It all began with two
‘I'd always had dogs and horses, but with a high-pressure career, I didn’t have the time to commit to more animals – even though I dearly wanted to own rabbits,’ says Emma. ‘So I set myself a deadline: I’d have bunnies by the time I was 40 and sure enough, I did. My first rabbits were called Tinka and Belle, and they’re nearly seven now.
‘Then, shortly after moving with my partner, Wayne, I decided to rescue more rabbits. We took them from homes where they had no freedom and no opportunity to express their natural behaviours, as well as rescue centres – and we have 36 in total now!' she laughs.
Rabbits in wonderland
As her family of bunnies grew, Emma realised that she and Wayne would need to make some adjustments to accommodate them all. However, instead of simply some living areas, she decided to transform their backyard into a rabbit playground. ‘My inspiration came from The Secret Garden and Alice in Wonderland books that I read as a child,’ she explains. ‘We began by building what we now call “Bunningham Palace”, a large log cabin with bedroom areas where our rabbit groups could sleep. We cut access holes through the cabin walls into individual gardens, so each group could come and go at will, day or night.
‘Last year, I set about constructing the “The Wonderland Garden”. I built a treehouse and wooden castle, which we call “Fort Bunlop”, and a maze out of reclaimed wood. I sculpted a giant rabbit with the soil that we dug out for pathways, with pipes hidden underneath for the rabbits to run through. A pair of obsolete hutches was painted up and interconnected with pipes to form “The Hop Inn”, where bunnies can go for refreshments and nibbles. Finally, a wooden chess set sitting on cool patio slabs provides a shady area for the bunnies to relax in.’>
While all these additions help to keep the rabbits happy, keeping them safe is also of utmost importance. ‘To protect our rabbits from foxes and birds of prey, we surrounded the cabin and garden areas with high fencing,’ says Emma. ‘We underwired the ground within the area to stop anything from digging in (or our bunnies from digging out!). There are bird-scaring kites to frighten off buzzards from the whole area and our donkeys and alpacas, who are natural guard animals, deter foxes from the surrounding paddocks as do the electric wire fences.’
Keeping the peace
Another issue Emma and Wayne had to consider was how to prevent territory issues and keep their rabbits safe from one another. ‘We have seven groups of highly territorial rabbits,’ Emma explains. ‘So I had to work out how they could all enjoy the garden at the same time without the danger of fighting. With the help of Runaround (a company that specialises in creating habitats for pet rabbits, which mimic conditions in the wild) we developed a series of wire tunnels, plastic pipes and sliding doors. These give the different groups access to various areas of the garden without any risk of bothering each other.’
Lessons from a 36-rabbit life
‘Our Wonderland Garden was an investment for the bunnies and us to enjoy,’ Emma says. ‘But you don’t have to spend a fortune to give your bunnies a great life – anyone can create a space that a rabbit can be busy in.’
‘Like humans, rabbits like to explore new things and get bored with daily monotony, so keeping their minds stimulated and bodies fit is great for their overall health,’ adds Emma. ‘Of our 36 rabbits, we have eight living inside with us, with access to a hide, litter tray, chew toys and opportunities to forage.’
And Emma stresses that investing the time to care for her rabbits is just as important. ‘Some days are busier than others,’ she admits, ‘but you just need a good routine.’
How would she respond to those who say she’s spoiled her rabbits or gone over the top? ‘I wouldn’t say our pets are pampered,’ she says, ‘we’ve just replicated how they would live in the wild. Yes, we’ve put a lot of hard work into the place and made sacrifices along the way, but it’s worth it for the joy they give us.’