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Rabbits are one of the most commonly seen mammals in the urban environment. In Minnesota our most common rabbit is the Eastern cottontail, Sylvilagus floridans.
These herbivores will spend much of their time eating grasses and other herbs but they will also chew on the bark of trees and shrubs and eat the buds of shrubs in the winter and spring. If left unprotected rabbits will sometimes eat the bark from around the base of a tree or shrub. This is called “girdling” and can kill the plant.
Rabbit damage can be identified by looking at branches low to the ground. A rabbit's teeth will cut through the branches at clean 45-degree angle. Often there are branch clippings on the ground. Bark damage is recognized by side-by-side teeth marks in the wood usually a 1/2 inch or more across (smaller is more likely voles). In general this damage is less than 18 inches off the ground. Occasionally damage may be higher if there was a heavy snow fall and the rabbit could walk on the surface of the snow. Rabbits have a preference for trees with “sweet,” thin bark (such as fruit trees and maples) but will try almost any tree in a severe winter, or if populations are high. Other signs include tracks and small, round, pea-sized droppings.
Cottontail rabbits are not rodents. Instead they are members of a group of animals called lagomorphs. In general they prefer a habitat that has an abundance of brushy cover and mixed plants for food. Rabbits tend to live in a very small area for most of their lives. As adults they can reach a size of about 15-19 inches and 2-4 pounds. Cottontail rabbits produce 3-4 litters of young each spring and summer. The female makes a shallow grassy nest, which she fills with belly fur. The young stay in the nest for about 2-3 weeks.
The best thing to protect trees and shrubs is a rabbit exclusion fence or cylinder. Fences can be placed around patches of plants that need to be protected. The fence should be made of 1 inch galvanized steel mesh or hardware cloth 18 to 24 inches high. The stakes don’t need to be permanently set, but the mesh should reach the ground or be buried several inches deep to prevent the rabbits from digging underneath
A similar structure placed in a cylinder form around the base can help to protect individual trees. There should be adequate space on the inside of the cylinder to allow for stakes and to prevent rabbits from reaching through to the tree. There are pre-made plastic tree cylinders that can be used on seedlings. Be careful when using these in the winter, as the cold can make the plastic brittle.
Taste deterrents, such as soap, and hot chili spray, can also be used as a short-term solution during the winter months. Follow all label instructions before using.
In some cases careful landscaping can reduce the number of rabbits in an area. Removing as much cover as possible, such as trimming shrubs up from the ground and removing woodpiles, reduces hiding spaces.
Sometimes trapping can temporarily reduce the numbers of rabbits, until rabbits from surrounding areas move in. In general most urban and suburban areas are ideal habitat for rabbits: plenty of food, cover and few predators. In the long run, exclusion is the best way to protect trees and shrubs.
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