University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
"Isn't he cute" might be
an expression you use watching cottontail rabbits hop about, unless
gardener and they're enjoying your plantings, in the food sense.
Knowing a bit about rabbits, you can choose
appropriate and effective methods of control for your situation.
Although there are 13 species of
cottontail rabbits north of Mexico, the most common you'll probably
is the eastern cottontail. Cottontails,
obviously named from their short and white cottony tail, usually spend
whole life in an area under 10 acres.
They may move a mile or so between summer food and winter cover, or to
new food supply.
Their appetite can vary with region
and season. In general they will devour
many flowers, being especially fond of new tulip shoots as they emerge
spring. Most know the children's story
by Beatrix Potter of Peter Rabbit being pursued by Mr. McGregor in his
vegetable garden. Cottontails also quite
enjoy feeding on plants in the rose family, such as apple trees and
raspberries. They like the soft and
smooth bark of some trees, especially young ones, either nipping them
gnawing the bark beyond recovery. If you
think rabbits have been feeding, look around for their characteristic
They don't dig their own burrows for
overwintering, rather use those of other animals such as
woodchucks. Or they may just use a brush pile or similar
dense cover. In summer, cottontails use
dense growth for cover. When they need a
little more protection in fall and spring they create a weed or grass
shelter called a "form".
"To breed like rabbits" is
another expression commonly used, and for good reason. Although
most cottontails only live a year,
perhaps two, they can produce 12 to 18 offspring. The rabbits'
gestation period is just under a
month, each litter in the north can have 5 to 6 young, in the north
have 2 or 3 litters a year, and within hours of giving birth rabbits
breed again. For this reason, no lethal
control is permanent. Other than
trapping and shooting, best control is from exclusion methods and
modification, with some control from repellents.
If you do use live traps, make sure
they are the right size for rabbits, and that you can legally relocate
your community. Some states have laws
against this. Don't get your scent on
the trap or the rabbit may avoid it. Use
rubber gloves, or wash the trap with apple cider. Place traps near
rabbits are feeding, and near cover for them.
In winter you can bait with dried cob corn or dried apples. In
summer use apples, green vegetables, or
the proverbial carrot shown in bunny cartoons and depictions. A
rolled cabbage leaf held with a toothpick
is a good bait. If you don't catch your rabbit in a week, move the trap
shooting, again check local laws regulating such, especially in
areas. Poisoning of rabbits is not recommended nor legal in most areas.
One of the best and easiest controls
is to exclude rabbits from gardens and the berry patch with an
chicken wire mesh fence. It doesn't need
to be very sturdy, just about 2 feet high with the bottom edge tight on
ground or buried a few inches. Use one-inch mesh fencing. You can use a
cage of this fencing over tulips and small flower beds while they are
established and plants are young.
For young trees, you can protect
trunks with a plastic tree guard. More
sturdy and resistant to chewing is a cylinder of hardware cloth mesh
around trunks or small shrubs. Make sure
the mesh is at least one to 2 inches from the trunk, and higher than
can reach when
standing on the usual compacted snow depth.
Habitat modification is more
effective in urban and suburban areas where there is little natural
cover. In rural areas it may be difficult or
impossible to remove all weed patches, stone piles, old fields and
growth. Removing such habitats in or
near suburban areas, as well as brush piles and vegetation along roads
fences, should greatly reduce populations.
Repellents, either by taste or
smell, can be effective if used from the start, or at least at the
of damage. This will vary with
population and food source. If there are
lots of hungry rabbits, exclusion may be all that works.
Repellents are applied with a brush or more
often sprayer, often coming ready to spray. Generally taste repellents
effective than odor repellents. The
latter includes moth balls and dried blood meal sprinkled among
plants. Small plastic canisters containing garlic
scent can be placed among seedlings or clipped onto shrubs (my rabbits
seem to mind garlic apparently). Another repellent contains fox urine
Keep in mind taste repellents may
wash off and need reapplying, only protect the parts covered, and will
reapplying to new growth. I learned this
the hard way, spraying some sunflower seedlings before setting
out. I obviously got the repellent spray on the
leaves and not much on the stems, as the next day I found nice rows of
on the ground where the stems had been.
Taste sprays you can buy may contain
putrescent eggs, hot pepper, blood products, and similar vile smells or
of danger to rabbits. I'm hoping a product
I just got containing a pleasant lemon scent is effective. Some
contain the fungicide thiram, so make
sure and read all labels before applying.
This is especially important with food crops. Just as a blood or
egg product may not taste
good to rabbits, it may not be appealing on your vegetables
Encourage, or at least not interfere
with, natural enemies that can help in your control. These
include hawks, owls, foxes, weasels, and snakes. Cats can be
effective against young rabbits,
but attack other wildlife such as desirable birds too.
Many home remedies may make the user
feel good, but are rather ineffective.
These include hose pieces on the ground to resemble snakes, inflatable
snakes and owls, and large glass jars with water. The latter are
supposed to scare rabbits when
they see distorted reflections. (I can
just see my rabbits now laughing at such and wondering what kind of
There is much more on rabbits and
their control, as well as for other wildlife species, at the Internet
for Wildlife Damage Management (icwdm.org).