Yard and Garden: Protecting Trees and Shrubs Against Rabbits in Winter


November 12, 2014, 3:39 pm | Richard Jauron, Greg Wallace

AMES, Iowa -- Trees and shrubs are not as active in winter, but that doesn’t mean they should be ignored through the cold season. Winter brings food scarcity, which makes the home landscape a target for rabbits. Rabbits can severely damage trees and shrubs unless homeowners are proactive, which makes protecting them before winter arrives a major priority. Horticulturists with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach tell how to protect trees and shrubs against rabbits this winter. To have additional questions answered, contact the ISU Hortline at 515-294-3108 or hortline@iastate.edu.

Rabbit DamageHow do I prevent rabbit damage to trees and shrubs in winter? 

The most effective way to prevent rabbit damage to trees and shrubs in the home landscape is to place chicken wire fencing or hardware cloth around vulnerable plants. To adequately protect plants, the fencing material needs to be high enough that rabbits won’t be able to climb or reach over the fence after a heavy snow. In most cases, a fence that stands 24 to 36 inches tall should be sufficient. To prevent rabbits from crawling underneath the fencing, bury the bottom two to three inches below the ground or pin the fencing to the soil with U-shaped anchor pins. Small trees can also be protected by placing white spiral tree guards around their trunks. After a heavy snow, check protected plants to make sure rabbits aren’t able to reach or climb over the fencing or tree guards.  If necessary, remove some of the snow to keep rabbits from reaching the trees or shrubs.

Damage may also be reduced by removing brush, junk piles and other places where rabbits live and hide. Trapping and repellents are other management options.

Which plants are most likely to be damaged by browsing rabbits in winter?

Trees and shrubs that are often damaged by rabbits in winter include crabapple, apple, pear, redbud, honey locust, serviceberry, burning bush or winged euonymus, flowering quince, barberry, roses and raspberries. Small evergreens (especially pines) are also vulnerable. However, nearly all small trees and shrubs are susceptible to damage when food sources are scarce and rabbit populations are high.

Can anything be done to save trees and shrubs damaged by rabbits over winter?

Prevention is the key to safeguarding the health of trees and shrubs in the landscape. Little can be done once the damage has occurred.  

Deciduous trees that have been girdled (the bark has been removed completely around the trunk) have essentially been destroyed. Wrapping the trunk or applying pruning paint to the damaged area will not save the tree. Most affected trees will sucker from the base. However, most fruit and ornamental trees are propagated by grafting. Suckers which originate from the rootstock will not produce a desirable tree. Trees that have been girdled should be removed and replaced with additional trees.  

Many deciduous shrubs have the ability to produce new shoots or suckers at their base. Because of this ability, many severely damaged deciduous shrubs will likely recover in a few years. Girdled stems should be cut off just below the feeding injury.  

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