Rabbits in the Garden

Children often have fond visions of Peter Cottontail or Thumper when they see rabbits in the yard. However, like Mr. McGregor, most gardeners would prefer some form of rabbit stew.

The eastern cottontail rabbit is the species most commonly found in our part of the country. Cottontails tend to concentrate themselves in favorable habitats such as brushy fence rows or field edges, gullies filled with debris, brush piles, or landscaped backyards where food and cover are suitable. In the spring and fall, rabbits use a grass or weed shelter called a "form". The form is a nest-like cavity on the surface of the ground, usually made in dense cover. It gives the rabbit some protection from weather, but is largely used for concealment. In summer, lush green growth provides both food and shelter, so there is little need for a form. Cottontails generally spend their entire life in an area of 10 acres or less. Lack of food or cover is usually the motivation for a rabbit to relocate. In suburban areas, rabbits are numerous and mobile enough to fill any empty habitat that is created when other rabbits are removed. Though it may not seem like it, individual rabbits live only 12 to 15 months. However, cottontails can raise as many as 2 or 3 litters of 5 or 6 young a year. Under good conditions, each pair of rabbits could produce about 18 bunnies during the breeding season. Fortunately, weather, disease, predators, encounters with cars and hunters work together to help control the rabbit population.

Rabbits will devour a wide variety of plant material. Numerous flowers and vegetables are enjoyed during spring and summer. In the vegetable garden, corn, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers are about the only things safe from a rabbits clipping teeth. A rabbit's tastes (like ours) varies considerably by region and season. Thus a planting of certain flowers like marigolds may not be a successful rabbit control. In fact, rabbits have been known to dine on marigold flowers. In the fall and winter, woody plants become the targeted food and are gnawed around the base and often destroyed. Young trees are preferred over older trees because of their smooth, thin bark.

One of the best ways to protect a backyard garden is to put up a fence. A 2-foot-tall chicken wire fence with the bottom tight against the ground or buried a few inches in the ground provides excellent rabbit and mouse control. The mesh should be 1 inch or smaller to prevent young rabbits from going through. A fence may seem costly, however with proper care it will last many years and provide relief from the constant aggravation of damage. Inexpensive chicken wire can be replaced every few years. Cylinders of hardware cloth placed around trees and shrubs will protect valuable landscape plants. The cylinders should extend higher than a rabbit's reach while standing on the expected snow depth, and positioned 1 to 2 inches out from the tree trunk. Commercial tree guards or tree wraps are other alternatives.

Several chemical repellents discourage rabbit browsing. Most can be applied with a brush or sprayer and are taste or contact repellents. Many contain the fungicide thiram and can be purchased in a ready-to-use form. Most repellents are not designed to be used on plants or plant parts intended for human consumption. Taste repellents protect only those parts of the plant to which they have been applied. New growth that emerges after application is not protected. In addition, heavy rains may necessitate reapplication of some repellents. For best results, use repellents and other damage control methods at the first sign of damage.

An often overlooked form of natural control is manipulation of the rabbits' habitat. Remove brush or stone piles, weed patches, junk, and other debris where rabbits live and hide. This is especially effective in suburban areas where fewer suitable habitats are likely to be available. Encouraging the rabbit's natural enemies may aid in reducing rabbit populations and damage. Hawks, owls, snakes, and even the family dog or cat can be effective predators on young rabbits.

Live-trapping is a practical way to remove rabbits in cities, parks, and suburban areas, especially in winter. Place traps where you know rabbits feed or rest. Keep them near cover so that rabbits won't have to cross large open areas to get to them. In winter, face traps away from prevailing winds to keep snow and dry leaves from plugging the entrance or interfering with the door. Check traps daily to replenish bait or remove the catch. Move traps if they fail to make a catch within a week. Apples, carrots, cabbage, and other fresh green vegetables are good baits in warmer weather. Cob corn or dried apples make excellent bait in the winter. For best results, use baits that are similar to what the target rabbits are feeding on. Wire traps can be made more effective by covering with canvas or some other dark material.

Many people have a favorite home rabbit control remedy. Whether it be blood meal, marigolds, a piece of rubber hose to mimic a snake, or a glass jar filled with water (rabbits are supposedly scared of their own reflections), most are not reliably effective. If the presence of Thumper or Peter in your yard has you stewing, try a combination of the above mentioned rabbit controls. Hopefully, you will be able to gain the upper hand and reduce the damage caused by the seemingly excessive rabbit population.

This article originally appeared in the July 12, 1996 issue, pp. 120-121.


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