Monitor now for rabbit activity to save a tree or shrub’s life

Gardening columnist Don Kinzler explains that after snow arrives rabbits turn to nibbling twigs of shrubs and the bark of trees, especially young trees and types with smooth, thin bark.

Snow trails help reveal which shrubs and trees rabbits have selected as food.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum

Rabbits have the perfect disguise. They masquerade behind cuteness with big, brown eyes and fluffy fur as they hop contentedly along, making a winter smorgasbord of our shrubs and trees.

Rabbits’ cuteness quickly wears thin when we consider the millions of dollars of damage inflicted by rabbits every winter, and the years of growth lost. In their defense, rabbits are just trying to survive.

Snow is very informative, revealing what’s moving through the yard and landscape. Once rabbits develop a habit of travel, they continue in much the same pattern. Visible rabbit trails indicate the trees and shrubs they’ve eyed as food, and we can take action before feeding progresses further.

When winter arrives and snow covers the ground, fresh greens are hard to find, so rabbits get creative in their menu choices. They turn to nibbling twigs of shrubs and the bark of trees, especially young trees and types with smooth, thin bark. Green food material is just under the bark surface and in twig buds.

Rabbits’ favorite shrubs include rose, sumac, barberry, viburnum, euonymus burning bush, spirea, dogwood, lilac, raspberry, clematis and evergreens such as arborvitae. Trees commonly preyed upon include apple, pear, mountain ash, basswood, maple, honeylocust, maple and willow.


Monitoring for rabbit activity allows remedy before damage progresses further.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum

Preventing rabbit damage is one of the most asked questions I receive. Fencing is the most effective deterrent, including chicken wire, or other types with one-inch openings. Tree wraps used to prevent winter sunscald are usually effective against rabbits, also.

Repellents can be effective, and well worth a try, but aren’t as reliable as fencing. Repellents work by making things taste bad, or by creating odors rabbits don’t like. Capsaicin, the chemical in hot peppers, is a common ingredient in taste-type repellents. Repellents creating odors contain ingredients like egg, milk, predator’s urine, garlic and blood.

Commercial repellents with the best track record include Liquid Fence, Plantskydd and Repellex. Home remedies such as Irish Spring soap, mothballs, dryer sheets and human hair might work for some gardeners in some locations on some rabbits, but they haven’t proven reliable for widespread recommendation.

Why not just plant things rabbits don’t bother? On nearly all lists of rabbit-proof plants I’ve viewed, I’ve noticed items that rabbits have destroyed in our own yard. Where winter survival is concerned, rabbits will consume nearly anything, making rabbit-proof planting lists unreliable.

A novel approach to winter rabbit control is to provide a “rabbit-friendly” zone to lure rabbits away from prized landscapes and fruit trees, by providing alternative food sources, such as trimmings of lettuce, apples and carrots, supplied regularly. A large bag of rabbit feed pellets from the farm supply store is cheaper than losing a five-year-old Honeycrisp apple tree.

Will trees and shrubs recover from rabbit damage? On young and thin-barked trees, if rabbits remove the bark completely around the trunks, the damage is termed “girdling.” All growth above the girdled areas will eventually decline and die, in most cases. A process called bridge grafting can be successful and well worth investigating if trees are girdled.

There are no wound dressings, pruning sealers or paints that will save severely damaged trees, once the damage is done. All such applications are ineffective in damage repair, according to researchers, including those at Purdue University.

The outlook is brighter with deciduous shrubs, which have the ability to produce new shoots or suckers at their base. If rabbits have simply consumed twigs from the top down, shortening the branches, the shrub should recover without long-term damage.


But if rabbits have gnawed away the bark of shrub branches, exposing the white wood inside, everything above the point of injury will likely die, and those branches should be pruned to a point below the damage in early spring. Patience is required as several years may be required for some shrubs to fully recover.

Evergreen arborvitae, with their soft, flat foliage, are a favorite winter rabbit food. The lower green foliage is often completely consumed as high as rabbits can reach. The arborvitae itself usually survives as the upper portion grows unharmed, but the base is left bare and unattractive. Foliage usually does not regenerate on branches left bare by rabbit injury.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at
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