High-quality pelts are sourced from unique strains of rabbits, such as the Rex species. Only a small number of skins are collected from slaughterhouses; the rest are discarded.
The ones that are put to use fall into one of three categories: fur pelts used for clothing, pelts used for shorn hair (hair that has been removed from the skin), and skins that are used as fertiliser.
The source of the by-product
Intensive meat-rabbit production is incompatible with quality fur production. Raw skin represents a small portion of an animal’s value. Thus, rabbits are increasingly slaughtered before their coats mature. At normal slaughtering age of 10 to 12 weeks, they still have a baby coat or are starting the subadult moult. The thin, unstable coats are really not fur-friendly. Winter is the best season for the harvesting of stable and homogeneous adult coats. The rest of the year, the coat is uneven and the hair is not firmly attached to the skin due to moulting. Some summer coats can be homogeneous though, especially in subadult rabbits.
Sorting and grading pelts
Unsorted rabbit skins can contain both valuable and useless pelts, so sorting and grading should be done as soon as possible. Sorting determines the skin’s future use.
Skins are graded as follow:
• Dressing pelts:
The term “dressing” instead of “tanning” is used for fur. The best skins are regular, intact, homogeneous, dense, wellformed, and flawless. Quality skins have 20 times more value than others.
• Hair-clipping pelts:
These lack proper shape or homogeneity for fur products but have long, healthy hair. It is machine-shorn for textiles and felting (although the hat trade is declining in many countries). The skin is cut into vermicelli and used as glue or fertiliser. This method recycles much of the fur.
• Fertiliser-only waste:
On these skins the hair is gnawed, cut, soiled, sweaty, or parasite ridden. These skins can raise more labour, processing, and transport costs than what they are worth.
Fur production conditions
Light: Newborn and subadult moults are not seasonal. Early onset needs high-tech setups (housing with no windows) and a complicated method (two different fattening periods with different light schedules).
Temperature: Does not affect moults, but if it is too hot, the rabbit will eat less and its coat will suffer.
Hygiene: Any physiological imbalance or pathological disorder affects the mature coat immediately. It becomes dull, unkempt, and the rabbit neglects grooming. This skin will not make good fur.
Normal hygienic procedures, regardless of the production system, favour quality fur and will prevent skin diseases. This is one of the developing countries’ biggest problems.
When grading pelts, colour and size are the most important factors. Fashion dictates colour, but white is the most versatile because it can be dyed. The trader wants four or five-tonne lots. Large pelts are prized, so dwarf breeds should be rejected. The coat should be homogeneous with long hair, a thick undercoat, and silky guard hair. The Rex breed produces a soft but tough pelt, like chinchilla, moleskin, or otter.
Collecting and storing pelts
Skinning should ensure the largest possible skin surface, which is valuable. First, an incision is made between the hind feet and thighs. Skin is then pulled off. The head skin has no commercial value, but keeping it allows better stretching. This operation should be done carefully to avoid mutilation, knife marks, grease (which burns skin), or bloodstains. These flaws lower the value of a good-quality pelt. Figure 1.1 to 1.4 shows the skinning sequence.
Drying preserves rabbit pelts. This is a simple, inexpensive operation (the salt used to preserve the skins of other species can be expensive). After removing the skin, start drying. It must cool and dry quickly to prevent derma enzymes from attacking the hair roots and causing hair loss. Fresh pelts left in a pile for more than 15 minutes will ferment quickly, causing hair to fall out in patches. Without basic care, many pelts are lost. Frames shape skins.
They should not be overstretched or wrinkled. A board or steel wire frame can be used (Figure 2). Straw padding can deform the fur. During drying, air should circulate, and skins shouldn’t touch. Above 50 °C, the derma’s collagen is irreversibly altered, and the skin cannot be processed. They should be dried in the shade or dark in a well-aired, dry place (18 to 22 °C). To avoid local hotspots, remove shoulder and belly fat 24 hours later.
When the pelts are dry, they are piled with insecticide (naphthaline) between each layer. Grading the pelts as soon as possible depends on the size of the stock. At least separate quality and white from coloured pelts. All operations from skinning to storage must be done carefully, whether the pelt is for fur or hair. The slightest handling error results in a lower grade, which is especially serious when a high-quality skin is involved.
The more homogeneous and high-quality the pelts, the more attractive they will be to traders during market depressions. Training is important if a country wants to increase rabbit production for pelt sales. Producers should know how to recognise maturity, but also be trained in skinning, preserving, and storing the pelt.
The semi-finished pelt requires a series of steps:
• Dipping: rehydrating pelts with water, salt, and soap, then rinsing;
• Fleshing: rabbit skin has a thin collagenous film on the flesh side. This impermeable membrane should be removed. This is a labour-intensive operation on rehydrated skins.
• Dressing: rabbit skin tanned with salt, alum, and formol;
• Thinning: thinner skins are needed. This highly specialised work requires precision to avoid skin holes, hair follicle cuts, and hair loss. Second dressing on thinned skin;
• Greasing: oiling the skin. This is labour-intensive;
• Finishing: consists of removing grease (stirring in a tub with absorbents), beating (tossing in a meshed cylinder to remove absorbents, sawdust, grit, kaolin), and lifting the hair to set it. All three finishing stages use machines.
The information provided in this article is credited to:
Lebas, F., Coudert, P., de Rochambeau, H. & Thébault, R. (1997). The rabbit – Husbandry, health, and production. ISBN 92-5-103441-9. Available at: https://www.researchgate. net/publication/38977233_The_ Rabbit_Husbandry_Health_and_ Production