Rabbits

Rabbits graze a wide range of plants and can cause sufficient damage to kill young trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants.

Rabbit. Image: ©www.gardeningworldimages.com

Quick facts

Common name Rabbit
Scientific name Oryctolagus cuniculus
Plants affected Many herbaceous plants, trees, shrubs and vegetables
Main symptoms Eaten foliage, shoot tips and bark
Most active Year round

What are rabbits?

Rabbits can cause considerable damage in the garden.  They 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 listed as less-susceptible.
Rabbits do most of their feeding between dusk to dawn but can also be active during the day.

Symptoms

Rabbits or their spherical droppings are usually easy to spot. Symptoms of damage can include:

  • Shoots on herbaceous plants grazed 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 ringbarked. 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 winterHostas grazed nearly down to the ground by rabbits

    Control

    Fencing and Netting

    Rabbits usually enter gardens from adjoining common land, farms or woods.  Where this is the case, the erection of rabbit-proof fences and gates should be considered.  Ideally fences should be of 2.5cm (1-1¼in) wire mesh and 120-140cm (48-54in) in height.  The bottom 30cm (12in) is sunk below ground level, with the lower 15cm (6in) bent outwards to stop rabbits tunnelling underneath.  Gates and other entrances must also be rabbit-proof and kept closed when not in use.  Further advice on the construction of fences and gates can be obtained from a Forestry Commission Technical Guide "Forest Fencing".  This is available from Forestry Commission Publications, PO Box 785, Stockport, SK3 3AT. Tel. 0161 4954845

    An electric fence designed to keep out rabbits may be practicable in some gardens.  This type of fence is available from agricultural merchants. 

    Where complete fencing is impracticable, it may be possible to protect small areas, such as kitchen gardens, or particularly susceptible plants, such as lilies, by putting less elaborate wire-netting barriers around them.  For example individual plants can be protected with netting 90cm (3ft) high, without the need to lay part of the fence on the ground.

    Plastic tree guards or wire netting should be used to protect the trunks of young trees and shrubs.

    Animal repellents

    Repellents suitable for spraying on plants are Vitax Stay Off, Doff Wildlife Repellent, Growing Success Animal Repellent and Bayer Cat-a-palt, which contain aluminium ammonium sulphate.  This has a bitter taste and so is not suitable for edible plants that are close to harvesting.  Repellents seldom give complete protection, particularly during wet seasons or when plants are making active growth.

    Plant choice

    In areas where rabbits are particularly troublesome, it is advisable to grow plants that are relatively resistant .   There is no guarantee that any of the plants listed as resistant will remain free from damage in all conditions.  Recent plantings and soft growth in the spring can sometimes be eaten, even if the plants are not susceptible at other times.  Gardeners in rabbit-infested areas may get some additional ideas by seeing what plants survive in neighbouring gardens.

    Shooting and trapping

    Rabbits can be killed by shooting or gassing, but this is generally impractical in gardens and is best carried out by professionals.  The same applies to traps and snares, but they can sometimes be used in gardens providing the relevant legal requirements are observed.  It is illegal to set spring traps in the open, and they must therefore be placed within the mouth of rabbit burrows.  Traps and snares are a hazard to domestic animals and should not be used if cats or dogs are likely to have access to them, unintentional harm to domestic animals can result in prosecution.
    There are several types of trap for killing rabbits, or cage traps for capturing them alive, these may be obtained from some garden centres and agricultural merchants.  Traps and snares must be set carefully and examined every day, preferably in the early morning and at dusk.

    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.

    Myxomatosis

    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.

    Biology

    nder ideal conditions rabbits are prolific breeders.  The main breeding season is between January and July, but litters can be produced throughout the year.  The young are born in nests made of dry grass and fur from the mother's body and constructed in special short tunnels known as stops.  The gestation period lasts 28-30 days, and an average litter contains three to six young.  Females often become pregnant again just one day after giving birth, and they may produce two to five litters a year.  The young are born blind and naked, but after about three to four weeks they are capable of leaving the nest and finding their own food.  They are ready to start breeding when about four months old.
     Rabbits often live together in colonies known as warrens and these consist of a series of inter-connecting burrows.  Warrens are found mainly in embankments, hedgerows and in areas with a dense shrub cover.  Isolated burrows also occur and some rabbits spend all their lives above ground.

     

    Image: © GWI/Dave Bevan. Available in high resolution at www.gardenworldimages.com

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