As gardeners who specialize in supporting ecosystem enrichment and wildlife, we have conflicted feelings about some of our backyard herbivores. Low numbers of apex predators in urban areas have led to high populations of rabbits, deer, and other animals that eat our garden plants.
The rabbit that we generally see in the Chicago area is the Eastern Cottontail (Syvilagus floridanus). Population numbers fluctuate from year to year and vary quite a bit by specific location. They usually spend their lives within a 20-acre area. Rabbits have sharp incisors that leave a clean cut on flower heads, buds or small stems and branches at a 45-degree angle. In the winter, they may also gnaw on the smooth, tender bark of young tree and shrub stems close to the ground.
Clean cuts on an angle indicate rabbit damage
Winter damage on Staghorn Sumac shoots
Rabbits have a short gestation period and up to six young in a litter, so one female cottontail rabbit might have 20–25 young between spring and fall. Trapping and removal are only permitted in Illinois with an animal removal permit from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and removal is not a viable control method since neighboring rabbits will move into your yard if it is habitable. A combination of grass, garden plants and shrubs is a rabbit’s preferred habitat.
Telltale rabbit droppings in the snow
So how can we live with our rabbits, and still have a diverse planting that will offer food and shelter to a range of other wildlife?
Rabbit resistant plants: Choose plants that are not preferred by rabbits. Of course, if a rabbit is hungry enough it will eat just about anything, and we have found that rabbits have individual taste preferences, just like people do. But there are some plants that generally are less favored by them, such as plants in the onion family (Nodding Wild Onion, Wild Garlic, Wild Leek) and milkweeds, which secrete a toxic sap when cut.
Natural Control: Do not deter, exclude or remove predator species from your property. Hawks, owls, foxes and coyotes will help control rabbits, and even the family dog can make your yard a less hospitable place for a rabbit to nest.
Exclusion: After planting a young tree or shrub, protect it with a wire enclosure for the first few years, particularly in the winter when the bark of young woody plants may be the rabbits’ only source of food. Chicken wire or landscape cloth with openings 1 inch or smaller works well and should be buried a few inches into the soil or secured at the soil level by landscape staples. Make sure that the wire is tall enough to be 1 foot higher than the expected height of snow.
Repellents: There are two types of repellents. Contact repellents are sprayed or brushed onto plants and have a bad taste or may make a rabbit temporarily ill. Area repellents use a foul odor to deter the rabbits. Both types must be reapplied after heavy rain or watering, or after new growth has been added to the plant. We have found Liquid Fence or other foliar sprays that contain putrified sulphur and garlic. After applying once per week for two weeks directly to plants, applications can be dropped to once per month because the tissues of the plant absorb the solution. Liquid Fence makes a dual action repellent specifically for rabbits that uses both smell and taste to repel rabbits. We do not recommend using fox urine as a repellent, because the rabbits quickly learn that there is no predator around, and because the method of extracting this product is inhumane.
Home remedies: There are other tricks that we hear about anecdotally, but do not have research to support their effectiveness. These include putting a plastic snake in the beds to scare the rabbits, putting glass jars of water in the garden to create a distorted reflection of the animal, or using sachets of strongly scented soap—one client of ours swears by Irish Spring shavings.
Written by Betsy Seff
University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener Manual Edition 2A