Cottontail rabbits: cute, cuddly, destructive

By for CAES News

Rabbits are often welcomed additions to lawns because many homeowners find them adorable. They love to see rabbits at the edges of their lawns early in the morning or in the evening. However, if the population is left unchecked, rabbits can cost homeowners hundreds, even thousands, of dollars a year in damages.

In the Southeast, rabbits feed on backyard plants year-round. They consume flowers, soft stems, fruits and vegetables during the spring and summer months. Very few home-garden crops, like tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, corn and spicy peppers, are immune to rabbit damage. Rabbits can kill older, mature trees by stripping bark from the trees’ bases.

Damage caused by rabbits is often mistaken for damage by whitetail deer and squirrels. Many of their foraging habits overlap.

Rabbit damage is identifiable by gnaw marks on woody vegetation. Bark gnawing usually occurs in patches and doesn’t occur higher than 2.5 feet above ground level.

Other signs of rabbit damage are young, clean-cut stems sheared at an angle. This damage looks as if the stem was cut with scissors. The presence of round, pea-sized droppings around damaged areas may also be chalked up to rabbits.

One of the easiest ways to mitigate damage caused by rabbits is to modify their habitat. Remove brush piles and weed patches, fill holes and remove any debris that could be used as a den site. Habitat modification is extremely effective in residential areas because there are very few suitable habitats available.

When habitat modification doesn’t work, use a physical barrier to prevent rabbits’ access. Exclusion is the most effective means of control, but it can be the most expensive in terms of labor and money.

Fences to deter rabbits should be at least 2 feet tall, buried 8 to 12 inches below the ground, and constructed out of chicken wire or hardware cloth.

Tree guards may keep rabbits from tearing the bark from young trees. Construct box cages around small, raised gardens and individual plants to protect them. Be sure to use hinges on these box cages so the homeowner has an access point.

Repellents are the most common form of pest control. A variety of chemical repellents, designed to discourage rabbits from browsing, are on the market today. Remember to vary the products you use. If you use the same repellent over and over again, the rabbits will become accustomed to that product, rendering it ineffective.

Most repellents can be sprayed or brushed on like paint, and most are contact-, taste- or odor-based repellents. Taste-based repellents should be applied before damage occurs. Homeowners who experienced previous damage to their vegetable gardens should apply repellent shortly after this year’s crop begins to emerge. This teaches the offending animals that these plants are unpalatable.

The final option is lethal control. Rabbits are classified as a game species in Georgia, so game laws must be followed. When rabbits are in season, live box traps can be baited with apples, lettuce, carrots or Brussels sprouts. While shooting is a quick, easy method of control, most municipal firearm ordinances prohibit the discharge of firearms within city limits.

While rabbits may be adorable, they can also be the source of significant damage to backyard gardens and landscape plants. Fortunately, there are a variety of available control techniques that can help mitigate and even prevent rabbit damage.

For more information on controlling nuisance wildlife, see the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Circular 1021, “Repellents and Wildlife Damage,” at extension.uga.edu/publications.

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