Preventing Rabbit Damage - June 1, 2005
Jeff Schalau, County Director, Associate Agent, Agriculture & Natural Resources
Arizona Cooperative Extension, Yavapai County
Cottontail rabbit populations have increased due to the above average moisture we received this winter and spring. While these garden visitors can be cute and fun to watch, they can also be destructive to tender annuals, vegetables, and newly planted trees and shrubs. There are several methods that can be employed to minimize the effects of cottontail rabbits on your cherished garden plants.
Typically, cottontails live only 12 to 15 months in the wild and it is rare for them to live longer than two full years. They often raise two to three litters per year and can have as many as five or six. A female rabbit can be bred within hours of giving birth to her litter. In our area, each litter often consists of only two or three young. The young leave the nest in two to three weeks. An average cottontail doe can produce up to 18 young per year. However, this reproductive potential is rarely reached due to predation and other environmental factors.
Cottontail rabbits generally spend their entire lives in an area of 10 acres or less, so if there is suitable habitat within this distance, you are likely to encounter rabbits. During cold weather, they use natural cavities and burrows of other animal for their dens. Otherwise, rabbits seek cover and protection in brush piles, brushy hedgerows, debris filled gullies, and landscaped backyards with suitable cover. Water or moist areas also act as an attractant. Removal/modification of any of these features will change the area's suitability for rabbit habitat.
With any garden “pest”, damage must be correctly identified before control efforts can be effective. We often observe cottontails feeding and frolicking which makes identification much simpler. In general, rabbits eat vegetables and flowers in spring and summer and cause damage to the lower potions of woody plants in fall and winter. Rabbit damage appears as cleanly clipped stems on tender shoots and small, chiseled, gnaw marks on woody plants. Cottontails seem to prefer plants in the rose family: apples, raspberries, blackberries, etc. Vegetables and annual flowers are favorites. Conversely, corn, squash, tomatoes, potatoes and some peppers are rarely bothered.
The best way to prevent rabbit damage is to simply exclude them. This can be most effectively done with a two foot-tall chicken wire fence with the bottom tight to the ground or buried one or two inches. Chicken wire should have holes one inch or smaller. To protect young trees, use cylinders of ¼" wire hardware cloth (heavy duty galvanized wire screen) wrapped around the tree trunk. It should be spaced one or two inches away from the trunk, buried two inches deep, and be tall enough to extend beyond a cottontail's reach (20+ inches).
Repellents are also available. These substances either render the plant parts distasteful or smell bad to rabbits. Commercially available products may not be locally available, but can be mail ordered and restrictions may apply. Hot pepper products can be used as taste repellents, but new growth will not be protected.
A relatively new repellent product called Plantskydd Deer Repellent contains blood meal combined with a vegetable oil binder. This organic product was developed in Sweden’s commercial forests and is effective in repelling deer, elk, and cottontail rabbits. It is available in some nurseries and garden centers, but can also be ordered on-line direct from the manufacturer at www.plantskydd.com.
Habitat modification and exclusion are the most effective strategies against rabbit damage. Repellents are a useful tool where other strategies are not practical. Otherwise, selection of resistant plant species and tolerating some plant damage decrease losses and lower your gardening stress level. For a list of rabbit resistant plants, visit or call the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension Office and request the publication: Deer and Rabbit Resistant Plants.
Naming of companies or products is neither meant to imply endorsement by the author nor criticism of similar companies or products not mentioned.
The University of Arizona Cooperative Extension has publications and information on gardening and pest control. If you have other gardening questions, call the Master Gardener line in the Cottonwood office at 646-9113 ext. 14 or E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org and be sure to include your address and phone number. Find past Backyard Gardener columns or submit column ideas at the Backyard Gardener web site: http://ag.arizona.edu/yavapai/anr/hort/byg/.
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Last Updated: May 26, 2005
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