They are cute and fuzzy, and only too eager to share the fruits of your gardening labor. Nothing is more frustrating than watching your hard work literally get nipped off at the bud. Here are some tips for helping you win the war against rabbits.
Ecology and Behavior
In order to keep them out, first you've got to understand them. The three most common garden rabbits are Jackrabbits, brush rabbits, and cottontails - with cottontails being the most widespread. Rabbits are active both day and night, but feeding usually begins in the early evening hours and continues throughout the night and into the next morning. Most rabbits have a small home range consisting of a few acres, and as long as local resources are plentiful (food and shelter), they are happy to stay put in one area.
Females give birth to an average litter of 2-3 "kittens" and can have as many as 5-6 litters per year. The babies are born in shallow nests in the soil (called "forms"), which are covered by leaves, branches, rocks or other debris. The kittens stay in the nests for several weeks, with the mother leaving them hidden during the day so as not to attract the attention of nearby predators. (Note: If you find what appears to be an "abandoned" rabbit nest, it's likely that the mother is hiding close by. She'll come back at night so leave it alone! The mortally rate for baby rabbits is high - even higher for those raised by well-intentioned humans!).
Signature Signs of Damage
Rabbits consume as much as 1-1 1/2 pounds of vegetation each day. If something has been stripping bark from your young trees, nibbling vegetable seedlings, or mowing down your ornamentals, you may have a rabbit problem. Most damage is inflicted close to the ground (lower than 2 feet), except during winter snows, which can elevate rabbits to greater heights. Using their incisors, rabbits make a characteristic diagonal cut that is at a 45 degree angle. Deer don't have upper front teeth and must twist and pull when browsing. They tend to leave a ragged cut on branches. The rabbits' knife-like teeth leave a clean cut.
Trees, Shrubs, And Plants Rabbits Love
- Almond trees
- Apple trees
- Blackberry bushes
- Blueberry bushes
- Ornamental flowers (e.g. coneflower, black-eye Susan, Asiatic lily)
- Pistachio trees
- Plum trees
- Raspberry canes
- Strawberry plants
- Various other shrubs, trees, and turf
This is the best and most effective long-term solution. Erect a fence around garden beds or individual plants. The fence should be at least 48 inches high to prevent rabbits from jumping over. Bury bottom of the fence 4-6 inches into the soil and turn the fence outward to prevent rabbits from digging underneath. If the bottom is not buried, the fence should be staked down around the perimeter to discourage digging. Poultry wire works great for this, just make sure the mesh size is no larger than 1 inch to exclude baby rabbits from entering. If a rabbit should get in it may not get out, so check fenced in areas often.
Trunk Guards: Individual plants and small trees, shrubs, and vines can be protected using homemade or commercially bought trunk guards. To make them yourself, simply roll 1 inch mesh into a 18-24 inch cylinder (or larger if needed) and surround the plants. Close the seam using thin gauge wire or zip ties. Make sure to make the cylinders large enough so the rabbits can't browse on leaves through the mesh. Bury them into the ground a few inches or secure them with stakes to keep them securely upright.
Like all prey animals, rabbit have a keen sense of smell. Some gardeners have reported success with odor repellents (e.g. blood meal, powered fox urine, dog or human hair, cat litter, rotten eggs). Whether homemade or commercial, these products need to be reapplied frequently (especially after it rains) and tend to lose their effectiveness after a period of time. Still, they may work long enough to get young plants to a growth stage where rabbits are no longer interested in them (is there really such a stage?).
Live trapping of rabbits is only a temporary fix and not recommended for a variety of reasons. Rabbits tend to panic and injure themselves when trapped. Are you prepared to deal with an injured animal? Although rare, rabbits can transmit certain diseases to humans when handled.
Trapped animals need to be relocated to somewhere. Laws may vary locally, but many times this requires a written permit to do so.
Once trapped rabbits are moved out of the area, those same resources become available and new rabbits move into the area. The cycle simply continues to repeat itself.
If you do decide to use live traps, check with your DNR or animal control regarding laws first. Always locate traps in the shade, check it daily, keep pets away, and have a release location planned before you set the trap.
Another way to manage rabbits is by altering their habitat. Remove cover (brush piles, stones, debris) to discourage cottontails and brush rabbits, especially in urban areas where alternative hiding spots are limited. You're also wise to start with plants that rabbits prefer not to eat. Here is a partial list:*
- Allium (flowering onion)
- American Holly
- Cat Mint
- Hardy germaniums
- Lonicera (including Honeysuckle)
- Pampas grass
- Red Hot Pokers
- Spotted dead nettle
- Vinca (periwinkle)
- Winter Creeper
*You'll find much larger lists than this is you search various Internet sites. Just remember, rabbits can't read. They are also animals and highly unpredictable. I've personally had rabbits damage several "rabbit proof" plants, including several from the above list. Yes, these plants may be less appealing to rabbits than others, but large local colonies competing for limited amounts of food and rabbits coping with severe winters are not as picky.
About The Author: Ellen Brown is an environmental writer and photographer and the owner of Sustainable Media, an environmental media company that specializes in helping businesses and organizations promote eco-friendly products and services. Contact her on the web at http://www.sustainable-media.com