Rabbits: Damage Management

The eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus) and the white-tailed jackrabbit (Sylvilagus townsendii) are both found in Iowa. The eastern cottontail is far more common, as white-tailed jackrabbit populations have declined considerably in abundance and distribution. Rabbits have large incisor teeth which they can use to cause damage to flower and vegetable gardens, as well as trees and shrubs. This page will focus on cottontail rabbits since they are much more common and are more likely to be a source of damage in Iowa. There are several methods for preventing and reducing damage caused by cottontail rabbits.

Habitat: Cottontail rabbits like brushy areas and landscaped backyards. As long as sufficient food and cover are available, rabbits can spend their entire lives within a few acres or even within the same backyard. Cottontail rabbits don’t dig burrows. In the summer they use plant growth for cover. In the spring and fall when plant growth is sparse they will dig a small nest at the surface of the ground to decrease their visibility to predators. 

Reproduction: Mother cottontails dig small nests in the ground for their young. They line the nest with fur and also cover their young with fur to help protect them. Cottontail rabbits are prolific in their production of offspring and can have up to six litters per year with each litter having up to 6 babies.

Damage: Cottontail rabbits have a broad plant-based diet which means they can cause damage in multiple areas and seasons. They will eat flowers as well as fruits and vegetables. Rabbits will also chew on woody plants and remove bark from trees and saplings to get to the nutritious cambium between the bark and the wood. Teeth marks are often visible upon close inspection of damaged woody stems.

rabbit gnaw marks on branch
Rabbits often leave visible teeth marks when they gnaw on woody stems.

Damage Control and Prevention: As with most nuisance wildlife, exclusion is the best way to prevent rabbits from causing damage to certain plants. To exclude rabbits, consider the following options or steps:

  • Add a 2 foot high wire fence that is secured to the ground or buried about 4 inches to protect flower beds, vegetables gardens, and berry patches. Chicken wire is effective but any wire that has holes 1 inch or smaller will work. The 1 inch spacing is important to exclude young during the summer. Winter rabbits can be excluded with 2 inch gaps.
  • Consider adding a cover of wire over the top of spring flowers such as tulips until they have grown large enough to be less attractive to rabbits.
  • Loosely wrap young trees with ¼ inch hardware cloth to protect them from gnawing activity of rabbits. If you use wire with larger holes be sure to secure it at least 2 inches away from the tree so the rabbits can’t reach through the wire. Be sure the wire is tall enough to protect trees in the winter when rabbits will be on top of the snow.
  • Place wire cages around shrubs from November to April to prevent access to the stems during winter.

flowers with cages around them to protect against rabbits
Using wire to exclude rabbits prevents damage to flowers.

young trees protected by wire mesh wrap
Loosely wrapping young trees with wire mesh can protect them from both rabbits and deer.

Efforts to make your yard less appealing to rabbits can help reduce their impacts. Removing brush piles, reducing thick patches of grasses and flowers, or eliminating other features such as piles of stone that may provide cover for rabbits can deter them from spending time in your yard. Fencing off spaces under decks and buildings also removes these as shelter options for rabbits.

If direct exclusion practices are not effective in addressing your rabbit issues, consider methods to reduce their populations. Hunting is permitted for eastern cottontails state wide during specific season and with specific licenses. Hunting can reduce the population of rabbits on a farm, but is not effective in small yards or cities.

Many vendors and gardeners suggest a wide range of possible deterrents to scare or dissuade rabbits also. Methods that involve scaring rabbits away include scarecrows that spray water, lifelike recreations of common rabbit predators such as owls and snakes, glass jars filled with water, and shiny spinning objects. These tactics will only provide limited results and are only effective within a close proximity. Rabbits will also become used to them over time. Commercially available or home-made taste repellents can be used on plants that are not meant for human consumption. Usually these make the plants taste or smell bad to the rabbits. However, these usually wear off especially when the area is watered or rained on so they must be re-applied regularly.

This article is an update of "Rabbit damage to tree plantings" (WL-47) originally authored by Robert B. Moorman and Reinee R. Eshelman and reviewed by James Pease.