Rabbits graze a wide range of plants and can kill young trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants.
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 are herbivorous mammals in the family Leporidae. They are thought to have been introduced to Britain by the Romans in the first century AD. It was however not until further introductions by the Normans in the 12th Century that it is thought to have become established. Rabbits are now common throughout the UK with the exception of some smaller islands.
Rabbits can 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 and dawn but can also be active during the day.
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
For further advice on living with rabbits see RSPCA. Rabbits are preyed upon by cats, foxes, stoats and some birds of prey.
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 can be considered. Ideally fences should be of 2.5cm (1-1¼in) wire mesh and 120-140cm (48-54in) in height. The bottom 30cm (1ft) 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 Research Technical Guide "Forest Fencing".
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 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 in the ground.
Plastic tree guards/spirals (biodegradable spirals based on potato starch are available) or wire netting should be used to protect the trunks of young trees and shrubs.
Rabbits can gnaw through plastic and fabric netting but this may give some short term protection. To avoid accidentally trapping or injuring animals, always ensure that netting is kept taut, and check regularly for holes.
Animal repellents and deterrents
Repellents suitable for spraying on plants which contain aluminium ammonium sulphate include Vitax Stay Off or Growing Success Animal Repellent. These have a bitter taste and so is not suitable for edible plants that are close to harvesting. Deterrents based on calcium chloride such as Grazers G1 are also available. These products may not give complete protection, particularly during wet periods or when plants are making active growth.
In areas where rabbits are particularly troublesome, more success may be had by growing 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-affected areas may get some additional ideas by seeing what plants survive in neighbouring gardens.
Shooting and trapping
Killing rabbits by shooting and trapping rabbits is usually impractical and undesirable in home gardens and if considered necessary should be carried out by professionals. Traps and snares will invariably lead to some animal suffering and should also be avoided as they either kill the animals or live traps can cause unnecessary suffering. Killing rabbits will rarely give more than a short term reduction in numbers. 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, as does causing unnecessary suffering to any animal. 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 twice every day, preferably in the early morning and at dusk. Disposal of a live trapped rabbit should be considered it may be not be legal to release them without landowners permission. In many cases professionals may dispatch rabbits by a sharp blow to the head.
Ferreting is a method of driving rabbits out of their burrows into nets placed over the tunnel entrances, the captured rabbits are usually killed.
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 rabbits.
Under optimum conditions rabbits are prolific breeders. The main breeding season is between January and July, but litters can be produced throughout the year.
The young (kits) are born in nests made of dry grass and the 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 up to five litters a year. The kits 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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