To many people, the image that comes to mind at the mention of a rabbit is a soft, fluffy cute bunny; for children, the image may be a caricature of a rabbit carrying a basket of eggs or even of the cartoon character, Bugs Bunny. But for those who love to garden, a rabbit is a destructive, annoying pest that eats up the landscape and causes expensive damage.
Before condemning rabbits as the culprits, though, it's important to verify the identity of the villain.
How Do You Know if a Rabbit Is Eating Your Garden?
The first step is to determine if it is rabbits eating your garden by looking at the evidence.
One very reliable sign of marauding rabbits is when you see the area scattered with coarse, round, fecal pellets—the scat (poop) of rabbits. Depending on the species, these may be 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch in size. You may also see rabbit hair or fur caught on or under tree branches, rabbit trails, or nesting areas under bushes or brush. But the strongest sign that a family of pest rabbits is in the vicinity is their damage and destruction:
Rabbits can, and will, eat just about any tender plant. In the spring, they will feed on newly sprouted grass and clover; in the fall and winter when food is less available, they will survive on whatever bark and seedlings they can find. But all too often, the rabbits' favorite food is exactly the same foods loved by the homeowners—the delicious produce found in vegetable gardens and on fruit bushes. Favorites include vegetables such as beans, beet, broccoli, carrot, lettuce, and peas; herbs such as cilantro and parsley; and tree and berry items such almonds, apples, berries, plums, etc. For good measure, many rabbits are also quite fond of your ornamental flowers, shrubs, and trees.
Although about any tree can be gnawed by rabbits, they prefer the smooth, light bark and tender shoots of young trees over the rough, tough bark of older trees. Tree gnawing can cause significant damage, particularly if the rabbits completely gnaw off all the bark or any essential branches. Rabbits will gnaw on things other than plants, including hoses, wires, and cloth. As anyone who has kept pet rabbits in the home knows, rabbits will gnaw on almost anything, including furniture, shoes, clothing, cables, and wires.
There are of course other wild animals that also feed on tender plants and gnaw on trees and shrubs—deer, squirrels, chipmunks, woodchucks, and raccoons are all familiar villains in this drama. But when you see plants chomped off and bark gnawed, with the presence of the tell-tale fecal pellets in the area, it is almost certain that rabbits are to blame. And you may well get verification by spotting the unmistakable tracks of the rabbit's long back feet impressed in the soil.
3 Methods for Keeping Rabbits Out
The best means of controlling rabbit damage in the garden is by discouraging their presence and preventing access to plants. Professional control is also available through pest management companies that provide nuisance wildlife management services.
As is true when you are trying to protect against any wildlife, the top recommendation is to use of fencing around the garden or any other area requiring protection. Chicken wire with 1/2- to 1-inch mesh is a good choice for guarding against rabbits The fence must be at least 2 feet high to keep rabbits from jumping over it. To prevent rabbits from burrowing under it, the fencing should extend at least six inches below ground or be secured to the ground to keep the bottom edge tight. Electric net fencing also can be used for temporary control around seasonal gardens.
Individual Plant Protection
Use 1/4- to 1/2-inch-mesh poultry netting to create cylinders to protect new trees, shrubs, or vines. Again, the fencing should be buried to prevent burrowing and the cylinder should be at least 2 to 4 inches greater than the diameter of the plant and braced away from it to prevent rabbits from pushing the netting and reaching through to nibble
If you have found evidence of rabbit nesting, remove it, and modify or block off the area to keep them from coming back in. Proactively reduce nesting options by removing low shrubbery branches that provide harborage for rabbits. Eliminate tall, dense vegetation and wood and debris piles. Control vegetation along fence rows. Seal spaces beneath buildings.
Other Possible Rabbit-Control Measures
Live trapping is an option, but it is usually not recommended that you do this yourself, because you need to have some strategy for then dealing with the trapped animal. Because rabbits are considered agricultural pests in many states, and because they can carry disease, there are often laws that regulate where and how you can release wild rabbits.
Chemical repellents can be applied to some trees, vines, or other plants that are in danger from rabbits. But these can create an unpleasant odor, taste, or stickiness. Because of this, and their toxicity, most repellents are not suited for use on vegetables or other food plants, as they can make the plant inedible for humans. In addition, repellents often work only for a short time and need to be reapplied frequently. If you choose to use a repellent, carefully read and follow all label directions before use.
Hunting, Kill Traps
Weapons hunting and kill traps are also an option for combatting rabbits, but state and local regulations vary widely on this practice. You must know and follow all laws of your area and state, or contact a pest management professional. In urban areas, shooting of any kind, even with a simple BB gun, is usually not allowed, and similar restrictions usually forbid kill traps, due to the danger they pose to domestic pets.
Areas, where rabbits are plentiful, will naturally attract some wild predators, such as foxes, hawks, owls, or even snakes. Even in inner city urban areas, wild predators may recognize the food source and take up residence to hunt rabbits. These small predators rarely pose any danger to family pets, and they pose no danger whatsoever to people. So rather than make efforts to chase away foxes or hawks, welcome their presence as a solution to your rabbit problem. Or, if you have a family dog with hunting instincts who can roam your fenced-in yard, it is very unlikely that rabbits will feed on any of your plants. House cats can also be an effective deterrent, though most experts do not advice letting pet house cats roam outside, where they can pose a danger to songbirds.
Strategies that Don't Work Against Rabbits
Despite long evidence that they don't really work, people continue to employ certain methods against rabbits. Some losing strategies include:
Noise and Lights
Devices intended to frighten or discourage rabbits, such as noisemakers, flashing lights, or ultrasonic sound waves do not really scare away or otherwise affect rabbits. Within a matter of hours, the rabbits will learn to ignore these measures and continue happily feeding on your plants.
Any number of faux owls, snakes, and hawk figurines are marketed as "scarecrows" intended to frighten away rabbits and other pest animals. They do not work.
There are no EPA-registered pesticides or toxic baits for rabbit control. And although rabbits are rodents, do not under any circumstances use rat- or mouse-bait poisons thinking that these will poison the rabbits. There is no way to control the use of such poisons outdoors, and doing this is much more likely to kill neighborhood pets than it is to kill rabbits.
Defense against rabbits is an ongoing battle. No matter how you choose to prevent, discourage, or get rid of rabbits—or how successful those methods are for the moment—you will need to be constantly vigilant. Rabbits reproduce....well, like rabbits, and there will always be more coming to investigate your garden and landscape. Ongoing rabbit defense requires:
- Regularly inspect the fencing to ensure rabbits are not getting through, under or around them.
- Inspecting plants weekly for damage.
- Watching for rabbits signs—fecal pellets, chewed-off plants, gnawed bark, etc.
- Acting as soon as you see the first sign of rabbits.