ANCIENT ORIGINS OF THE FLEMISH GIANT
1905 post card of the
White Prize Winning Giant Rabbit
(From the collection of Cathy Caracciolo)
While the Flemish Giant is the largest rabbit that we know today, there are several breeds that are now extinct and one still to be seen, that have contributed much in the making of the present day Flemish Giant rabbit.
The Patagonian, or as it was also called the Angevin, was a large, not handsome rabbit that lived many years ago and was quite common in England. The rabbit acquired the name Patagonian because of it’s size – based on the fact that Giants were thought to live in the South American country of Patagonia.
“The Practical Rabbit Keeper” circa 1870, describes it as being rather large and not pretty. At this period of time there was great discussion that perhaps the Patagonian was just another name for the Flemish Giants. If it wasn’t, it was at least a kissin’ cousin.
The main feature of this rabbit was its size and weight; some were said to be over "5 feet in length and weigh 20 pounds", which in any man’s language is a big rabbit. The body is described as being roomy and a trifle coarse with the hip bones being very prominent. When in good shape they presented a very massive picture, not altogether handsome but very impressive. The ears were very long and heavy, hanging slightly at the tips and sometimes very “V”-shaped. Many of them were so heavy that they resembled the Lop. The fur was a dark iron grey in color and had a mottled appearance; the head and ears much darker than the rest of the body.
It goes without saying that a rabbit this size would have fur value, and was highly prized by the fur trade, as one sheet would easily make up into almost any garment and four of them would make a coat for the average man.
The Patagonian is said to be extinct.
Opinions differ as to the real origin of the Flemish Giant. It is undisputed that Flanders – the origin of it’s present name – was the country of it’s adoption and dissemination throughout Europe and eventual appearance in America. Europe, however, can give no definite information as to how or when it first appeared there. It is known to have been bred there on a large scale during a period of several hundred years, and for a long time was called the Patagonian rabbit.
An analysis of historical events during the 16th and 17th centuries gives strong support to the belief that the original Patagonian was the wild rabbit of Patagonia in the Argentine Republic. During the 16th and 17th centuries the Dutch were sailing the seas back and forth, trading with the West Indies, Central and South America. It is not likely that they would bring back with them merely the name Patagonia and tack it on to the rabbit of Flanders and the Netherlands. It is, however, very likely that they would take back to Europe the rabbit itself, and name it after the country from which it came. However, it was just about the time the Dutch were carrying on their trade with South America that these rabbits first became known. Previously there was no record of them. Even today the loose limbed, wild sandy rabbit of Patagonia has the same typical appearance of the Patagonian rabbit of Flanders as it existed there several hundred years ago.
It seems likely then that one of two things happened. Either this rabbit was taken from Europe to Patagonia, or from Patagonia to Europe; but since we find no record in Europe before the Dutch started trading with America, then it seems fairly obvious that this rabbit did originate in Patagonia.
Whereas, however, in Patagonia the rabbit has remained wild and not been subjected to selective breeding, leaving it as it was hundreds of years ago. In Europe and America, especially during the last thirty years, selective breeding has been carried out extensively, and this has produced the far superior rabbit known today as the Flemish Giant.
The earliest authentic record of the Flemish Giant Rabbit occurred about the year 1860. At that time, in England, stories were being circulated by travelers having recently returned from Flanders, of the enormous size of the rabbits raised in that country and in parts of France. Weights of certain specimen were stated to be 18 to 20 pounds. However, a close investigation of the matter of weights proved that 12to 14 pounds were the average weight of giant rabbits raised in the above mentioned country.
Rabbit meat at the time was being imported into England to the extent of millions of pounds yearly ad local breeders were unable to fill the demand. English breeders of meat stock produced their product from stock weighing an average of 7 to 8 pounds at maturity, so it was but a short time later that the first importation of Flemish breeding rabbits took place. The British Islands are populated thickly with what is termed the middle class of people. Rabbit breeding as a fancy and as a means of reducing family expenses was looked upon more as a necessity than a hobby with this class of natives and it was but a short time before the Flemish Giant made its appearance at some of the many rabbit shows held periodically in England.
The first Flemish exhibited, although impressive in size, was not handsome. The color being of a dirty iron grey with sandy or white bars on legs, long ears bent over at the tips, and a general uncouth appearance. Nevertheless, it was but a brief period before the first Flemish Breeders’ Association was organized for the express purpose of improving the new breed. Various experiments and crosses with other varieties worked a wonderful change in the former homely specimen and it eventually became the rule that no show was complete without a large display of Flemish Giants.
The weight and color improved from time to time. Winning specimens in the leading British show, the Crystal Palace of London. Weighed 16 pounds and the color was designated as steel gray. The front leg still showed the sandy bars and he belly color was pure white. Today the British standard calls for this same white belly color and the same standard weight.
American fanciers imported Flemish Giants from England about the same time of the Belgian Hare boom in the early 80’s. No special notice was attracted to the breed until the year 1910 when at that time rabbits were exhibited at the leading poultry shows throughout the country. The Flemish Giant was soon established as a favorite owing to their enormous size and beautiful colors. Today the Flemish rabbit leads in number exhibited at all the principle shows and are sold at the highest prices recorded since the days of the ill-fated Belgian boom.