What are rabbits?
Although cute in appearance, rabbits can cause considerable damage in the garden. They are mammals that live together in a system of tunnels known as a warren.
Rabbits feed on a very wide range of ornamental plants, fruits and vegetables. New plantings and soft growth in spring may be eaten, even on plants that are not susceptible at other times.
They do most of their feeding between dusk to dawn but can also be active during the day.
You will usually spot rabbits or their spherical droppings in your garden. This is some of the damage they cause:
- New shoots on herbaceous plants can be grazed down to ground level
- Foliage and soft shoots of woody plants can be grazed up to a height of 50cm (20in) by rabbits standing up on their hind legs
- Bark may be gnawed away from the base of trunks, especially in winter when snow or frost makes other vegetation unavailable. This can kill trees and shrubs if bark is removed all the way around the stem. Partly gnawed trunks should be wrapped in black polythene to encourage the damaged area to callus over
- Rabbits also dig holes and scrapes in lawns and flower beds
Rabbits gnaw at the base of trees, especially in winter
Hostas grazed nearly down to the ground by rabbits
Place a wire mesh fence 1.2-1.4m (4–4½ft) high around gardens or flower beds; the bottom 30cm (1ft) should be bent outwards at right angles and laid on the soil surface to deter rabbits from burrowing underneath. The maximum mesh size should be 2.5cm (1in) to prevent young rabbits squeezing through.
For individual plants, netting 90cm (3ft) high can be put up, without the need to lay part of the fence on the ground.
Wire netting or spiral tree guards can be put around the base of young trees to prevent bark feeding.
Animal repellents, such as Vitax Stay Off, Doff Wildlife Repellent Spray or Growing Success Wild Animal Repellent, can be applied to plants. This may not give complete protection, particularly during wet weather or when plants are making rapid new growth.
Grow plants that are less attractive to rabbits. It may be possible to discover feeding preferences in the local rabbit population by looking at other nearby gardens. Avoid planting particularly susceptible plants and select those that survive.
Shooting and trapping
It is possible to control rabbits by shooting in places where this can be done safely.
Humane traps can be set inside the entrance to rabbit tunnels, or snares can be set along rabbit pathways but these methods are not suitable for use in gardens where cats and dogs may be present. Rabbits can also be captured alive in cage traps baited with chopped up carrots. Traps and snares need checking twice a day, preferably early morning and evening, so that trapped rabbits can be dealt with.
Ferreting is a traditional method of driving rabbits out of their burrows into nets placed over the tunnel entrances. Rabbits are preyed upon by cats, foxes, stoats and some of the larger birds of prey.
An introduced viral disease known as myxomatosis reduced the rabbit population in Britain to a very low level in the 1950s. The disease is still present but it has become less virulent and so kills a smaller proportion of the infected rabbits.
Rabbits are notorious for breeding at a rapid rate. A typical litter size is three to six and females can become pregnant again just one day after giving birth. Rabbits can start breeding when just four months old.
Image: © GWI/Dave Bevan. Available in high resolution at www.gardenworldimages.com