Most rabbits never reach adulthood

A graphic on rabbits.
A graphic on rabbits.

A pair of uninhibited rabbits can produce in three years more than 33 million offspring.

Fortunately for us and I suppose for the rabbits themselves, this will never happen. More than 90 percent of young rabbits never reach adulthood; they’re snatched up by myriad hungry predators. However, there’s something amiss about snacking on tender young bunnies. If they are all you eat, you will die of starvation.

It seems rabbits lack essential oils and vitamins needed by a carnivore to digest them. There are documented cases of hunters and trappers in the 1800s who ate nothing but rabbits and were found starved to death surrounded by masses of rabbit remains. The rabbits themselves will eat their own droppings in order to preserve what few nutrients they have.

We do have native rabbits, but Europeans brought their own over here as well as other places. Until the British Isles were conquered by the Normans, there were no rabbits there. They were brought over a decade or so after the Battle of Hastings and were raised in warrens for 600 years or so until, in the 1830s, a few managed to escape and soon spread over the entire landscape.

If you have a garden or have prized plants, these flop-eared cuddlies can be an absolute nightmare. Ask the Australians. They’ve been fighting rabbits for around 200 years and have yet to bring them under control.

There are very few plants that a rabbit doesn’t find tasty. Corn, cucumbers, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes and squash are about the only plants in your vegetable garden that have a reasonable chance of not being gnawed on by the wee beasties.

People have used everything from tiger dung to fox urine to human hair to keep them out or drive them away with no real success. Some of the commercial repellents do have a temporary effect. Most of these contain the fungicide Thiram. But chemical repellents aren’t designed for use on plants you’re going to eat, and heavy rains will wash them off so reapplication is often necessary.

The only practical way to keep rabbits away from your plants is to build a fence. The Australians built a “rabbit-proof” fence 1,138 miles long in 1907. It might have worked if the rabbits hadn’t already crossed the line by the time they’d finished building the barrier. Yours doesn’t need to be that extensive or fancy.

A sturdy structure made of chicken wire will suffice. It needs to be at least 2 feet high and at least 4 inches need to be buried outward in a L shape to keep them from digging under the fence.

After you have your garden secured, you’ll need to get rid of the rabbits that may be hiding within your perimeter. Begin by removing brush or tall weeds and piles of debris where they can hide. Next, if you know someone with a famished ferret, you can offer it some exercise and a chance at a free meal.

If that’s not an option, traps will do the job. Live traps are readily available and reasonably easy to use. Set with suitable bait (apples, cabbage, carrots and nuts work best) and place them near some cover. Because of ever-vigilant hawks, rabbits are reluctant to cross large open areas. Check your traps daily.

If you haven’t managed to capture any rabbits in a few days, move the trap to another likely area. When you’ve captured the miscreants, you’ll need to take them a pretty good distance away to release them. Or, like the farmer from Ms. Potter’s tales, Mr. McGregor, you could make a rabbit stew with young Peter Cottontail and his siblings. I’ll give you my recipe for hasenpfeffer.

As always, if you have a pest problem, you can contact me through the Sun Herald.

Tim Lockley, a specialist in entomology, is retired from a 30-year career as a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For answers to individual questions, please send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Tim Lockley, c/o Sun Herald, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi MS 39535.