Preventing wildlife damage in the yard

Before we get to the consistent cold of winter, now would be good time to deal with potential future damage to our landscape plants. This is one of those yard activities that will benefit the landscape next spring with more robust growth and less plant damage, and it is one I feel is important to address every year about now.

Colder weather, frozen soil, fallen and windblown leaves and any accumulated snow will force rabbits to take shelter and begin to look for food anywhere they can. Once the ground is frozen, the wildlife will have fewer places to take shelter or hide, and foraging for food will happen a lot closer to the protection of their winter home.

While the weather remains favorable, rabbits will feed on the diversity of plant material in the home landscape, lessening damage to any one plant. They will feed on grass, clover and other lawn weeds as long as the ground is open or has very little snow cover. Once those choices are gone, rabbits turn to young twigs and branches of plants, and then once that food source is exhausted, tender bark on thin barked trees. Examples would be fruit trees, crabapples and burning bush. Come spring, it is common to find young trees completely girdled by the rabbits, having eaten the bark all around the small trunks from the ground up several inches. On the smaller plants, rabbits can eat them down to the ground quickly if that is the sole source of food. Rabbits tend to find a place to live for the winter and then move out from there locating food. Damage is far worse closer to their winter home than farther out in the yard, even if the plants are the same.

Feeding damage can be prevented using chicken wire or a more specific type of fencing designed to keep the younger rabbits from getting into your plantings next spring. This fencing has wire at a much smaller spacing near the bottom so a baby rabbit cannot get through it. This is not so important in the winter, but is great for next spring when offspring are feeding. If possible, get the fencing in place before we have cold weather and work it down into the soil surface so later when the ground does freeze it is locked in place. If you have a perennial bed, it is easier to fence out the entire bed than create individual structures for each plant. If protecting young trees, the fencing will need to be several inches larger than you may think. The height will vary, just keep in mind that a rabbit will walk up the snowdrift and feed higher on the tree so a typical roll of poultry fence may not be high enough if you know your yard drifts around your trees, so plan accordingly.

There are other materials that can be found at most garden centers that work well too. Plastic wraps that spiral around the trunk work. You may need to use more than one to get up high enough on the trunk. There also are rolls of tree wrap that will prevent feeding and provide winter protection from the sun, especially on thin barked trees.

Richard Hentschel is a Horticulture Extension Educator with University of Illinois Extension, serving DuPage, Kane and Kendall counties. Stay tuned to more garden and yard updates with "This Week in the Idea Garden" videos on Facebook at