Rabbits are often portrayed as cute, furry creatures in books and movies. In the real world, however, rabbits can be destructive pests in the home landscape. In winter, rabbits often browse on young trees and shrubs. If feeding damage is extensive, trees and shrubs can be completely destroyed.
Trees and Shrubs Susceptible to Damage
Trees and shrubs that are often damaged by rabbits in winter include crabapple, apple, pear, redbud, honey locust, serviceberry, burning bush or winged euonymus, flowering quince, barberry, roses, and raspberries. Small evergreens (especially pines) are also vulnerable. However, nearly all small trees and shrubs are susceptible to damage when food sources are scarce and rabbit populations are high.
Type of Damage
Rabbits feed on the tissue between the bark and the wood. If rabbits remove the tissue down to the wood and go completely around the tree's trunk, the damaged tree is effectively girdled. Girdling destroys the tree as it disrupts the downward flow of food from the tree's foliage to the root system. Rabbits damage shrubs by chewing off small branches and girdling large stems.
The most effective way to prevent rabbit damage to trees and shrubs in the home landscape is to place chicken wire fencing or hardware cloth around vulnerable plants. To adequately protect plants, the fencing material needs to be high enough that rabbits won't be able to climb or reach over the fence after a heavy snow. In most cases, a fence that stands 24 to 36 inches tall should be sufficient. To prevent rabbits from crawling underneath the fencing, bury the bottom 2 or 3 inches below the ground or pin the fencing to the soil with u-shaped anchor pins. Small trees can also be protected by placing white spiral tree guards around their trunks. Since the weather in late fall in Iowa is unpredictable, it's best to have the protective materials in place by early to mid-November. After a heavy snow, check protected plants to make sure rabbits aren't able to reach or climb over the fencing or tree guards. If necessary, remove some of the snow to keep rabbits from reaching the trees or shrubs.
Damage may also be reduced by removing brush, junk piles, and other places where rabbits live and hide. Repellents are another option. Repellents discourage rabbit browsing because of their unpleasant taste or smell. Unfortunately, repellents aren't always effective and may need to be reapplied after a heavy rain or snow. It may also be helpful to reduce the rabbit population in the area by removing some of the rabbits with live traps.