Often times the eastern cottontail rabbit is more visible in our neighborhoods than in areas where people normally hunt them. They’re cute and fun to watch until you find out they’re destroying your landscape and vegetable plants. Just a few can cause hundreds of dollars of damage.
Sometimes we catch them in the act, making identifying the problem easy. However, rabbits are usually somewhat nocturnal. Actually crepuscular is more correct. That means they’re most active around dawn and dusk. Consequently, we often don’t observe them destroying our plants.
So before we jump to conclusions we must know what rabbit damage looks like. Rabbit and deer damage are often similar. Deer, being larger, are able to graze higher and usually leave noticeable tracks. Damage from other small mammals, like groundhogs, often closely mimics that of rabbits. Groundhogs usually dig some type of den, which reveals their presence.
Rabbits have sharp teeth that cut cleanly. They graze patches often to the ground and prefer tender vegetation like leafy vegetables or delicate landscape plants like daylilies and Hosta. In winter they browse twigs and young tree bark.
So how do we stop this, especially in town where shooting them might not be an option? I’ve heard people recommend planting marigolds, but I’ve observed rabbits grazing marigold plants. Furthermore, there are few vegetable plants rabbits won’t damage if food sources are scarce. They generally do leave onions alone though.
That shouldn’t entirely discourage you. There are methods to reduce your damage. Organic fertilizers like blood meal are a general turn-off to these lagomorphs. Unfortunately, they can be a turn-on to dogs and can encourage canines to dig up these places.
Fencing often works. Also, if rabbits are the problem and not deer, fencing need not be tall and unsightly. Two to three feet high is sufficient, so you could step right over it. Fencing should be buried six inches or so, since rabbits are adept at digging.
Pets often keep these critters at bay. I once had a cat that kept our place pretty much rabbit free. Blazer fed our dog with them too. He loved her. Usually most pets are not quite as formidable ridding the yard of rabbits and other small mammals. She cleaned up the squirrels too, so I always had plenty of nuts in the fall.
I must admit when I lived in the country I shot my share of them, but I rarely ate them during hot weather. I was always afraid of parasites or tularemia, a bacterial disease that can be passed to humans. Cats can get it too, but Blazer loved being a cat and Trevor loved being a dog, so I took the chance and let them enjoy their harvests. They both lived into their teens.
Live traps can be effective and humane. You won’t kill the neighbor’s dog or cat. Planting something they like on your property’s edge can work for a while. However, I think for most people the best solution is finding a way to co-exist.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.