The very first rabbits originated in northern Europe. Around 12,000 years ago, the Ice Age forced them to migrate south. When the ice receded, the rabbit’s habitat was confined to southern Spain.
Wild rabbits of Europe and North Africa are thought to have been discovered by Phoenicians when they reached the shores of Spain about 1000 BC.
Rabbits prospered in meadowlands between the mountains to the north, and forests that covered most of Europe to the east. These rabbits are the ancestors of all domesticated rabbit breeds.
With the birth of agriculture, vast amounts of woodlands were cleared to make room for crops. This allowed the rabbit’s territory to slowly expand into Europe.
However in 116 to 27 BC it was suggested that rabbits were kept in leporaria, stone-walled pens or parks, with hares and other wild species for hunting.
Leporaria were the origin of the warrens or game parks that developed in the Middle Ages.
It is known that rabbits were considered and aquatic dish and during lent monks were in the habit of eating laurices (foetuses or newborn rabbits) a habit also practiced by the Spaniards of that time.
In Roman times the rabbit was still emblematic of Spain. Romans are reported to have spread rabbits throughout the Roman Empire as a game animal.
Romans were the first to introduce rabbits into France and Britain through trade. Noblemen would keep large paddocks of rabbits for meat and sport.
Around the same time period in France, it became the sole right of the lord of the manor to keep warrens. Rabbits were hunted little, and were captured with snares, nooses or nets.
French monks in the Champagne region of France are credited with the actual domestication of the wild European rabbit in the fifth century, producing the rabbit we know today as the Champagne D’argent, which provided them with a more delectable dish than the tougher wild rabbit.
Most other breeds of domesticated rabbit are descended from the Champagne D’argent.
Domestication can therefore be traced to the late Middle Ages. The peasant population soon followed suit, keeping rabbits in walled enclosures and on small islands.
Several breeds of rabbit were known in the sixteenth century and this is the first indication of controlled breeding.
Some of the breeders became very famous and were visited by the aristocracy. It was in these leporaria that the first intriguing colour patterns evolved.
People found these colour changes to be a wonderful novelty. Thus, the practice of keeping rabbits as pets was born.