Although rabbits can be cute as pets or even hopping across an empty field, undomesticated or wild rabbits can cause a lot of damage to gardens and landscaping. Rabbits will feed on a range of plants from young trees and broccoli to tree nuts, berries, and herbs—but you can control and get rid of rabbits.
How Do You Know If Your Garden Has Rabbits?
Rabbits that are common in the United States range from the house cat-sized jackrabbit to its smaller cousins, the cottontails and brush rabbits, which are about 12 inches long. The jackrabbit tips the scales at a hefty three to seven pounds, while cottontail and brush rabbits weigh about two pounds. All have brown to gray fur with varying tints.
Even if you don't see a rabbit, you can see evidence that it was there, because rabbits leave behind coarse, circular fecal "pellets," which are about 1/2-inch in diameter.
Where and How Do They Live?
Jackrabbits are usually found in open or semi-open areas of valleys and foothills, golf courses, parks, and airports, unlike the story-tale "Br'er Rabbit." During the day, they hide in depressions in the soil or beneath bushes. Brush and cottontail rabbits will also take harborage in dense vegetation, within and under rock piles, and in abandoned structures—usually within a few feet of their cover.
A female rabbit may birth up to three young in five to six litters each year. When baby jackrabbits are born, they are ready to go—fully furred with their eyes open. Newly born cottontails, however, are nearly fur-less, born with their eyes closed and must remain with their mothers for several weeks to develop.
What Do They Eat?
Rabbits prefer to feed on tender young vegetation, but they will also eat seeds, bark, and nuts during their nighttime feeding cycles. Sometimes their feeding is confused with that of deer. But you can tell the difference because twigs and flower heads are clipped neatly by the rabbit's incisors, no more than two feet from the ground. Deer, on the other hand, have no upper front teeth and must twist woody stems, leaving a ragged cut on the plant.
How Can You Control Them in the Least-Toxic Way?
- Fencing. Erect a 48-inch-tall wire-mesh fence, burying the bottom at least six inches below ground. Bend a few inches of the fence bottom out to deter rabbits from digging under it. Mesh size should be no larger than one inch to exclude young rabbits. Install tight-fitting gates with sills to keep rabbits from digging and keep the gates closed as much as possible, day and night.
- Tree Wrap. If individual plants are easier to safeguard than an entire area, place chicken wire cylinders around the trunks of young trees, shrubs, or vines with the bottoms buried far enough away from the trunk so the rabbits cannot nibble through the mesh.
- Cleanup. Remove brambles, piles of brush, stones, or other debris along fence rows and ditches to minimize hiding places for cottontail and brush rabbits. However, removing the cover will have little effect on jackrabbits because they can use the cover that is often great distances from their feeding sites.
- Rabbit Disco. Noisemakers, flashing lights, and ultrasonic repellers are generally not effective. But a feisty pet dog left loose within the area to be protected may be worth his weight in doggie chunks.
- Repellents. Rabbit repellents work best during the early years before woody plants bear fruit or during the winter season. However, with a few exceptions, most repellents cannot be used on plants or plant parts that will be eaten by humans.
- Trapping. Live trapping of rabbits is not recommended because rabbits can carry diseases which may be transmittable to the trapper.
“Rabbits.” Penn State Extension,
Home Lawn & Garden: Wildlife Excluding and Repelling Problem Wildlife from the Garden. University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Tularemia. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.