Habitat Management for Rabbits in Virginia
The cottontail rabbit is one of Virginia's most popular game animals. The cottontail rabbit is legendary for its reproductive capabilities. Cottontails also have a very high annual mortality which often approaches 85% due to predation, weather, habitat destruction, diseases, and parasites.
One of the easiest, quickest, and least expensive ways to enhance "rabbitat" is to create brush piles. These should be located near ungrazed pastures, fence corners, or along weedy fence rows.
Some modifications of current farming practices will benefit cottontails as well. Fall plowing should be avoided whenever possible. Fall plowing destroys all cover. Grain fields should be combined "high", leaving enough stubble to provide some cover and emergency winter food.
Fence rows should be allowed to grow up into briars and weeds to provide safe travel corridors. Hedgerows should be planted to break up large fields. Field borders, or buffers, at least 30 feet wide should be left around all fields to provide edge. Often, edge habitat is the primary component of rabbit habitat that is lacking on a well kept farm. You might consider some of the following shrubs and trees for your field border and hedgerow plantings: sargent crabapple, indigobush, silky dogwood, serviceberry, American plum, arrowwood or blackhaw viburnum, white pine, or cedar.
Bush hogging, if absolutely necessary, should be delayed until after August 1. The bush hog should be set as high as it will go. This will help retard woody growth, destroy the least amount of nests, and still leave some cover. Remember, the bush hog is not a wildlife management tool.
When making hay, keep in mind the buffer as mentioned above. Rabbits will usually nest along the edges of fields in the denser cover. Instead of mowing an entire field, mow 30-40 foot strips and rotate the strips every 3 or 4 years.
Livestock will often destroy rabbit habitat by eliminating ground cover. Fence off some corners or other "odd" areas, such as gullies, abandoned farmsteads, streams, or dams to protect them from grazing.
Food plots are usually not necessary for rabbits. In general, if you provide cover, rabbits will find something to eat. However, if a planting is desired, a mixture of 5 lb/acre of ladino clover (or another legume) and 10 lb/acre of orchard grass is best.
Dense woodlots can be transformed into suitable rabbit habitat by opening up or thinning the stand so sunlight can reach the forest floor in order to stimulate growth of understory vegetation. Debris from thinning can be used for firewood and to create brush piles. Many of the fallen tree tops can be left "as is" and should not be piled. Cottontails will nibble on the bark during the winter. Several small openings about one acre in size will produce more rabbits than one large one.
Pines and cedars provide particularly good winter cover for cottontails. In areas where coniferous cover is absent, planting clumps of pines and cedars might be worthwhile. Top the cedars when they get to be about five years old. Cedars will start loosing their lower limbs as they get older and will no longer provide thermal cover for rabbits. Discarded Christmas trees can also provide excellent shelter for rabbits. Pile yours and your neighbors' up in the back yard or near areas where rabbits will use them.
Habitat management for rabbits is easier than for most other game animals. With little labor and virtually no cost, you can improve the "rabbitat" on your land. Remember that "planned neglect" is often as good as active management. If you need further assistance, contact a wildlife biologist from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries for free technical assistance.