost bunny, Hasen,  passed this week.  He lived a rather  long, and I’d like to think rich, life for a bunny- making it over 7 years with us.  I’d like to take a moment to honor him, not only as he was a good little rabbit, but also as I feel that his story has merit in its own right.  

Hasen, and his sister Pfeffer, joined our family in the Spring of 2009 (08?) on a trip to the U.P. of Michigan to see the waterfalls and enjoy a general basking in the riotous  exuberance that is Spring in the Northwoods.   As usual, we were struck by the general poverty of the area- it is a hard climate if you are more than a few dozen miles from Lake Superior and no major cities for industry and the primary resources (logging and some mining) being over harvested a century ago.  But it isn’t an impoverished poverty in many cases- people Get By in the stubborn and inspiring way one often sees at the ragged edges of our modern society.   As we drove we saw a small ‘farmers’ market near one of the catchall / general stores that have sprung up in the Norhtwoods- the gas station / post office / grocery store / tackle / farm store /cafe and we pulled in as I was hoping to channel a bit of money into the local economy (bourgeois much?) and perhaps a pastry for some nibbles.  Plus I had spied some greenwood bent rocking chairs and hoped to bend the ear of the craftsman.  As I recall, we didn’t luck out on the pastries, but the wood worker was a character and worth the stop.  However, whilst I was talking shop with the woodsman, our daughter Ella, had spied two rabbit kits in a wire cage in the back of a rusty pickup next to some chickens and a duck or two with a prominent hand drawn sign reading somewhat ominously (for an almost 6 yr old budding PETA activist) PET / MEAT RABBIT: $5.  Thank the gods they had only 2 left.

As we packed them into our car (8 hours and at least one night of camping  from home, mind you) I grumbled about the foolishness of little girls and bestowed upon them their tongue-in-cheek names and worked to justify their ‘rescue’ (Ella was beside herself with squees) in my mind.  Because being a softie of a man just won’t do- bunnies need a purpose.  Aha!  Like many aspiring suburban homesteader, we have a manure problem.   

Suburban town councils seem fit to only allow predacious pets, but their manure is not ideal for vege gardens both as it stinks to all hell from their high protein intake and there is a greater risk of disease overlap with humans allegedly.  Chickens were outlawed as of then in our town (we – with much help from Ella’s empassioned and well researched speech to the council- got a Chicken ordinance passed in 2012 right before we moved) and bunnies seemed like a good way, along with my worm farms, to provide concentrated nitrogen and soil microbes for our crops while also turning a bit of our yard wastes (rabbits are fair browsers for shrub prunings and devour garden weeds-we’ve never really bought food for them).  So it was ok to get the bunnies– we needed their poo.  I can see the wry smile on my wife’s face now…   ‘Sure Rob, you got them for their poo…’

Hasen and Pfeffer lived in their hutch for several years (we thought they were both girls at the time, rabbits being somewhat difficult to sex to the noob) contributing their services of waste recycling and poo with occasional forays into the yard in a fenced play area with Ella and we expiremented with rabbit tractors in the gardens which worked quite well.     When the babies came we spread the wealth to friends and it is a very special joy to have litters in the house with young kids.  Many, many good lessons there.  Pfeffer died at about age three, but Hasen lived on to move to MN with us in 2013 and entered the next stage of his life with us.

In our new home we had decided to get chickens- our neighbors even had a rooster in their flock, and at the end of our block was a legacy farm (still in the township, but surrounded by actual town) that bred mules-we often were greeted by the loud braying of their Jack donkey.  So I ‘converted’ a 8×10 plastic shed that we had inherited with the house to a chicken coop (OK, I put straw in the bottom, nailed some large sticks together for a roost and made laying boxes out of 5 gallon buckets).   I didn’t really want to keep Hasen in the house- indoor, non-litter trained rabbits are rather, well, odiferous due to their urine and I didn’t really want to build a new outdoor hutch.  Necessity is the mother of invention -so is laziness, and now that I thought about it, I didn’t see much difference between the structure needs of chickens and the needs of bunnies.  So I threw Hasen in with the pullets and made sure to put fresh greens or alfalfa hay in daily just like with his hutch.  Hasen did well with the chickens, they harassed him a bit as he didn’t fair too well in the pecking order due to a decided lack of a beak, but every Spring he returned the harassment as he persistently tried to breed them all– which gave some different lessons to the kids.   Not gonna lie, I’m still a bit upset we never got any chocolate creme filled eggs out of the deal.  

In that first summer I added a Composting Chicken Run (post coming soon) to the coop- essentially a 10×12 roofed and screened area to expand the confined habitat for the chookens to 40 sq ft total per bird.   Hasen had full access to everywhere the ckickens went, and while he rapidly began to switch to a more normal cerpuscular / nocturnal activity cycle he would awaken rapidly to butt the chickens out of the way when the fresh greens were dropped in.   Some interesting synergies became apparent as I observed the hutch over time.  First of all- unlike chickens, as rabbits have a true urine, and a very nitrogen rich one at that, the bedding began to compost much faster than with just the 5 pullets in residence.  I had the lot on a 6″-12″  ‘Deep’ Litter method and the sections under Hasen’s toilet corners were super rich compost and as the coop had an impervious plastic barrier (floor) the bottom 2-3″ of the litter would stay moist enough to cool compost normally, and I even ended up incorporating worms and they thrived as they stayed in the low moist area and the chickens rarely scratched that deep through the dry top bedding.  

Another very interesting synergy became apparent.  Rabbits have two kinds of poop- the first is a pellet that is only half ‘done’- these are often dropped in dens for later consumption especially when the rabbit is eating high lignin forage and/or food is scarce.  Similar to a cow chewing its cud, this allows the bunny in question to extract far more nutrient than a simple ‘once through’ system.   It didn’t take long at all for the chickens to figure out that Hasen was basically a hopping treat dispenser- they absolutely adored the ‘first poops’ which opened up some interesting function stacking to me.  Essentially co-housing rabbits and chickens allowed me to feed chickens brush, albeit indirectly, as Hasen would devour the dogwood, willow, maple trimmings, and the chickens would then eat the half digested pellets.  Didn’t see that one coming, but it really does work.

After a year or so into the co housing project, I can home late one evening to find Hasen out in the front lawn in the moonlight happily munching clover and dandelions.   He did his ‘happy bunny jump-turn-flip’ when I approached him, incorrectly thinking I need to catch him to keep him safe.  To my surprise he calmly hopped back to the coop in the side yard and into a hole behind it.  It seems that he had dug a hole under the foundation of the chicken coop from the run, and had begun going out on nightly adventures.  Here is where some of my risky contrariness reared its head.  I know damn well that living as close as we do to a river that is full of weasel, otter, raccoon, possum, fox, and the rest of the chicken / rabbit eating menagerie that I should plug that hole and keep them all safe.  But I didn’t.   Seeing Hasen that happy, and the thought of that little meat bunny sneaking out each night to romp in the suburbs under the moonlight brought just too much joy to me.  I talked it over with the kids and we all agreed that Hasen, who was 6 at the time, had lived a very long bunny life and that it was better to let him have his adventures, even knowing that the Great Horned Owls we hear weekly would likely get him in time.  

So we let him play and either through luck or pluck, no weasels followed him into the coop, nor did any owls turn him into baby food in the Spring.  Sure we were lucky, but it was also a calculated risk-and I am not one to live my life in fear preferring to live fully than live afraid and Hasen seemed to me, to share that sentiment.   The chickens, well putting them at risk was likely too far, but we have been fine.   It was not uncommon to see Sagely Old Hasen sitting and Just Be-ing at night or early morning.  In winter, it became apparent from the tracks that he had been making friends with local bunnies, though we haven’t seen any wild/domestic crosses yet.  That would’ve make me very happy indeed if we had had our own Watership Down.  

At the end of our second summer here, Hasen developed a lame hind leg.  I was not able to find a direct injury, but I suspect that he had had an adventure that was more exciting than typical causing some nerve damage, or perhaps he got arthritis.  Over time it crept to his other hind leg, though he retained use of that one to some degree until the end.   We expected last winter to be his last, but lame and all, he soldiered through the -30 nights in the coop and met his 8th spring this year.  He didn’t venture out as much at night, but would follow the chickens out into the lawn when we would let them range- either freely or into their fenced rotating ‘pastures’ once the gardens were up.  He was definitely moving slower, but his weight was good and he could scoot pretty well on his own- we’d find him just basking in the sun nearly covered in white Dutch clover, half asleep and seemingly quite content.   The chickens seemed to sense the change and almost never pestered him any more and they would share space at the greens pile daily or walk calmly around him in the ‘pasture’.  

This June, Hasen began to turn, his weight began to drop, and he stopped cleaning his hind feet which would get dirty from all the dragging, and over the past 2 weeks he would often be found with stems of greens wound around his legs.  We began cutting all greens we fed to the coop, but the end was near.  

Last night Hasen left us, but I learned a lot from that silly little meat rabbit and am better for having him; he was a good little composting bunny.   Seeing him, eyes half closed basking in clover and the late Spring sun never failed to remind me to Just BE.  

Thanks Hasen, may your moonlit adventures continue in the Valhalla of Bunnies.  


3 Responses

  1. Rob, thank you for sharing that sweet story. I didn’t realize that bunny poop feeds chickens, what an interesting symbiotic relationship that is! You gave Hasen the best life a bunny could have. Bless your heart! What an inspiration,

    • Have never heard about chickens eating the ‘first poops’ but keeping rabbits and chickens together has been done before- Joel Salatin’s kids kept theirs in cages over the chickens. Cages are no Bueno for me, and plus Hasen would dig in the deep compost in the run to make burrows and turn it for me and excavate worms for the chickens who would then scratch and fill the burrows back in for him to redig. it won’t be long until we add another few rabbits.

  2. This was very beautiful and also awesome to learn how they do so well together. I’m planning to start with rabbits this year and I had thought of having them over worm bins, but this is such an interesting idea. I was really struggling with the idea of keeping them caged as well.

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