Several species of rabbits and their kin, hares, are found across North America, so unless you live in a heavily urban area (and perhaps even then), you have a good chance of seeing at least one species in your yard. Rabbits and hares feed on herbaceous plants and the bark, leaves, twigs, and seedlings of woody plants. And that’s how they get themselves into trouble with gardeners.
Few other garden intruders inspire such conflicting emotions as rabbits. Most folks are excited when they first spot a rabbit in their yard, but quickly become frustrated when the cute critter devours every plant in sight. The good news is that you can provide a friendly environment for rabbits while still maintaining a nice garden. Here are a few strategies:
Avoid conflict. Plant more than you need and let the wildlife have some of it. This works for both ornamental plants and vegetables. Rabbits and hares are fond of clover, so let it grow in your lawn or plant it deliberately. This will provide “decoy” food, which will help keep your other plants from getting eaten.
Disguise damage. To minimize the visibility of nibbled plants, landscape with a naturalistic design that mimics natural plant communities.
Use open space to your advantage. Rabbits and hares are on the menu for a wide variety of predators, so they use shrub rows, prairie patches, and other dense vegetation as hiding places. To discourage rabbits and hares, situate prized plants in places where rabbits are forced to cross open areas that will expose them to predators. They’ll generally avoid these dangerous open areas. On the flip side, you can help attract rabbits and hares by strategically creating densely planted corridors.
Build a fence. If all else fails, put a 3-foot-tall wire fence around garden beds you need to protect. Sink the fence a few inches into the ground to prevent rabbits and hares from pushing or digging under it.
Protect trees and shrubs in winter. When there aren’t any green plants to eat, rabbits and hares turn to tree bark as a food source. To protect shrubs and young trees, put plastic tree guards (available at home and garden stores) or cylinders of 1/4-inch hardware cloth around trunks. Push the bottom of the cylinder at least 3 inches below the soil so rabbits and hares can’t dig under it, being careful not to damage roots. Make sure the top is 2 feet above the anticipated snow line.
Provide water and a patch of soil. A shallow water source on the ground will be a welcome habitat feature for rabbits and hares, particularly in arid areas. Snowshoe hares, which are found throughout Canada and the northern United States, enjoy dust baths. If you maintain a bare patch of dry soil, they’ll use it for this purpose, as will many birds.
Enjoy! With a little effort, and a little knowledge of their habits, you can enjoy watching these endearing mammals, feel good about doing your part to support local wildlife, and feel even better that you didn’t have to sacrifice your garden to do it.
Rabbit or Hare?
Despite common belief, rabbits are not rodents. Along with hares and pikas, they belong to the order of mammals called lagomorphs, which have different tooth structure and behavior than rodents. (Pikas, which live in rocky talus slopes in mountainous regions, are not common in backyards.)
One of the main differences between rabbits, such as the eastern cottontail, and hares, such as the snowshoe hare or the black-tailed jackrabbit, is their young. Rabbits are born blind and hairless and remain hidden in a shallow depression in the ground (called a form) until they grow fur and can hop away into the cover of surrounding vegetation. Hares are born fully furred with open eyes and are mobile shortly after birth.
David Mizejewski is a naturalist, television personality, and author of Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife (Creative Homeowner, 2004).