Public gardens, like the King’s Garden, have some of the same wildlife pressures found in home gardens—in this case, rabbits. “Isn’t he cute” might be an expression you use watching cottontail rabbits hop about, unless you’re a gardener and they’re enjoying your plantings, in the food sense. Knowing a bit about rabbits, you can choose appropriate and effective methods of control for your situation.
Although there are 13 species of cottontail rabbits north of Mexico, the most common you’ll probably encounter is the eastern cottontail. Cottontails, obviously named from their short and white cottony tail, usually spend their whole life in an area under 10 acres. They may move a mile or so between summer food and winter cover, or to a new food supply.
Their appetite can vary with region and season. In general they will devour many flowers, being especially fond of new tulip shoots as they emerge in early spring. Most know the children’s story by Beatrix Potter of Peter Rabbit being pursued by Mr. McGregor in his vegetable garden. Cottontails also quite enjoy feeding on plants in the rose family, such as apple trees and raspberries. They like the soft and smooth bark of some trees, especially young ones, either nipping them off or gnawing the bark beyond recovery. If you think rabbits have been feeding, look around for their characteristic round droppings. Also look for feeding no higher than they reach—about 2 feet. They leave clean, diagonal cuts on stems.
They don’t dig their own burrows for overwintering, but rather use those of other animals such as woodchucks. Or they may just use a brush pile or similar dense cover. In summer, cottontails use dense growth for cover. When they need a little more protection in fall and spring they create a weed or grass nest shelter called a “form”.
“To breed like rabbits” is another expression commonly used, and for good reason. Although most cottontails only live a year, perhaps two, they can produce 12 to 18 offspring. The rabbits’ gestation period is just under a month, each litter in the north can have 5 to 6 young, 2 or 3 litters a year, and within hours of giving birth rabbits often breed again. For this reason, no lethal control is permanent. Other than trapping and shooting, best control is from exclusion methods and habitat modification, with some control from repellents.
If you do use live traps, make sure they are the right size for rabbits, and that you can legally relocate them in your community. Some states have laws against this. Don’t get your scent on the trap or the rabbit may avoid it. Use rubber gloves, or spray the trap with apple cider. Place traps near where the rabbits are feeding, and near cover for them. In winter you can bait with dried cob corn or dried apples. In summer use apples, green vegetables, or the proverbial carrot shown in bunny cartoons and depictions. A rolled cabbage leaf held with a toothpick is a good bait, as are lettuce and Brussels sprouts. If you don’t catch your rabbit in a week, move the trap to a new location.
If shooting, again check local laws regulating such, especially in populated areas. Poisoning of rabbits is not recommended nor legal in most areas.
One of the best and easiest controls is to exclude rabbits from gardens and the berry patch with an inexpensive chicken wire mesh fence. It doesn’t need to be very sturdy, just about 2 feet high with the bottom edge tight on the ground or buried a few inches. Use one-inch mesh fencing. You can use a dome or cage of this fencing over tulips and small flower beds while they are getting established and plants are young. If rabbits are hungry, they may chew right through chicken wire, so in this case you may need to install much heavier-gauge rabbit fencing.
For young trees, protect trunks with a plastic tree guard. More sturdy and resistant to chewing is a cylinder of hardware cloth mesh placed around trunks or small shrubs. Make sure the mesh is at least one to 2 inches from the trunk, and higher than rabbits can reach when standing on the usual compacted snow depth.
Habitat modification is more effective in urban and suburban areas where there is little natural cover. In rural areas it may be difficult or impossible to remove all weed patches, stone piles, old fields and dense growth. Removing such habitats in or near suburban areas, as well as brush piles and vegetation along roads and fences, should greatly reduce populations.
Repellents, either by taste or smell, can be effective if used from the start, or at least at the first sign of damage. This will vary with population and food source. Otherwise, if their feeding habits are established, they are hard to change. If there are lots of hungry rabbits, exclusion may be all that works.
Repellents are applied with a brush or more often sprayer, often coming ready to spray. Generally, taste repellents are more effective than odor repellents. The latter includes moth balls and dried blood meal sprinkled among plants. Small plastic canisters containing garlic scent can be placed among seedlings or clipped onto shrubs (my rabbits don’t seem to mind garlic apparently). Another repellent contains fox urine scent.
Keep in mind taste repellents may wash off and need reapplying, only protect the parts covered, and will need reapplying to new growth. I learned this the hard way, spraying some sunflower seedlings before setting out. I obviously got the repellent spray on the leaves and not much on the stems, as the next day I found nice rows of leaves on the ground where the stems had been.
Taste sprays you can buy may contain putrescent eggs, hot pepper, blood products, and similar vile smells or smells of danger to rabbits. I’ve found a product containing a pleasant lemon scent seems to be effective. Some repellents contain the fungicide thiram, so make sure and read all labels before applying. This is especially important with food crops. Just as a blood or egg product may not taste good to rabbits, it may not be appealing on your vegetables either!
Encourage, or at least don’t interfere with, natural enemies that can help in your control. These include hawks, owls, foxes, weasels, and snakes. Cats can be effective against young rabbits, but may attack other wildlife such as desirable birds too.
Many home remedies may make the user feel good, but are rather ineffective. These include hose pieces on the ground to resemble snakes, inflatable snakes and owls, and large glass jars with water. The latter are supposed to scare rabbits when they see distorted reflections. (I can just see my rabbits now laughing at such and wondering what kind of game I’m playing.)
There is much more on rabbits and their control, as well as for other wildlife species, at the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management.
Be sure to check out the King’s Garden at Fort Ticonderoga this year, and ask the Horticultural Technicians what their methods are for keeping these cute garden pests out of the vegetables!
Dr. Leonard Perry, Fort Ticonderoga’s Horticulturist in Residence