Rabbit farming began thousands of years ago when the wild European rabbit was hunted and killed as food by humans. Phoenician sailors visiting the coast of Spain circa 1100 B.C., mistaking the European rabbit for a species from their homeland, gave it the name i-shepanham. A corruption of this name, used by the Romans, would become the Latin name for Spain, Hispania. In Rome rabbits were raised in large walled colonies. These captive rabbits were raised as food and permitted to interbreed at will. All of the different varieties of European rabbit at the time were natural as no man-made breeds had been developed.
Selective rabbit breeding began in the middle ages with monasteries keeping colonies of rabbits. French Catholic monks are credited for the actual domestication of rabbits. During this time, the emergence of rabbits as household pets began and rabbits were bred for specific traits including weight and fur color. By the 1500s, several new breeds with different fur colors and weight were documented.
Rabbits were introduced to Great Britain in the 13th century. By the 16th century King Henry VIII had leporaria or rabbit colonies so large he could hunt in them. His daughter, Queen Elizabeth, kept “rabbit islands”, islands in lakes and rivers where rabbits could flourish. This is where Coney Island in New York got its name because coney is a name for rabbit (the name for rabbit used in the Authorized Version). Today there are over 800 rabbit islands in the oceans and lakes of the world.
As people and explorers moved about all over the earth, they moved their animals with them. Rabbit feed in the form of vegetables and other green plants were readily available, so the rabbits made the transition relatively easily.
Today, rabbits can be found in most habitats of the world because of their ability to convert varied plant life into nutritious food. In addition to this, rabbit production has enabled many cultures a ready source of food and clothing, thereby making rabbit farming a popular activity across the globe.