By Shannon Farlow
Have you ever tasted barbecued rabbit right off a wood-fired grill? Have you ever tried chicken-fried rabbit with gravy or braised rabbit in wine sauce? How about herb-roasted rabbit with potatoes? If you’ve ever had the pleasure of dining on fresh rabbit in any form then you understand the role of rabbits in nature.
Rabbits are at the bottom of the food chain and the top of the menu for every major predator in the Southeast. Foxes, bobcats, and coyotes regularly eat bunnies as do red-tailed hawks, great horned owls, and other raptors. Lesser known rabbit predators, such as raccoons, opossums, snakes, feral dogs, even your neighbor’s housecat, can seriously impact local rabbit populations. Couple this incredible demand with a dwindling supply of rabbit habitat, whether it be from “clean” farming or subdivision sprawl, and the dilemma of rabbits and rabbit hunters becomes apparent. Fortunately landowners can tip the scales in favor of rabbits by creating ideal habitat with just a little land and modest effort.
While the whitetail is the only species of deer native to the Carolinas and Georgia, there are four types of rabbits that call these states home. The best known and most common of these is the Eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus). Found up and down the East Coast, the Eastern cottontail is the species that nearly everyone sees in their backyard in the summertime and the one that most rabbit hunters chase with beagles in autumn.
Marsh rabbits (Sylvilagus palustris), commonly called “bluetails” or “swamp rabbits,” prefer to live in the easternmost part of the East Coast states. This smaller cousin of the Eastern cottontail flourishes in the marshes of the coastal plains and in the forested wetlands of the eastern Piedmont. Rabbit hunters who target marsh rabbits better have rubber boots and beagles who love water because marsh rabbits often swim to escape.
By far the largest rabbit on the East Coast is the swamp rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus). Commonly known as a “canecutter,” it grows to approximately six pounds, dwarfing both the Eastern cottontail and the marsh rabbit. Many people confuse a swamp rabbit and a marsh rabbit, calling the smaller rabbit a “swamp” rabbit.
It was, in fact, a swamp rabbit that made international headlines in the spring of 1979 when it swam toward (some still say it chased) President Jimmy Carter who was fishing from a small boat at the time.
The most elusive species of East Coast rabbit is the Appalachian cottontail, which lives in its namesake mountains.
Rabbits need only two things to survive—thick ground cover and food. Plain and simple. Shrubs, briar thickets, overgrown fence rows, honeysuckle patches, almost anything that is dense and low to the ground will suffice as escape cover. For food, rabbits prefer a buffet of lush, green vegetation, including native grasses and weeds which double as bedding and nesting areas.
Ideal rabbit habitat should be dominated by grasses and weeds with 30 to 50 percent shrub cover.
Biologists call this stage of habitat early successional. It’s the initial period of vegetative growth usually spurred by some type of disturbance to the landscape, such as clearcutting timber or plowing the ground.
But like a head full of hair, the early successional stage is fleeting. If left alone, it will progress into mid and then late successional habitat. Scattered tree saplings will grow into a forest and eventually prevent sunlight from reaching the ground, effectively killing the ground cover and food that rabbits, quail, and other early successional species require. However, maintaining early successional habitat is much simpler than regrowing hair.
When it comes to escape cover, brush piles are probably the easiest and quickest for landowners to produce. An effective brush pile consists of a good base of logs, preferably something rot-resistant like cedar, piled together and covered with limbs and other brush. If downing trees isn’t an option, brush pile foundations can be fashioned from virtually anything weather resistant that rabbits can crawl under. Have any old plows or other unused farm implements sitting around?
Brush piles are the most successful when placed where native vegetation will grow into and fuse them with the rest of the landscape. To accomplish this in a forest setting, it’s best if the trees surrounding the brush pile are cut back.
One alternative to the traditional brush pile is to make a “living brush pile.” Instead of cutting all the way through a tree, use a hinge cut about waist high and only saw through a third or so of the trunk. Then pull the tree over to where the top portion is laying on the ground. Often the tree will remain alive and function as a brush pile for many years. Hinge cutting works best with hardwood trees that are cut in the wintertime when the sap is low.
Another way to create cover for rabbits is to simply let Mother Nature take over, for a while at least. A former agricultural field or pasture, if left to its own devices, will typically grow into thick “rabbity” cover within two to three years. On property that’s currently being used for agricultural purposes, leaving fallow field borders and incorporating hedgerows offers great escape cover as does crop stubble that’s left in the field after harvest.
Pastures and lawns sown in fescue can be sprayed with herbicide or lightly disced in late winter or early spring to encourage weeds and other shrubby, brushy growth. After fescue has been removed, biologists often recommend sowing native warm-season grasses such as switchgrass, Indiangrass, little bluestem as well as the common broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus).
Maintaining prime habitat
One way to maintain habitat in the early successional stage is through prescribed burning. This takes the growth back down to the ground and starts the cycle over again. For rabbits, burn undergrowth every two to four years. He also recommends staggering the burn areas if rabbits are your priority.
Instead of fire, some landowners apply selective herbicides that target trees like sweetgums but leave native grasses and weeds. Or they hook up a disc harrow and do some light discing in late winter or early spring.
Because a rabbit’s diet consists of so many different types of vegetation, planting food plots is not nearly as necessary as providing cover. Depending on the landscape, it may not be necessary at all. However, done correctly, food plots can help local rabbit populations thrive.
When planting a winter food plot, incorporate clover and small grains, including wheat, rye and oats. More important than what is planted is where it’s planted. Food plots should be long and narrow when possible and always just a couple of hops from good escape cover. This will help keep the rabbit population safe from predators and ready for the dinner table.