BREEDING BLUE AND BLACK FLEMISH GIANTS
By Cathy Caracciolo
t is no secret that many “Old time” Flemish Giant breeders do not breed and show the Blues. They consider them difficult (bordering on impossible!) due to the fact that maintaining bone and size is not easy. Most blues from the past could never be compared to the Sandies and Fawns of today in type, size or bone. And they are right. But the Blue color is a beautiful and unusual variety that should be appreciated and improved before it is lost.
The Blue variety was accepted to the ARBA Standard in 1919, the same year as the Whites (and before the Fawns!). They were very popular in the 1920’s and 30’s but fell out of favor over the next 40 years, much to the detriment of the gene pool.
The blue is a recessive color that takes a genetic “back seat” to any other color present. So maintaining the proper blue is difficult if the “wrong” colors are bred together. But color cannot supersede the considerations for type and bone. Over the last 20 years, it has been difficult to find Blues with different genetic make-ups. They have been bred in small pockets around the country, and it is only with great effort that breeders got to share their gene pools. Out of necessity, some lines tended to be inbred (or tightly line bred) to the detriment of the variety. The gene pool was very small and mixed (some breeders called it “polluted”) with other colors. But a few hardy souls are trying to change that. The number of Blues appearing on the show tables is way up in the Northeast right now, and they are finally getting some recognition. Over the last few years, ARBA is seeing a rise in the number of Blues being registered and Grand Championed (for the first time in over 10 years!). In 2004, at the ARBA National Convention, the Blue Flemish Doe that took BOV got very serious consideration for Best in Breed, with an honorable mention by the judges.
When starting out, you may not be able to get Blues that are perfect, but know what you should be working towards. If you get a Blue Flemish with excellent loin/hips but lacking in the shoulders or length, then look for a complimentary (Blue/Black) Flemish that has what your animal is missing. If you have good length, look for one with the bone or rise you need. And have patience. It may take several generations to see real improvement. Be very particular with what you keep for breeding. Weigh your litters as they grow. Start evaluating them at 6 weeks for bone and rise. At 8-12 weeks, only keep the best one or two. One advantage to the Blues and Blacks, you know if you have a good base color from the onset!
My research and personal experience has reinforced what I was told years ago by some of the more established breeders (Not counting the ones that told me to forget the blues and get a real Flemish!). Blue should only be bred with Blue or “Self” Blacks. Genetically speaking, a rabbit’s color is either an “agouti” or a “self”. “Agouti” refers to a banded hair shaft, or multiple colors in the coat (giving the appearance of rings in the light gray, banding in the Sandy and Fawn, and flecking in the Steel). A “Self” rabbit is one solid color. In Flemish, the “selfs” are Blue, Black and White. As mentioned, Fawn, Light Gray, Sandy and Steel Gray are agoutis. A “Self Black” is a solid Black rabbit with only Black or Blue in the generations behind it.
The Blue color is described in the Flemish Giant Standard as a deep, rich, slate blue color with consistent color over the body and head. They are the only variety with the Blue/Gray eye color. The Blue is, genetically speaking, a dilute black. So crossing those colors will produce consistent Blues and Blacks. The problems occur when introducing an “Agouti Black” that appears to be a solid (Self) Black but “carries” (descends from) Light Grays or Steels. Since breeding Light Grays and/or Steels can produce Blacks, most blacks today carry the agouti gene (even though they may look solid black). This is why an honest pedigree is so important to breeding good blues. A Black that carries agouti genes will severely affect the Blue color, throwing “Steel Blues” (Blue with white ticking), white ear lacing, white toe nails, wrong eye color, poor under color, etc, all of which are disqualifications on the show table. Keep in mind that ear lacing and ticking may not show up until the rabbit is 6-10 months of age. So it pays to know what’s behind your lines so there are no surprises. I’ve been disappointed a few times raising what I thought was a promising young Blue, only to have it develop white ear lacing or white ticking on the body.
Keep in mind that finding a totally self Black is almost impossible, (referred to as the “Holy Grail” for a Blue breeding program!). But if you are looking for a Black to use with a Blue breeding program, look for one with as little “agouti colors” as possible in the pedigree. Or consider a Black out of a Blue Breeding program.
If possible, I have always used a Black in every second generation with my Blues. This keeps the Blue a deep rich color as described in the Standard. To explain, if I do a Blue/Blue breeding, those offspring will be bred to a Black. Offspring of a Blue/Black breeding will be mated with a Blue, if possible. I say “if possible”, because nothing is perfect and it can be difficult to maintain the variety and numbers of rabbits needed. But always keep in mind that you owe it to the animals to breed the best you can, and as close to the Standard as possible.
A short word on pedigrees… that piece of paper that diagrams what’s “behind” your rabbit. It usually only show 3-4 generations, including the lead rabbit. Hidden or recessive genes can be carried for many more generations than what’s printed on the paper. A case in point… one of my first Blue/Black breedings produced a pair of Whites. They were beautiful (and they got me started with my separate White lines…) but why did they come out of that litter? There were no whites on the pedigree! It took much research and the cooperation of other dedicated breeders, but we found a white behind BOTH parents, 11 and 13 generations back. That is a long time to carry a recessive gene! (Just for your information, for a white to show up in a “non-white” breeding, BOTH sire and dam must carry a white gene. In breeding White to White, you will ALWAYS get White.)
Keep accurate records on each breeding and what comes out of it. Sometimes two “so-so” animals will throw the most amazing offspring. Know your animals and what’s behind them. Good breeding will show in your animals and reflect on the show table. Shortcuts and quick fixes won’t work. Persistence and patience will. Develop your stock for the right reasons. Know the Standard and know what you are working towards. And don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ask other breeders, get more than one opinion, ask Judges. Don’t be dissuaded.
Breeding the Blues and Blacks is not for the faint of heart or the breeder that has to win every time they go to a show. You have to really love the variety and be willing to work towards the goal of producing a rabbit that meets or exceeds the Standard. Know the breed, know the Standard and be aware of the challenge. And from me to you, Good Luck!