Colder weather, frozen soil, fallen and windblown leaves, and later any accumulated snow, all will force rabbits to take shelter and begin to look for food anywhere they can. Once the ground is frozen, rabbits will have fewer places to take shelter or hide. Foraging for food will mean staying a lot closer to the protection of their winter home.
While the weather remains favorable, rabbits feed on the diversity of plant material in the home landscape, lessening damage to any one plant. Rabbits feed on grass, clover and other lawn weeds, as long as the ground is open. Once those choices are gone, rabbits turn to young twigs and branches of plants, and once that food source is exhausted, tender bark on thin barked trees. Examples would be fruit trees, crabapples and burning bush. 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, by spring. 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. The 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. This fencing has the wire at a much smaller spacing near the bottom where a baby rabbit could get through. 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 now. Work it down into the soil surface so later when the ground does freeze it is locked in place and wildlife cannot easily burrow underneath it. If you have a perennial bed, it can be 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 the trunk. 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. Plan accordingly.
Other materials can be found at most garden centers and work well too. Plastic wraps that spiral around the trunk work, but you may need to use more than one to get up high enough on the trunk. There are also rolls of tree wrap that will prevent feeding and provide winter protection from the sun, especially on thin barked trees. If you are wrapping for both the rabbits and to prevent frost cracks, wrapping up to the lowest branch on newly planted single-stemmed trees is recommended. For fruit trees that have low scaffold branches, both the wraps and fencing are suggested.
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 the Green Side Up podcast at go.illinois.edu/greensideup.