In rural areas, cottontail rabbits, Sylvilagus floridanus, spend their entire lives on just a few acres. They may cause considerable damage any time of the year to the landscape. During spring, rabbits prefer young, growing vegetation like tulips and grass. Tender garden vegetables such as carrots, peas, beans, lettuce, and beets are favorites, as well. In winter, rabbits gnaw tender bark off of young trees and shrubs and eat the green, inner bark. Rabbits prefer woody shrubs in the rose, pea, or sumac families and trees in the cottonwood, maple, and pine families, but many other kinds of plants may be eaten when food is scarce. Rabbits can cause a great deal of damage during cold winters with snow cover.
Identifying Cottontail Activity
Rabbits are active throughout the day or during warmer periods of the day during winter. You can identify the presence of rabbits by their tracks, droppings, and markings, or the damage they cause.
Gnaw marks of rabbits are irregularly placed on trees and shrubs and at a few inches above ground or, occasionally, on exposed roots. Rabbits can remove young bark on woody trunks and stems higher than three feet when deep snow exists. A mark left by a pair of incisors is about 1/4 to 3/8 inches wide.
Exclusion is the Best Control
The presence of rabbits does not always result in economic damage to plants. However, damage may result in hardship and monetary loss.
Use exclusion for long-term control of damage caused by rabbits to gardens or perennial flower beds. A 1-inch mesh fence of poultry netting (chicken wire) works well. Bury the bottom edge of the fence about 4 inches below the ground to prevent rabbits from digging under it. The buried portion can be splayed outward from the protected area to better prevent digging. Use a fence two feet high against cottontails. You may need to build the fence higher to exclude rabbits when snow cover is present or predicted.
Welded wire mesh of 1-inch x 2-inch or 1-inch hardware cloth (hail screen) also excludes young rabbits but mesh of 2- x 3-inch or chain link fence does not. Chicken wire, welded wire, and hardware cloth will last several years if the fence material is taken inside each winter. You can view the archived Acreage Webshow on building a rabbit fence.
For small flower beds, construct a lightweight frame at the anticipated height of the flower blooms and shape a plastic mesh netting over it. Plastic mesh is available in a variety of colors that will blend into the background environment.T o protect individual trees and shrubs, place cylinders of commercial plastics, fabrics, paper, or poultry netting supported by stakes around the trunks. Realize that stems may grow through the netting and become susceptible to rabbit damage unless you make the cylinder large enough, or push stems back as they just begin to grow through.
Remove materials that provide shelter to rabbits while using direct control methods or to guard against future damage. Get rid of brush piles and tall weedy areas, particularly those located near new windbreaks.
Mow or spray to remove vegetation within 3 to 4 feet of recently planted trees and shrubs. Some plants may need protection for as long as 10 years before they become resistant to rabbit damage.
Use Less Preferred Landscape Plants
Although rabbits eat most woody plants when food is in short supply, you may want to plant less desired species. Some garden catalogs list plants that are less desirable to deer and rabbits. Trees such as hackberry, oaks, magnolia, cypress, redbud, and spruce and shrubs like barberry, cinquefoil, cotoneaster, sage, and viburnum may be browsed upon less by rabbits than other species of plants located nearby.
Best Approaches to Minimize Rabbit Damage in the Garden and Landscape
For the gardener, the best approach may be to build a rabbit-proof fence to guard young sprouting plants. For the owner of a perennial flower bed, the best approach may be to use motion-activated water sprays or a vigilant dog during the day and irrigations during the night to detract rabbits. The bed owner might resort to a low, plastic-mesh fence as flower blossoms emerge.