Rabbits, hares, and pikas may look adorable, but they can wreak havoc in a garden.
Before we get started learning more about how to protect your plants from these garden mammals, let’s make one thing clear: rabbits are not rodents. Either are hares or pikas.
A different sort of critter
Rats, mice, and voles are rodents. Rabbits, hares, and pikas are lagomorphs. Lagomorphs differ from rodents in two basic ways: teeth and diet. Both rodents and lagomorphs feature incisors that grow continuously. That is why they are always chewing on things. They have to. But rodents have only two incisors, while lagomorphs have four. Also, all lagomorphs are herbivores, while some rodents eat meat. [We learned that one the hard way when I combined our Zebra finches’ habitat with our hamsters’. It was awful.]
Types of lagomorphs
In the world of lagomorphs, there are, you guessed it, rabbits, hares, and pikas. So, what’s the difference?
Unless you live above the tree line, you will probably never see a pika. Pikas are small, sturdy, compact animals that scamper around rocks and boulders as they look for food and avoid predators.
When looking at rabbits and hares, also known as jackrabbits, size matters. Hares have longer legs and ears, and are larger than rabbits. Also, hares change color with the seasons, while rabbits do not. If you were to find a litter of newborns, infant rabbits are blind and hairless, while new hares are born ready to run.
Damage caused by lagomorphs
Being herbivores, rabbits, hares, and pikas will nibble their way through your lettuces, beets, peas, beans, and kale, shear off seedlings with a clean, angled bite, and may even girdle young fruit and nut trees. You can confirm your suspicions by looking around for 1/4" to 1/2” fecal pellets.
Preventing damage by rabbits and hares
Before you put up a fence, you need to know that most advertised ‘rabbit fencing’ is completely ineffective. Rabbits and hares are able to squeeze through incredibly small holes. Use heavy gauge chicken wire instead.
Generally speaking, rabbits will not jump a 2’ fence, while hares may need a 3’ barrier. Since most rabbits and hares can burrow, fencing alone is not enough. Raised beds with an exclusionary hardware cloth base may be your only real solution if these pests insist on eating your garden plants. Young shrubs and trees can be protected with wire or sheet metal wraps. Electric fencing can be used to protect especially valuable plantings.
How to discourage rabbits and hares
You can also reduce the likelihood of rabbits and hares feeling safe enough to feed in your garden by eliminating hiding places. Brush, stone, and wood piles, weedy patches, and hidden corners are all valuable nesting and hiding places for these herbivores. Eliminate enough places to hide and they will be more likely to go elsewhere. Leaving your dogs outside can also discourage unwanted garden feeding.
Commercial repellants can also be used to make plants less desirable to rabbits and hares. I have had some success with Bobbex-R, used against squirrels, but none of these repellants work perfectly. They only last for a while and often need to be reapplied after rain or sprinklers wash it off. Do not use mothballs in the garden, no matter how many people tell you they work. Mothballs are toxic to all of us and have no place in a healthy environment.
Before trapping or discharging these garden visitors, be sure to check your local laws and ordinances. It is not worth a legal battle to protect a row of Romaine.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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