To many people, the image that comes to mind at the mention of a rabbit is a soft, fluffy, adorable bunny. But for those who love to garden, a rabbit is a destructive, annoying pest that eats up the landscape and causes expensive damage. Rabbits will eat almost any homegrown food crop they can reach, and they can damage other plants in the landscape as well as household items. Much of this damage results from gnawing. Rabbits chew on trees and shrubs, particularly young ones with smooth bark and tender shoots. This can cause significant damage if large areas or bark or essential branches are removed. In addition, as anyone who has kept pet rabbits in the home knows, rabbits will gnaw on almost anything they find, including furniture, shoes, clothing, and electrical wires.
The most common rabbit found in yards and gardens throughout the U.S. is the eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus). In fact, its primary habitat is landscaped and planted areas rather than wilderness. It has large, tapered ears and mottled brown, black, and white fur. It grows 15 to 19 inches long and weighs two to four pounds. The eastern cottontail nests below hedgerows and other plantings, beneath undergrowth, and inside burrows abandoned by other animals. It does not dig warrens like some other rabbit species.
6 Ways to Get Rid of Rabbits
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 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 6 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 chicken wire or hardware cloth to form cylinders around new trees, shrubs, or vines. Bury the fencing 6 inches deep to prevent burrowing. Provide several inches of clearance around the plant and, if the fencing is flimsy, add bracing to prevent the 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.
Live trapping of rabbits is an option, but it is usually not recommended that you do this yourself because it can be challenging to deal 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.
In areas where rabbits are plentiful, they will naturally attract some wild predators, such as foxes, hawks, owls, and 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 discourage letting pet cats roam outside, where they can pose a danger to songbirds.
What Causes Rabbits?
Rabbits can, and will, eat just about any tender plant, so they are naturally drawn in by home gardens. 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 nuts and fruits such almonds, apples, berries, plums, etc. For good measure, many rabbits are also quite fond of ornamental flowers, shrubs, and trees.
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 rabbit 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.
How to Prevent Rabbits From Ravaging Your Garden
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 like....well, rabbits, and there will always be more coming to investigate your garden and landscape. Ongoing rabbit defense requires:
- Regular inspection of fencing to ensure rabbits are not getting through, under, or around the barrier
- 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
What are Some Common Signs of Rabbits?
One very reliable sign of marauding rabbits is an 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.
Do Noises Deter Rabbits?
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.
Are Rabbits Afraid of Scarecrows?
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.
Is it Safe to Use Pesticides?
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.
Do Rabbits Carry Diseases?
The most common disease carried and spread by cottontail rabbits is tularemia, also known as rabbit fever. Tularemia can be passed from infected rabbits to humans via contaminated food or water; by eating infected rabbits; via blood-feeding insects such as ticks, mosquitos, fleas, and flies; or inhalation of dust from infected animal feces, animal tissue, or urine.