They need cover such as burrows or brush piles to escape predators. Cottontails are rarely found in thick shrubbery or dense forests; they generally spend their entire lives in a 10-acre or smaller area. Lack of food or cover usually is the motivation for a rabbit to relocate. Population density varies with habitat quality, but an average of three to five rabbits per acre is reasonable.
Description of Damage
Rabbits can feed on plants in your orchard year-round. Rabbits damage woody plants by gnawing bark or clipping off branches, stems, and buds. In winter, when the ground is covered with snow for long periods, rabbits can severely damage trees and shrubs. Some young plants are clipped off at snow height, and larger trees and shrubs can be completely girdled.
In addition, the character of the bark on woody plants influences rabbit browsing. Most young trees have smooth, thin bark with green food material just beneath it. Such bark provides an easy food source for rabbits. The thick, rough bark of older trees often discourages gnawing. Even on the same plant, rabbits avoid the rough bark but girdle the young sprouts that have smooth bark.
Rabbit damage can be identified by the characteristic appearance of gnawing on older woody growth and the clean-cut, angled clipping of young stems. Damage occurs primarily within 2.5 feet of the ground. The clipping of small twigs and buds appears as a knifelike slanting cut with no apparent tooth marks. When rabbits gnaw bark, they gnaw in patches. The average width of a cottontail's incisor is 0.1 inch and the average width of the tooth mark is 0.08 inch. Squirrels and voles also gnaw bark, but their tooth marks are much narrower. Distinctive round droppings or rabbit tracks in the immediate area also are good signs of their presence.
In Pennsylvania, rabbits are classified as game animals and are protected as such. The Pennsylvania Game Commission grants exceptions to property owners, allowing them to trap or shoot rabbits outside the normal hunting season on their own property if damage is occurring.
Many methods can be used to control damage by cottontail rabbits. Exclusion techniques, such as fences and tree wraps, are among the most effective ways to control damage.
Such techniques are the only methods to control damage in areas where rabbit populations are high. In areas with moderate damage, repellents have been used to successfully reduce damage. Because of the cottontail's high reproductive potential, trapping and other lethal techniques are not effective over long time periods.
One of the best ways to protect a berry patch is to put up a fence. A fence of 2- to 4-foot chicken wire, with the bottom tight to the ground or buried a few inches, is sufficient to prevent young rabbits from getting through. The lower 1.5 to 2 feet should be covered with small mesh wire. A fence might seem costly, but with proper care it will last many years and reduce damage caused by rabbits and other animals.
Cylinders of 0.25-inch wire hardware cloth will protect young orchard trees. The cylinders should be placed 1 to 2 inches out from the tree trunk and should extend higher than a rabbit's reach when it stands on the expected snow depth. Rabbits commonly damage vegetation at a height of 2 to 3 feet, depending upon the snow depth in winter. You can use larger mesh sizes, 0.5 to 0.75 inch, to reduce cost, but be sure the cylinder stands far enough away from the tree trunk that rabbits cannot eat through the holes. Commercial tree guards or tree wrap are another alternative. When rabbits are abundant and food is in short supply, only hardware cloth will guarantee protection. Small-mesh (0.25-inch) hardware cloth also protects against vole damage.
Several chemical repellents discourage rabbit browsing. For best results, use repellents and other damage-control methods at the first sign of damage. Always follow the application directions exactly. Since pesticide registrations change frequently, check with your local extension office for information on repellents or other new products available for use in your area. Remember that some repellents are poisonous and require safe storage and use.
Most rabbit repellents are contact or taste repellents that render the treated plant parts distasteful. Taste repellents protect only the parts of the plant they contact; new growth that emerges after application is not protected, and heavy rains may necessitate reapplication. Odor repellents protect plants within a limited area and do not need to be touching the plant. The degree of efficacy is highly variable, depending on the behavior, and number of rabbits, and the availability of alternative food sources. When rabbits are abundant, use other control techniques along with chemical repellents.
Hinder and Deer-off are available for use on consumable plants such as fruits. Hinder consists of ammonium soaps of higher fatty acids. It is an odor repellent that may be sprayed or painted on the foliage. Hinder has been found to be effective in repelling rabbits and deer from crops and ornamental plants. Deer-off consists of garlic oil, capsaicin, and putrescent whole egg solids. It is an odor and taste repellent that can be applied to foliage, but edible fruits should be cleansed prior to consuming. Hot Sauce Animal Repellant, by Millers, which contains capsaicin (the heat source in hot sauce), can also be applied to fruit trees; however, it must be applied either before the fruit is on the plant or after it has been removed. Capsaicin is a taste repellent. The warm sensation it leaves in the throat of the animal is believed to cause the animal to avoid eating that plant again. The effectiveness of capsaicin-containing repellents varies depending on the availability of other food sources.
Trapping can be used to remove rabbits from problem areas. Several excellent styles of commercial live traps are available from garden centers, hardware stores, and seed catalogs. Most commercial traps are made of wire and last indefinitely with proper care. Live traps often can be rented from animal control offices or pest control companies.
Dry corn and dried apples make very good year-round bait. Dried leafy alfalfa and clover are good cold-weather baits. Apples, carrots, cabbage, and other fresh green vegetables are good baits in warmer weather, but these soft baits become mushy and ineffective once frozen. For best results, use baits similar to the fruit on which the target rabbits are feeding. Position the bait at the rear of the trap. Placing a trap involves a few easy steps:
- Place traps where you know rabbits feed or rest. Check for runways along the edge of cover. To locate an active runway, look for rabbit droppings and clipped twigs. Place sticks in the ground in front of the trap to guide the rabbit into the trap.
- In winter, face traps away from prevailing winds to keep snow and dry leaves from interfering with the door.
- Move traps if they fail to make a catch within a week.
Check traps twice a day to replenish bait or remove the catch. Legally, in Pennsylvania, traps must be checked every 36 hours, but they should be checked every 12 hours, particularly in suburban areas where neighborhood pets might be caught.
A commercial wire trap can be made more effective by covering it with canvas or some other dark material. This will cause the trap to resemble a safe, secure environment. Be sure that the covering does not interfere with the trap's mechanism.
Although frequently overlooked, removing brush piles, weed patches, dumps, and other debris near fruit gardens can be a useful way to manage rabbits. Keeping your grass mowed will remove potential cover that might attract cottontails to your garden. Filling old woodchuck or skunk burrows will remove their potential as rabbit homes. Encouraging the rabbit's natural enemies--or at least not interfering with them--may aid in reducing rabbit damage. Hawks, owls, foxes, mink, weasels, and snakes all help control rabbits.
The most effective method of reducing rabbit damage to your garden or orchard is fencing or other forms of exclusion along with habitat modification. If numbers of rabbits are low and alternative food sources are available, repellents also might be useful in reducing damage.