Protect Trees and Shrubs From Rabbits

Young tree in snow

Yard and Garden: Protect Trees and Shrubs from Rabbits

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October 11, 2018, 8:26 am | Richard Jauron, Willy Klein

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

How do I prevent rabbits from damaging 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 or hardware cloth fencing 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, pin the fencing to the soil with U-shaped anchor pins. Small trees can also be protected by placing white corrugated or spiral tree guards around their trunks. Since the weather in Iowa in fall is unpredictable, it’s best to have the protective materials in place by early to mid-November. 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.  

Besides fencing, are there other ways to prevent rabbit damage to trees and shrubs?  

Damage to landscape plants can be reduced by making the habitat less attractive to rabbits. This can be accomplished by removing brush, junk piles and other places where rabbits hide and live. Repellents are another option. Repellents discourage rabbit browsing because of their unpleasant taste or smell. Unfortunately, repellents aren’t always effective and often need to be reapplied after a heavy rain or snow.  

Which trees and shrubs are most susceptible to rabbit damage in winter?  

Trees and shrubs that are often damaged by rabbits in winter include crabapple, apple, pear, redbud, honey locust, serviceberry, burning bush, 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 is scarce and the rabbit population is high.  

What type of damage occurs when rabbits feed on trees and shrubs in winter?  

Rabbits feed on the tissue between the bark and the wood of trees. If rabbits remove the tissue down to the wood and go completely around a tree’s trunk, the damaged tree is effectively girdled. Girdling destroys the tree as it disrupts the downward flow of food from the tree’s foliage to the root system. Rabbits damage shrubs by chewing off small branches and girdling large stems. Most deciduous shrubs have the ability to produce new shoots or suckers at their base. Because of this ability, many severely damaged deciduous shrubs eventually recover.  

About the Authors: 

Richard Jauron

Extension Horticulturist

Willy Klein

Organizational Advancement
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