University of Illinois Extension

Rabbit and Mouse Damage

Once our winter weather really gets here and the snow cover is substantial, the wildlife turn to eating whatever is available and abundant, said Richard Hentschel, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

“For rabbits and mice this means the bark and buds of shrubs and trees,” said Hentschel. “Without the snow cover, rabbits will feed on lawn grasses, clover and, weeds which spreads out the feeding damage. With snow cover, rabbits turn to feeding on our roses, fruit trees, flowering crabapples, and many of our shrubs, among them burning bush is a favorite.

“If hungry enough, a rabbit will attempt to eat about anything. A rabbit can quickly girdle or seriously damage trees and shrubs in just a matter of days.”

Imagine what the damage can be if the feeding continues all winter, he added. Young shrubs can be eaten down to the ground, larger shrubs and trees will have the bark totally removed from the soil line up as high as the rabbit can reach!

Protecting your trees and shrubs is primarily done through separating the rabbit from the shrub or tree through fencing or wrapping and can be the most economical. Poultry wire, commonly referred to as chicken wire, can be used or hardware cloth as well to prevent rabbit feeding damage.

“A gardener should construct a cylinder of the wire that is several inches larger than the trunk of the tree or canopy of the shrub,” he explained. “The cylinder is secured to the soil with stakes so the rabbits cannot push them into the shrub and feed anyway.

“Another tactic is to bury the bottom the fencing with soil or mulch that will later freeze and hold the fence and keep any animal burrowing underneath.”

Hentschel cautioned that, if the snow gets deep, the rabbits will feed on the plant parts that become within reach. Rabbits will stand on their hind legs so be sure that wire is high enough and or far enough away from the plant material to prevent feeding. Be prepared to go out and shovel the snow away from the fence to keep the rabbits from just walking up and feeding.

Wire that is 18 or 24 inches in height is a starting point. If you know the snow drift pattern in your yard, you may need to buy taller fencing or wire some cylinders together to get tall enough. For single-trunked trees, there are plastic wraps and flexible wraps designed to protect the trunk. Often these are used starting at the soil line and go up to the first branches. Several layers of burlap are also effective.

There are other treatments that can be used such as repellants that can be applied in the late fall. This material often contains hot pepper that makes the shrubs undesirable after the first bite. As these materials are sprayed on, they will need to be reapplied in early spring to ensure continued protection until the native plant material becomes available as a food source. These repellants are also effective against mice.

“Mice are more troublesome to deal with in the home landscape,” he noted. Mice will live in the leaf litter and snow accumulations at the base of shrubs, dining on the bark and the tops of the roots all winter and can go unnoticed until the snow melts or you are cleaning up the beds next spring.

“Mice do not like open ground as they become a food target of hawks and cats. Keeping a clear area at the base of shrubs helps and mulch should not be into the crown of the shrub or up the trunk of the tree. There are new products on the market every year so be sure you visit your favorite garden center for products that could be used in your yard.”