If your yard has begun to feel like a bottomless salad bowl for bunnies, you are not alone in your frustration. The rabbit population, which stays at a low hum all winter, explodes in the spring, leaving many tormented gardeners with ruthlessly nibbled plants and an Elmer Fudd-like determination to eliminate the enemy at all costs. While no method is foolproof, a few simple strategies can help protect vulnerable plants and mitigate rabbit damage.
Our local hopper is the eastern cottontail rabbit and weighs in at about 3 pounds, according to Lawrence Heaney, Negaunee Curator of Mammals at the Field Museum in Chicago. The rabbits feed on fresh green vegetation, including grass, clover, dandelions and various garden plants.
Heaney, who lives in Evanston, said he is not aware of data reflecting an increase in the rabbit population, but said anecdotally they appear to be on the rise. “My wife and I will see a dozen rabbits when we’re out walking the dog after dinner. They’re all over the place.”
Barbara Schwarz, co-owner and vice president of Nature’s Perspective Landscaping, an Evanston-based company, agreed that the bunnies are out in full force. “Rabbits reproduce like rabbits, so to speak,” she said. “The population is huge and they eat like crazy.” She speculated that the plethora of rabbits may be due in part to a decline in the local crow population, which was hit hard by the West Nile virus years ago. Schwarz said crows are an important natural predator of rabbits, targeting their young in particular.
Other predators include foxes, coyotes, larger hawks and owls, but according to Heaney, domesticated animals also play a significant role in keeping the rabbit population in check. “I would guess that in Evanston, the primary predator of rabbits would be house cats, with dogs coming in at No. 2. These days, most dogs are on a leash, so they’re pretty constrained.”
When left unmolested, rabbits reproduce at an astonishing rate. Mating occurs in March and gestation lasts about 30 days. Females commonly produce three or more litters, of three or four bunnies each, during the warmer months. Shortly before giving birth, they dig a shallow pit called a form, often in protected areas of the yard, sometimes in the open. After the babies are born, mothers are wary of attracting predators and return to the form infrequently.
“They are paranoid,” Heaney said. “The females go back to the nest only once or twice a day to nurse the babies, and the rest of the time the mother stays away.” Predators who would follow her back to the nest also keep their distance. It’s an age-old system that works, which is good news for young rabbits and bad news for old gardeners grappling with uninvited guests. But before surrendering your hostas to the invading forces, you might try these methods to keep rabbits at bay.
Erect a barrier. When traditional fencing fails, Schwarz recommends installing small mesh chicken wire to close the gaps. Dig down about six inches or so and attach it to the base of the fence to eliminate entry points. “That will help exclude rabbits from your yard,” she said, “but of course, if you have even a little hole, they will get in.”
Heaney also noted that fencing can be effective if gardeners remain vigilant. “[Rabbits are] not going to jump over a fence of even medium height. If they can easily slip underneath, they’ll do that, but I don’t know of any evidence that they’ll actually try to dig a hole underneath. They’ll push stuff out of the way and maybe scratch a little bit, but that’s it.”
Wire cages positioned over individual plants may be unsightly, said Schwarz, but they are another good option for protecting new growth. Many plants, such as oak leaf hydrangeas, are appealing to rabbits when they are first sprouting, but less so once they are established.
Employ a deterrent. Garden stores and the internet abound with rabbit repellents containing foul-smelling and -tasting ingredients such as animal urine, hot pepper and garlic. These can be sprayed on plants or sprinkled in plant beds to encourage rabbits to look elsewhere for a meal.
“The trick with the rabbit sprays,” said Schwarz, “is that every time it rains it washes off, so you need to reapply it. It does help a little bit while it’s on, but of course there is the issue of April showers.”
Heaney offered another option. Take a bar of heavily perfumed soap and put that around the plants at risk. The odor may be strong enough to drive the rabbits away. “Irish Spring has been recommended to us by a number of people,” he said. “The advantage is that it has to rain several times before it goes away.”
Release the hounds. But not all pups have either the hunting skills or the inclination to chase rabbits from the garden. Many seem to be operating under a secret canine-leporine peace accord whereby dogs are free to doze on the deck and bunnies may frolic with impunity. “It really depends on the kind of dog,” Schwarz agreed. She added that rabbits learn very quickly that even the most threatening dogs go inside eventually, leaving the yard and its toothsome plants unguarded.
Choose rabbit-resistant plants. If all else fails, Schwarz recommended installing plants that rabbits will avoid. “If you really have a terrible rabbit problem, go with things that they stay away from. Any kind of plant that has a strong fragrance to the foliage. Things like catmint, yarrow, hyssop, bee balm, some of the hardy geraniums. They don’t tend to like those very well. Salvia is another good one.”
Cultivate rabbit love. True, rabbits will eat your yummy green tulip shoots before they ever have a chance to flower, but let’s face it – they are undeniably fluffy and adorable. According to Heaney, there is even more to admire than their looks. He stopped short of classifying them as intelligent, but conceded, “they’re smart in their own way. They’re successful.”
Plus, they have dibs on the territory they occupy. “Rabbits are native,” Heaney said. “They were here long before any people got here, whether European, American or Native American. There have been rabbits here from the time there were plants growing, millions of years ago. They belong here.”