Foraging is seeking out a variety of wild plants as foodstuffs. It is something that rabbits would naturally do in the wild, but most domestic rabbits rely on their owners to do it for them.
In comparison with wild rabbits, most domestic rabbits have a relatively restricted diet of pellets supplemented by dried plants. Although the range of dried plants available to purchase has increased enormously in the last few years, adding a variety of fresh foods to your rabbit’s diet provides enrichment through a wider variety of tastes, textures and smells. It may also promote digestive health and other benefits.
Where Can I Forage?
Nearly everyone will have access to somewhere to forage. This can include your garden, the gardens of friends and family, allotments, verges and hedgerows alongside quiet roads, and bridle paths. You can even forage in small urban ‘waste spaces’ where weeds have sprung up if you are sure that no chemicals have been used there.
Where Should I Not Forage?
Never forage in a location where you might be in danger (busy roads, canal and river edges, etc.).
Preferably tell someone where you are going if foraging alone.
Avoid popular ‘dog walker’ areas which may be contaminated with faeces and urine.
Do not forage along busy roads or arable strips where plants might be covered in chemicals.
Do not forage along what are called ‘protected verges’. These will be marked on a small sign on the verge at the start and end of the protected area.
Do not forage on private land without permission.
How Do I Get Started?
The best way to become a confident forager is to join in an event or training day on forage identification. Watch out for these on Facebook pages of local rescues and rabbit groups.
There are now books on forage identification specifically for rabbits, as well as more general books and apps on wild plant identification so take these with you – or bring the plants home and identify them using these. There are also Facebook groups dedicated to plant identification for rabbit owners.
Why not ask someone who is more experienced to come out with you the first few times until you are confident in identifying both the most common forage plants and the most common toxic plants?
What is a ‘Wildlife Friendly’ Forager
Foraging means taking wild plants from the wild, but if you follow these guidelines you will minimise your impact and become a wildlife-friendly forager:
Never pull a plant up with its roots (use secateurs to cut the leaves)
Never collect a ‘rare’ plant or one you do not often see in your area
Never collect every plant from a particular patch or location
Try and vary where you collect from and what you collect
Do not disturb hedgerows or tall grasses in nesting season
Leave flowers for the bees and berries for the birds, collect leaves for your rabbits!
What Should I Collect?
There are hundreds of edible wild plants, but get started by learning a basic EIGHT plants and then add more as you become more confident:
My top SIX that see me through the year are Bramble, Dandelion, Hawthorn, Plantain, Sow Thistle, Willow.
Bramble (Blackberry) (Rubus fruticosus)
Widespread and easily identified plant of hedgerows, allotments and waste spaces. Long thick arching stems with sharp thorns carry oval leaves with indented edges. In spring, white or creamy simple flowers are like wild roses. Black berries cover the bush in autumn and are best kept for humans. Both the stems (including thorns!) and leaves can be fed fresh or dried and are full of nutrients.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Every forager’s favourite! A rosette of long pale green leaves, usually with indented edges (hence ‘Teeth of the Lion’) and a central stalk topped by a multi-petalled yellow flower. They will row nearly anywhere but just love open ground, such as allotments or other vegetable plots. Dries well.
Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)
Another hedgerow plant, the distinctive three-lobed small leaves are fresh green in spring and darken through the year. Masses of flowers come out in May, followed by red haws. Pick all times of year but best when shoots of fresh growth in late spring and summer as these will be thornless, unlike the older growth. Dries well.
Plantain (Narrow-leaf and Broad Leaf) (Plantago lanceolata and Plantago major)
Fabulously fibrous and available nearly everywhere, from allotments to cracks in garden paths! The narrow-leaf plantain has long ribbed leaves growing from a basal rosette and tall flower stems. Broadleaf is the shape of a paddle and has a ‘rats tail’ shape seed stem. Dries fabulously.
Sow Thistle (Sonchus spp.)
There are a multitude of different ‘sow thistles’, smooth leaved, shiny leaved, indented (‘toothed’) leaf, not indented etc. Almost all shoot up in late spring to a height of about 50-80cm, with bright green (sometimes shiny) leaves arranged around a chunky hollow stem that makes a satisfying crunchy noise when snapped and exudes a milky sap.
Willow (Salix spp.)
What would we do without Willow? Whether you plant your own weeping willow or forage hedgerows for Goat Willow and White Willow. All Salix are eaten with relish and may be the only thing a slightly peaky or recovering rabbit may eat. Willow contains a natural pain killer (salicin) but should never be used instead of veterinary medicines. You may, however, wish to mention to your vet you are feeding willow if they recommend an anti-inflammatory. Dries very well.
Cow Parsley is also a very popular forage, but as it can be mistaken for one of the toxic ‘umbellifers’ that share the same flowerhead and general leaf shape, it is not recommended for inexperienced foragers. There are many excellent videos that can help you become confident in identification once you are ready for this.
What Not to Collect
Many wild plants contain toxins which help deter grazing animals from eating them. Some of these would need long-term repeated ingestion to cause harm, but several are very poisonous. The following plants are the most toxic that you are likely to encounter are Arums, Bittersweet Nightshade, Black Bryony, Bluebell, Deadly Nightshade, Foxglove, Groundsel, Hemlock, Ragwort, White Bryony and Wild Carrot. Depending on where you live, you may also need to be aware of Giant Hogweed and Water Dropwort.
Worried About Foraging?
With so many different wild plants, some of which are toxic, you may wonder whether it is safe to forage for your rabbits. However, you do not have to learn to recognise ALL wild plants. Start by learning to confidently identify the SIX most common forage plants and the most common toxic plants, and slowly build up your knowledge. Your rabbits will thank you, and who knows, you may develop a whole new interest in wildflowers!