I can’t remember when I first knew rabbits held a special place in my heart. My Dad instilled in me a love of all creatures great and small, and my earliest memories are of him chatting to anything and everything with 4 legs (or indeed 8, as that extended to spiders too!)

But it was rabbits that captured my heart, and even as I type this, one of my rescue free-roam house bunnies is splooting by my feet. To me, rabbits are beautiful and gentle little souls, who deserve love and respect, as all animals do.

Rabbits are the third most popular pet after dogs and cats, with over 1.5 million people currently owning rabbits in the UK.  And yet they are one of the most neglected pets.  

I am a trustee of a rabbit rescue and so I see their daily struggle to care for the volume of rabbits desperately needing rescue places, far outstripping the number departing to new loving homes. For years we have been in a rabbit rescue crisis, and the Rabbit Welfare Association estimates that over 100,000 rabbits are currently in rescues across the UK. It is heartbreaking.

But equally heartbreaking is the existence of an organisation called the British Rabbit Council (BRC), whose raison d'être is to breed rabbits, cruelly exploit them for their looks and ignore the fundamentals of rabbit welfare. They claim to do 1,000 rabbit shows a year at County Shows, Village Halls and hired venues. 

All so they can pursue an archaic hobby which they call “The Fancy”. 

A “fancy” hobby conjures up a nostalgic image of playing croquet and enjoying afternoon tea at a country estate.  Nothing could be further from the truth for this “fancy”.  In fact, Webster’s dictionary defines animal fancying as “breeding especially for bizarre or ornamental qualities”.  And BRC “rabbit fancying” is as bizarre as it is cruel.

Victorian “freak” shows may rightly be a thing of the past… yet it seems they are alive and kicking in the dark world of the rabbit fancy, where members of the BRC travel miles to exhibit their rabbits. These animals are stuffed into tiny single cages, left to lie in their urine and droppings all day (or placed on inhumane wire bottom cages so their fur doesn’t get “dirty”), can hardly move (let alone hop), have no place to hide (which is crucial for prey animals), and are surrounded by rows and rows of other miserable rabbits suffering the same fate.

At one of the BRC’s flagship annual events - the Bradford Premier Small Animal Show - over 1,300 rabbits were exhibited in February 2024, having travelled from all over the UK and even abroad.

At rabbit shows, BRC judges proudly walk around in their white butcher-style jackets emblazoned with the BRC logo, while rabbits are lined up on tables to be judged.  This includes a “health check” where they are turned on their backs (known as trancing) which triggers a primal fear response where they freeze. Desperately trying to stop this, they kick out in terror or wriggle violently, but they don’t stand a chance against the grip of a predator in a white jacket.

And why all this misery? So the BRC member can “proudly” win a rosette for a narcissistic hobby that has no benefit to the rabbit, or the BRC breeder can claim their “stock” has won “best in breed”.  Yes – that's right – the BRC refer to their rabbits as “stock”. They value rabbits about as much as a cucumber in a vegetable show. 

And when the BRC breeders sell their “stock” at shows, rabbits are often just stuffed into a cardboard box for their new owner to take home, with little or no explanation of how to look after them. The BRC rabbit show doesn't even meet the basic welfare standards required by pet shops when selling rabbits (which is a pretty low bar, as this area needs vast improvement too). But while pet shops are legally bound to be licensed, and are supposedly inspected, rabbit shows are not, which means the BRC can carry out their atrocious practices unscrutinised.

And don’t get me started on the horrendous conditions in which many BRC breeders are known to keep their rabbits at home. Females are forced to breed year after year until their little bodies fail, and their offspring are stacked up in walls of single hutches in dark and filthy sheds. Numerous times Local Authorities have removed rabbits from BRC breeders, including a successful RSPCA prosecution of 2 BRC “award winning” breeders.

Time and again rabbit rescues receive these desperately neglected BRC rabbits, often needing emergency medical treatment (some so ill or injured they are put to sleep), and some with their back legs agonisingly embedded with a BRC ring. (The BRC mandates that rabbits must be rung for competition).

And what about the rabbits who don’t get rescued, who are no longer fit for breeding, who fail to make the “breed standard” for shows or don’t get sold to the pet trade? The answer is often shocking. Numerous rabbit rescues have shared multiple stories online, or told me in person, of the grim fates that await them. From breeders shooting rabbits that are not “show quality”, to selling them off for bird of prey or snake food, from breaking their necks and putting them in the freezer, to “culling their stock” to make room for younger rabbits.  It is utterly horrifying. 

The BRC also promotes extreme breeding - the longer the lop ears, the thicker the angora wool or the flatter their face, the “better” the “pedigree” rabbit is deemed to be. All these characteristics can lead to life-long health conditions (the Germans aptly call this “Qualzucht” which means “torture breeding”).  A rabbit that resembles their common ancestor, the wild rabbit, has no chance of winning a rosette, as they wouldn’t meet the BRC’s so-called “breed standard”.

Furthermore, BRC rabbit shows fail to adhere to even the basic requirements of the Animal Welfare Act, including the need for “a suitable environment”, “ability to demonstrate normal behaviour“ and “protection from suffering”. (Ignoring these welfare needs is a criminal offence).

And so it’s hardly surprising that when the Good Practice Code for the Welfare of Rabbits was created by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare to supplement the Animal Welfare Act, the BRC refused to support the Code. The BRC even try to claim that their rabbits are “exhibition rabbits” and not “pet rabbits” in an attempt to circumvent this Code – as if giving a different label to a rabbit somehow negates their need for welfare. (DEFRA has confirmed that there is no such category as an “exhibition rabbit”, so this claim is entirely false).

The BRC also deliberately ignore numerous rabbit protection initiatives such as “Adopt Don’t Shop” and “A Hutch is Not Enough”. Of course the BRC won't support these – how could they, when they conflict with their penchant for cruelty.  Why bother with welfare, when there are so many rosettes to win?

Fortunately the tide is turning against the BRC, thanks to a campaign by a number of dedicated rabbit and animal welfare organisations, animal rights groups, rabbit rescues and passionate rabbit lovers, who are exposing the BRC for their cruelty. By working together, sharing information and shining a light on the dark world of the rabbit fancy, they are starting to make a difference.

In less than a year, a number of County Shows have removed BRC rabbit shows (in favour of holding Rabbit Welfare Association (RWAF) educational events and supporting their local rabbit rescues); village halls have started opening their eyes and closing their doors to the BRC; high profile animal charities have removed their stands from BRC events; and nationwide awareness is being raised online and in the media.

But there is still much work to do, as 1,000 rabbit shows won’t get shut down overnight. While rabbits continue to suffer, please do not stay silent! If a BRC rabbit show is coming near you, there are a number of things you can do to help - alert the Local Authority, report it to the RSPCA, email the venue, post about it online, and let it be known that this cruelty will not be tolerated. Remember - failing to comply with the Animal Welfare Act is an offence. Even if you do just one of these things, it can make a huge difference!

And of course, support your local rabbit rescue!  The breeding of rabbits must stop. Full stop. There is simply no such thing as a “responsible” or “ethical“ breeder.  With over one hundred thousand rabbits in rescues desperately needing new homes, BRC breeders are just adding fuel to this fire and condemning their rabbits to a lifetime of misery.

We MUST speak up for rabbits! They deserve a kinder world where they are loved and cherished, not exploited for someone’s “fancy” hobby to win a rosette, or to make a few extra pounds for their heartless breeder because their “stock” has won “best in breed”.

The days of the British Rabbit Council are numbered, and it is only a matter of time before their cruel and archaic practices are consigned to the past.

And for me, this day can’t come soon enough.

Do you have space in your home and heart for any of Britain's thousands of abandoned rabbits? Find a rescue near you that meets the BaBBA Campaign ethical standard for rabbit rescues and sanctuaries. Not sure if you can meet a rabbit's needs? Check out vegan small animal rescue, Tiny Paws MCR's advice on keeping happy healthy bunnies! And why not hop over to Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund for further resources and support!