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Wednesday, June 13, 2007 09:33 am

When deer and rabbits attack

Gardeners need to do their homework to protect their tasty plants

Untitled Document As the line between urban and rural settings continues to blur, human beings will undoubtedly encounter the wildlife they are displacing. Some, especially rabbits and whitetail deer, have adapted well to their human neighbors and may remain in close proximity. Fragmented forest areas, such as parks and forest preserves, may have contributed to the explosion of the deer population. Whitetails prefer to inhabit the edges of the forest, where enough light penetrates to allow smaller herbaceous plants, trees, and shrubs to grow. “These areas by nature create an enormous amount of this edge habitat, and deer populations rise up to fill it,” says Jennifer Schultz Nelson, a horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension. “Housing developments are often adjacent to forested areas, making it all too easy for deer to wander over to a landscaped yard and discover the delicious plants there.”
The common or Eastern cottontail rabbit has also adapted well to human development. These herbivores will quickly populate any environment that can offer food and shelter. “The average back yard usually provides both,” Nelson says. “A pair of rabbits taking up residence there will potentially produce up to four litters of young per year, with as many as six young per litter.”
But how do you tell which critter has been munching on your garden? “Take a good look at the damage on a given plant,” Nelson says. “Rabbit damage looks like someone went crazy with pruners, each branch or shoot cut cleanly at 45 degree angles. Rabbits accomplish this feat with their powerful incisors. “Deer, on the other hand, lack upper front incisors and so grab and pull at vegetation they want to eat. The ends of the remaining branches and shoots are jagged, and, if they are small enough, plants may be totally pulled out of the ground. Deer also only eat what they can reach, which is only about 8 feet high. They also damage young trees over the winter by rubbing their antlers on the bark.”
Other helpful clues are tracks: Deer have cloven hooves and rabbits have distinctive paired tracks for the front and hind feet. Rabbits will often construct grass-lined areas called “forms” to offer some protection on the ground. “Deer and rabbit damage is most noticeable in the spring and early summer before much plant growth begins,” Nelson notes. “Usually deer and rabbit damage to landscape plants is worse in years with colder winters and more snow cover as other nearby food sources run out.”
In managing deer and rabbit damage, gardeners need to do their homework, Nelson says. 
“There are plants that both deer and rabbits love, and there are plants that they will only eat if it is the last green plant available,” she says. “Generally speaking, both deer and rabbits will avoid any plant that has a lot of sap or a lot of scent. There are many plant lists available in books and online listing plants resistant to feeding by deer or rabbits or both. “Of course, there are exceptions. Sometimes even a plant touted as something deer will never eat will sometimes get eaten in the right circumstances. Nature is seldom absolute.”
Using scent or taste repellants for deer and rabbits is usually a viable option for homeowners. These may need to be reapplied after rain or extended periods of time. It is also a good idea to rotate among several different repellants to minimize the chance that the animals will get used to a particular scent. In many cases, excluding deer and rabbits with fencing is a good option. Electric fencing to deter deer is recommended only in extreme cases and is not an option for most people in suburban areas. “Though deer can jump 12 feet high, 8-foot-high fences are generally enough to keep them out,” Nelson says. “If the area being fenced off is less than about 15 feet wide, 6-foot-high fences are adequate. This is because deer have poor depth perception and are hesitant to jump into places that they perceive might be too narrow. “Another way to take advantage of this is to place two shorter fences a few feet apart. Unable to judge the distance over both fences, often deer will avoid the area. Rabbit fencing only needs to be about 2 foot high and have a few inches buried under the soil to prevent rabbits from digging under the fence. The openings in the fence materials should not be big enough for the rabbits to fit through. “In many cases, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to prevent all damage from deer and rabbits,” Nelson says. “Some damage is inevitable in many locations. In these cases, it may be helpful for homeowners to work on tolerating at least some damage to their landscape.”
For more information about the University of Illinois Extension’s Sangamon-Menard unit, go to www.extension.uiuc.edu/Sangamon.


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