Date: 29 Aug 2002
These guidelines are intended to improve the quality of rabbit farming development applications to councils, to assist councils in the evaluation of proposals and to encourage greater consistency in the planning and development controls in relation to rabbit farming.
The guidelines will assist prospective rabbit producers in preparing their development applications for approval by the relevant consent authority. As the guidelines provide general advice only, producers should check with their local councils as to any specific environmental requirements for their particular rabbit farm proposal.
Councils may use the guidelines to assess rabbit farming development applications and to assist in the provision of consent conditions.
Some background to the rabbit farming industry is included in the guidelines; however, animal management and production details are not covered.
These guidelines have been reviewed by representatives of the following organisations as part of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Intensive Agriculture:
In addition comment has been received from:
These guidelines will be reviewed from time to time to account for changes in technology and community interest. People and organisations wishing to raise matters for consideration should write to:
Chief, Division of Animal Industries
Locked Bag 21
ORANGE NSW 2800
Keeping more than two domestic-type rabbits was made legal in New South Wales in October 1995. This decision followed closely the escape of the experimental ‘rabbit calicivirus’ from Wardang Island off the coast of South Australia, and opened the way for commercial rabbit farming in NSW. Prior to this, Western Australia was the only State in which rabbit farming was legal.
Rabbit calicivirus disease (RCD) has spread through many parts of Australia, dramatically reducing (European) wild rabbit populations in some areas. However, the wild rabbit remains a serious pest, and for this reason it is illegal to keep it as a pet or for commercial purposes. Other breeds of rabbit may be used for these purposes. These rabbits may be bred for their meat (e.g. New Zealand White, Californian, Flemish etc.) or for their fibre (e.g. Angora). As the vast majority of NSW producers are breeding meat-producing rabbits, these guidelines concentrate on meat-producing enterprises. However, the guidelines are equally relevant to fibre-producing enterprises.
Prior to October 1995, approximately 40 000–60 000 wild rabbits were processed per week for domestic and overseas consumption. The farmed-rabbit industry now has the potential to fill some of that market.
In commercial enterprises, rabbits are raised indoors, typically with rabbits confined to cages suspended above the floor. Each breeding female (doe) is kept in a separate cage with her litter until weaning. The growing young are then moved to another cage where they are kept until they reach approximately 12 weeks of age, when they are ready for slaughter.
Production systems can be separated broadly into ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ systems.
The NSW Rabbit Industry is still in the development stage, with an increasing number of small-scale producers. Many producers are selling breeding stock as well as rabbits for slaughter. The trend is for rabbit farms to locate in areas where processing plants are established or proposed, in order to reduce the costs and problems associated with transporting rabbits.
The Rural Lands Protection Act 1998 prohibits the use of the fibroma (myxomatosis) vaccine in rabbits. As of September 2001, a licence is no longer required to keep domestic rabbits in NSW. It remains illegal to keep wild rabbits in captivity without the approval of the Rural Lands Protection Board (now Local Land Services).
Rabbits must be kept in accordance with the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals — Intensive Husbandry of Rabbits. The Code specifies minimum cage sizes and provisions for supply of food and water to farmed rabbits. It also stipulates procedures for the correct handling and transport of rabbits. It is therefore recommended that prospective rabbit farmers and any authority responsible for issuing an approval for rabbit farming obtain a copy of the Code (see the References for purchase details). Relevant literature on conditions for keeping rabbits is available through NSW Agriculture offices (now NSW Department of Primary Industries).
In addition, other legislation may apply in certain circumstances to the rabbit farming industry, including:
It should be noted that the Occupational Health and Safety Act and associated Regulations require that rabbit producers establish safe working conditions to ensure the safety of workers and visitors.
Prospective rabbit producers should always contact the planning department of their local council to establish if rabbit farming is permissible at the proposed site and if development consent is required. This applies equally to new and expanding rabbit farms.
Most rural councils have local environmental plans (LEPs) which contain a definition of ‘intensive livestock agriculture’ (or ‘intensive livestock industry’ or ‘intensive livestock keeping’ or similar title). In a particular zone, intensive livestock agriculture may be prohibited, may require development consent, or may not require consent. Under most LEPs, intensive livestock agriculture land uses are permissible in rural zones and require development consent. Other types of agriculture are usually permissible without consent in rural zones. In ‘rural residential’ or ‘rural small holdings’ zones, intensive livestock agriculture is generally prohibited.
The definition of intensive livestock agriculture (or variations on the name) may differ from one council LEP to another. As it may not always be clear whether rabbit farming is included in the definition, a prospective rabbit producer should consult with the council’s planning department early in the process to ascertain if rabbit production is permissible and if development consent is required.
In areas where rabbit production is expanding, it is recommended that councils clarify whether rabbit farming is categorised as ‘intensive livestock agriculture’, and what planning approvals apply.
To provide consistency across the State, and to remove unnecessary involvement of councils in small-scale operations, the recommendations in Table 1 for classifying rabbit farms as ‘intensive livestock agriculture’ are provided as a guide. It is recommended that these provisions be incorporated into LEPs or Intensive Livestock Agriculture Development Control Plans when they are reviewed.
Table 1. Recommended levels for classifying rabbit farms as ‘intensive livestock agriculture’
Non-flushing or ‘dry’ system
Flushing or ‘wet’ system
150 breeding does or
75 breeding does or
Above threshold numbers or fewer, depending on the size of lots or the sensitivity of the location.
* Whichever is the smaller, including all rabbits outside the nest box.
The figures in Table 1 have been determined by comparing the effluent production potential of rabbits with that of other forms of livestock, and allow for the intensive nature of rabbit production. The figures have been based on standards set for piggeries and cattle feedlots as outlined in State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) No. 30 (see Appendix 1). The lower threshold numbers for a wet or flushing system indicate the greater potential for environmental impact from these types of operations.
In more populated areas, such as ‘rural residential’, ‘rural small holding’ or other rural zones, a lower threshold number for triggering a requirement for development consent may be more appropriate because of the smaller lot sizes or the sensitivity of the environment.
Smaller rabbit enterprises in which rabbit numbers are below the recommended levels need not be considered as intensive livestock agriculture in rural zones except in exceptional circumstances where the environment is very sensitive. These smaller enterprises should have minimal environmental impacts if suitably located and managed.
As outlined in Section 3, a prospective rabbit farmer must consult with the local council at the outset to ascertain if development consent is required for a proposed new or expanding rabbit farm.
If development consent is required, under the provisions of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 (the EP&A Act) the applicant must lodge a development application (DA) with council. The DA must be accompanied by a statement of environmental effects (SEE), which should provide the council with sufficient information about the proposal for it to make a decision on the acceptability of the proposal.
In making its decision to approve or refuse the DA, the council must consider:
The SEE should address all matters which the council needs to consider in making its decision.
In circumstances where approvals are required under the following legislation, the proposal is considered to be ‘integrated development’ (see Appendix 4).
If the proposal is considered to be ‘integrated development’, the council must collaborate closely with the relevant agencies in the assessment and approval of the proposal. The information that the other authorities need in order to grant an approval must also be included in the SEE.
If development consent is not required, rabbit farms should still be operated in accordance with best practice in relation to odour, waste and effluent management and the control of stock.
In circumstances where development consent is not required under the LEP but an approval is required under other legislation, the provisions of Section 5 of the EP&A Act apply. Under Section 5 provisions, prior to granting the approval or permit under the other legislation, the government authority must consider whether the proposed rabbit farm is likely to significantly affect the environment.
A review of environment factors (REF) should be prepared by the applicant so that the government authority has the information to make a decision based on the guideline ‘Is an environmental impact statement required?’. If the impacts are likely to be significant, an environmental impact statement (EIS) must be considered prior to granting a licence or permit. If the impacts are not likely to be significant, the authority can make a decision regarding the permit based on the information in the REF.
The contents of the REF should be similar to those of the SEE. The advice in these guidelines applies equally to all situations, whether or not a DA is required.
Appropriate site selection is critical to the development of a sustainable rabbit enterprise. In selecting a site, the potential impact of the proposal on the local community, on the natural environment and on existing land uses should be considered:
If land application of effluent, or on-site disposal of solid waste, is proposed, the potential for impacts upon the environment, especially on surface and groundwater resources, requires that a conservative approach be taken in site selection. This precautionary approach will help minimise the environmental impacts, preserve water resources and reduce the need for expensive environmental management options.
As a general rule, the shed must not be located in an area that is subject to periodic inundation by stormwater or floodwater. In addition, rabbit farming should be compatible with surrounding land uses. The establishment of the rabbit farming activities at adequate distances from neighbours can assist in minimising environmental impacts and disturbance of the amenity of others. While arbitrary separation distances may not take into account specific characteristics of the site and any advances in technology, Table 2 provides a guide for recommended separation distances to minimise impacts. However, each proposal requires individual consideration. Individual councils may choose to alter these distances and set their own standards.
Table 2. Recommended separation distances
Wet shed and
House on adjacent property
The SEE or REF should provide a description of what is proposed, assess the likely impacts of the proposal on the environment and justify the undertaking of the enterprise. The document should focus on the ‘key’ issues that are important for the council and government authorities in their decision making.
The following provides an outline for an SEE or REF:
For large developments (greater than 500 does) or for locations which are in environmentally sensitive areas (e.g. close to wetlands, high-watertable areas, floodplains, acid sulfate soils etc.), additional information should be provided such as:
Generally, well-run rabbit farms are less likely to cause adverse impacts than are most other intensive livestock enterprises. However, managers must be aware of the potential impact their operations could have on the area surrounding their farm and on other existing rabbit farms. The most likely environmental impacts from rabbit farms result from the management of wastes. Key issues usually include:
Rabbit raising must be carried out in a manner that prevents rabbits from escaping and possibly interbreeding with wild rabbits.
Rabbits must be kept within a rabbit-proof enclosure (such as a secure shed) and not be permitted to ‘free-range’.
b. Animal welfare
Ideally, rabbits should be accommodated in well-ventilated sheds with ambient temperature between 10°C and 25°C. Lower temperatures pose few problems, but temperatures above 30°C can cause noticeable heat stress. The temperature should never be allowed to exceed 35°C.
In some areas of NSW, it can be very difficult to maintain optimal temperature conditions. Sheds should be adequately ventilated with either a forced or passive system and designed to prevent internal temperatures rising above 35°C. If a force-ventilation system is relied upon to maintain suitable conditions, an automatic alarm system to warn of power failure should be installed. With large-scale operations, a back-up power supply is recommended.
Sheds should be orientated to minimise the area of western wall, and/or the walls and roof should be insulated. Shading and roof sprinklers may also be necessary in warm climates.
c. Shed hygiene
Animal health is likely to be adversely affected by poor shed hygiene. At all times, wastes including any dead animals should be properly managed. Disease-control protocols should be established for isolating diseased stock and for quickly dealing with the problem.
As rabbit hair builds up inside sheds, it should be removed regularly from vents and window screens to maintain the efficiency of shed ventilation systems. It is also advisable, after the rabbits are removed from the cage, to periodically remove hair from the cages when cleaning.
d. Vermin, including insects
It is important for the animals’ and employees’ health that sheds be kept vermin-free. Sound management and maintenance practices in sheds, waste management areas and feed storage areas are essential to prevent a vermin problem at the rabbit farm, which could also become a problem for surrounding residents.
If rabbits are being slaughtered on-site for food production, a health risk assessment should be undertaken to demonstrate that all procedures, including storage and transport, meet appropriate standards. All water used in processing should be of potable standard.
A useful document for guidance in this area is ‘The Australian Standard for Hygienic Production of Rabbit Meat for Human Consumption’, SCARM Report No. 59, AS 4466:1997.
f. Contingency plans for disposal of stock
In some instances, it may be necessary for rabbit producers to quickly dispose of their stock. In any DA, the applicant should outline the proposed contingencies for dealing with such a situation, for example sale to abattoirs or a pet food processor, or humane euthanasia by an approved method. Advice on humane disposal methods should be obtained from District Veterinarians at Local Land Services.
Stock must not, under any circumstance, be released into the wild.
a. Solid waste management
Manure and litter collection, storage and disposal
Rabbit manure should be viewed as a valuable nutrient resource and not as a waste product requiring disposal.
In a dry system, manure (and litter) may only need to be removed once every several weeks. Stockpiled manure should be kept dry to maintain nutrient quality and to avoid the potential for odour generation and nutrient run-off. The manure should be stored on a bunded impervious pad, and preferably be covered. Some earthworks may be required to control both run-off and run-on water. The manure and litter are suitable for use directly onto land, or they can be used in composting mixes with green waste.
In a wet system, manure should be removed from the rabbit shed frequently (as often as daily) to minimise odour production and potential health problems. The manure usually becomes a component of the wastewater management system, with solids removed from the waste stream as sludge (biosolids). This material can be dried and composted for use in agriculture, or it can be applied directly as a slurry.
In any application for approval, the applicant should:
Disposal of dead animals
Dead animals should be removed and disposed of daily. If this is not possible, the dead animals should be held in freezers. In many circumstances, arrangements can be made for disposal in regional or local landfill. On-site disposal is acceptable only if pits are specially constructed. The pits should be lined with impervious material, to ensure no leaching of nutrient, and constructed so that other animals cannot gain access.
Because of potential odour and other air impacts, incineration of dead animals is not normally acceptable except in a properly constructed incinerator (consult with the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) or council).
Any DA should include a contingency plan for the disposal of dead animals, for both normal operations and when there is an occasional high mortality rate, for example due to heat stroke. (See Section 7.1 of these guidelines.)
b. Wastewater collection and storage
With respect to effluent management, a dry system has many advantages over a wet system, and is therefore the preferred management system. In a dry system, there are limited sources of wastewater. These include any wash-down water from periodic cleaning of sheds and cages, and any run-off from stockpiled manure.
In a wet system, all drainage water and animal wastes should be collected along with wash-down water and any run-off water from solid-waste storage areas.
All drainage water and animal wastes should be collected via a drain and piped on an adequate slope to a suitably located holding pond. A holding pond should be capable of retaining water piped to it from the shed and at least a 1-in-20-year, 24-hour storm event.
Depending on the scale of the enterprise, a sedimentation pond may be required to be constructed in order to collect effluent and settle out the solid material before it reaches the holding pond.
Sufficient freeboard must be maintained in ponds to minimise the possibility of overflows. Ponds should have sealed bases to prevent infiltration.
When locating sedimentation or holding ponds, it is advisable to adhere to the recommended separation distances listed in Table 2.
c. Application of wastewater and sludge to land
If land disposal of effluent or sludge is to be carried out on a significant scale (with either the dry or wet system), applicants must prepare a nutrient budget. The budget should demonstrate that the rate and frequency of application would not result in the overloading of the soil and possible nutrient contamination of groundwater. The nutrient budget needs to consider:
In developing the budget, reference may need to be made to the NSW EPA publication, The utilisation of treated effluent by irrigation (1995) — see References.
Where solid effluent is to be spread, the need for a nutrient budget may be waived if:
Spreading sludge or irrigating with effluent must not occur in areas where there is a risk of run-off into watercourses. The site should conform to the separation distances given in Table 2.
In any DA, the applicant should:
In some climates, evaporation ponds may provide an alternative disposal option for effluent, leaving only solid waste to be disposed of. If there is a likelihood of contamination of creeks or groundwater from run-off from the application or storage sites, applicants should contact the nearest office of the EPA to inquire about licensing.
Odour can result from poorly managed sheds or waste storage and disposal, as rabbit manure and effluent contain high levels of ammonia. Ammonia production is largely a problem only during hot weather, and is generally worst with concrete-floored sheds and non-litter-based systems. Significant ammonia levels can affect the health of the rabbits as well as reduce the amenity of the surrounding area, potentially causing conflicts with neighbouring property owners.
In wet systems, concrete floors are likely to need daily flushing to minimise odours in warm weather. Odour is less likely to be a problem in well-managed dry systems. Dry litter-based systems produce little odour provided they are regularly cleaned out and the litter is maintained in a dry, undisturbed state.
Odour from wet manure stockpiles, sedimentation ponds, wastewater irrigation areas and dead animals awaiting disposal can also become an issue. Proper handling, storage and disposal of all wastes are essential.
In any DA, the applicant should outline the proposed odour management protocols for all stages of the operation of the sheds and waste management. In addition, contingencies should be outlined for managing situations where odour becomes an issue and neighbours are complaining. This may need to include keeping a register of all odour complaints and documenting measures undertaken to prevent further odour incidents.
The proposed water sources for the rabbit enterprise should be of an adequate quality and reliability during dry periods to meet the proposal’s needs. Discussions may need to be held with the Department of Land and Water Conservation regarding obtaining a licence for a bore or access to other water resources. If significant quantities of water will be required from the water supply of councils, Sydney Water or Hunter Water, discussions should be held with the relevant body.
Contamination of nearby creeks, wetlands or groundwater may occur if sufficient care is not taken with the design and management of the sheds or the wastewater and solid waste management systems.
The site layout and sheds should be designed to minimise the likelihood of stormwater or floodwater entering the shed or other operational areas, particularly those areas where the rabbits are housed or wastes are stored. It is recommended that the shed floor be raised a minimum of 200 mm above the ground surface. If the site is prone to inundation, bunding may be required around the shed.
To prevent infiltration of liquid wastes into the soil (which could cause contamination of soil, surface or subsurface water), the shed floor and the solid waste storage area should be impermeable—either concrete or compacted dirt. The shed floors should drain inwards from the perimeter, with an appropriate collection, reticulation and treatment system, so that any run-off from under the cages can be collected and managed appropriately.
In dry shed management systems, absorbent litter such as sawdust or wood shavings should be maintained under the rabbit cages, or wastes should be collected on trays, mats or conveyor systems.
In addition to the stock, waste, odour and water issues, the following matters may become issues depending on the location, size and nature of the proposal.
a. Visual impacts
Depending on the landscape characteristics of the location, large sheds to house the rabbits have the potential to significantly affect the visual quality of the landscape and the views from neighbours’ residences or the road. In designing the sheds, the location, colour, bulk and form should be considered in order to minimise any adverse visual impact.
Vegetative screen planting can lessen the visual impact of sheds and other structures. Vegetative screens can also affect wind patterns and, in some circumstances, reduce the transmission of odour. However, they do not negate the need for appropriate planning, siting, design and management practice.
b. Transport issues
The impact of truck movements associated with large facilities should be considered. Factors such as the number of trucks, the standard of the road and intersections, and whether trucks are likely to pass through residential streets to get to main arterial roads, should be considered.
In addition, the time of the day when truck movements are likely to occur, and the impacts on neighbours of any loading and unloading activities at night, need to be taken into account. Where possible, truck movements after 10 pm which are likely to disturb residences should be minimised.
c. Native vegetation and flora and fauna issues
The impact of the proposal on native vegetation should be considered at the time of selecting a site and designing the layout for the facility.
If there is likely to be any significant disturbance of native flora or fauna, the applicant needs to consider the impacts on threatened species. To do this the consent authority will require the applicant to prepare an ‘eight part test’ (as set out in Section 5A of the EP&A Act — contact the National Parks and Wildlife Service for details). A copy of the eight part test must be provided to the consent authority.
If development consent is not required, then a copy of the eight part test must be given to any authority responsible for granting an approval. If the consent or approval authority considers that the impacts are likely to be significant, then a species impact statement must be prepared. In these circumstances, the applicant must consult the Director-General of the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
If native vegetation is to be cleared outside the exemptions of the Native Vegetation Act 2003, or relevant Regional Vegetation Management Plan, an approval may be required under this Act. In these circumstances, consultation with the Department of Land and Water Conservation should be undertaken.
d. Noise and lights
Depending on the location and scale of the enterprise, noise and lights associated with the operation of the facility could affect the amenity of the surrounding area. Consideration should be given to minimising such impacts on surrounding residents by managing the location, direction and use of lights and the use of any alarm or communication systems.
e. Economic and strategic issues
A consideration in the location of the rabbit farm is the strategic context and the potential economic benefits. The relationship of the proposal to any processing plant should be outlined. The potential employment at the facility and the potential benefits and costs to the community from the location of the facility should be appraised in any development application.
f. Construction impacts
Depending on the location and the scale of the works, construction activities may result in impacts on neighbouring properties. The application should outline the construction schedule and hours of operation, earthworks and erosion-control measures, the likely effects of the earthworks on native vegetation and drainage patterns, and potential traffic associated with the construction.
It is important for rabbit farmers to develop good public relations with neighbours and council representatives. Any complaints should be dealt with in a concerned, professional and sympathetic manner.
Owners of large developments or those located in sensitive areas may need to maintain a complaints register in order to monitor adverse impacts and assess management practices.
State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) No. 30 stipulates that development consent must be obtained for cattle feedlots of 50 or more steers, or for piggeries with more than 20 breeding sows. This policy should be considered when determining the size of rabbit farms that are likely to be categorised as ‘intensive livestock agriculture’ and trigger the need for development consent.
When comparing rabbits with other animals, a breeding doe and progeny relate best to a breeding sow and progeny. Using data from Table 3, it can be seen that, in terms of manure production, 20 sows (including progeny to finishing stage) equates to 372 breeding does and progeny (ratio of 18.6 to 1). The ratio comparing sows and does in terms of nitrogen production in manure is around 11 to 1, and for phosphorus is 8 to 1. As rabbit manure has a high concentration of phosphorus, then phosphorus is the limiting factor. In Table 3, ‘waste’ includes both liquid and solid wastes.
Table 3. Intensive livestock relative manure and nutrient loads
Waste relative to
1 breeding doe and progeny
1 breeding sow and progeny to finishing stage
1 beef steer
Figures calculated from Kruger (unpublished) and Lebas et al. (1986) — see References.
In terms of phosphorus production, 20 sows equates to 160 rabbits. The minimum numbers for development consent given in Section 3 of this document for a ‘dry’ operation have been based on this figure. The figures for breeding does are based on 6 litters of 9 kittens per year per doe. This level of production is unlikely to be achieved in the majority of commercial enterprises, therefore effluent production figures are conservative. Moisture percentage of manure is around 30–40%.
Under a litter-based system in a well-ventilated shed, rabbit urine would largely evaporate, leaving in the order of 0.6 kg of waste per breeding doe and progeny, per day. Microbial breakdown would further reduce this quantity over a period of time. Quantities will vary between enterprises, and efficiently run rabbit farms may produce less wastage. Applicants may provide their own figures if these can be substantiated.
The composition of the waste produced varies with the type and age of the rabbit, and particularly with the diet. The figures in Table 4 from Lebas et al. (1986) provide some guide for developing nutrient budgets.
Table 4. Quantities and composition of excrement produced by rabbits
Weight per day (g)
Content of fresh product (%)
In terms of volume of solid waste, on an annual basis, American literature suggests that a doe and her 30–40 kittens will create a combined total of 0.2–0.25 cubic metres of manure annually. This figure relates to a commercial situation where kittens are removed at approximately 12 weeks of age.
Environment Protection Authority
Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997
Licence relating to the construction or operation of an activity identified in the Schedule.
Department of Land and Water Conservation
Water and bore licences and levee approvals.
National Parks and Wildlife Service
Consents to destroy Aboriginal artefacts, relics or places.
Approval to undertake works affecting an item protected by a conservation order.
Roads and Traffic Authority
Approval to undertake works in a classified road corridor.
Mine Subsidence Board
Approval to undertake works in a Mine Subsidence District.
Approval to cut, remove or damage marine vegetation.
Animal Health Committee of the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Resource Management, Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals — Intensive Husbandry of Rabbits, CSIRO Publications, East Melbourne, phone (03) 9418 7217.
Environment Protection Authority 1995, The utilisation of treated effluent by irrigation: Draft environmental guidelines for industry, EPA, Sydney.
Kruger I (unpublished), Intensive Livestock — Relative Pollution Loads, NSW Agriculture, Tamworth.
Lebas, F, Coudert, P, Rouvier, R and de Rochambeau, H 1986, The rabbit — husbandry, health and production, Food and Agriculture Organisation, Rome.
Author: Craig Watson, Yolande Stone