By Jeff Begin
July 3, 2022
Continuing in the series on pest control at the farm, this post will focus on dealing with rabbits and woodchucks.
Rabbits, woodchucks and other large pests can be some of the toughest pests to deal with. Insects are fairly predictable and usually their damage is limited, but rabbits and woodchucks in large enough populations can destroy a garden in one night.
Rabbit and woodchuck habits
Know thine enemy. On the farm here in New Hampshire, the primary rabbit pest is the Eastern Cottontail. They breed in large numbers here and are very unafraid of humans. They will venture far down rows or paths to get to something they like.
This species of rabbit, like most rabbit species I've encountered, is most active at dusk and dawn and perhaps at night. I rarely see them during the day. They live in thickets or any overgrown area, including shrubs or along treelines.
Rabbits here prefer the leafy greens of lettuce, brassicas (kale, cabbage etc.), flowers, squash fruits like zucchini, peas, strawberries and other small fruits.
Woodchucks are a problem here as well, but avoid the back lot portion of our farm. They seem to reside mostly along the edges of fields and in areas with high grass; I have rarely seen them in or near the woods, but I'm sure it's possible.
Woodchucks can do much more damage compared to rabbits as they're larger animals. On the other hand, I've noticed they're territorial (disclaimer: not an expert) so I rarely see more than one in an area. But just that one animal can do a lot of damage.
Rabbits will usually just eat leaves from stems but usually don't pull large plants down. Woodchucks, on the other hand, have taken down fully-grown tomato plants before.
Like rabbits, woodchucks seem most active dawn to dusk and possibly at night. I rarely see one during the day.
The only reliable method of controlling these critters is exclusion from growing areas. On this front, you have several options.
If you have your crops set in rows or in beds where crops are somewhat similar in height, I suggest your first line of defense be floating row covers.
Above is an example of such a system. This is a 4 ft by 100 ft bed. It is or will be used to grow crops that all generally fit under the row cover and that lots of pests - rabbits and woodchucks included - really like. Examples include cabbage, broccoli, kale, herbs like parsley, cilantro, dill, beets and other greens.
See my detailed post All about row covers in the garden for everything you need to know.
Now, some of you will say "surely rabbits and woodchucks can get through that!" And yes, you are right. But they won't bother. These types of animals are opportunistic - they'll eat whatever is easiest. How far an animal is willing to go depends on how hungry it is.
I have never had a case over many years of any animal chewing a hole through even the flimsiest row cover. They either can't see through it or just aren't interested. Either way, it keeps them out. It will also keep out smaller pests like chipmunks and mice, assuming it's secured to the ground well enough.
Don't grow in a row system like this? They make row covers in all sorts of sizes, you might even find a net to cover your entire garden, if it's small. That being said, most row covers that are cost-effective are geared for rows 2 ft to 6 ft wide, and are usually sold in lengths that are multiples of 25 ft.
I use these row covers whenever I can as they offer the best protection. I prefer them to fencing. Why? In one fenced-in area a few years ago, a woodchuck dug his tunnel right into the center of that area, right under the fence and right below a whole lot of tomatoes. It took me a few days to find it as it was well hidden under large tomato plants, but there was a lot of damage - I lost many tomatoes and my whole carrot crop that year was gone.
I felt too secure with a fence. If that happens again with row covers, the worst case will be that one row is wiped out. If it's only a fence, the whole garden is at risk.
While I prefer row covers, I still use fencing in areas with woodchuck activity. Row covers will not work for any tall crop like tomatoes, corn or anything grown vertically.
To deter rabbits and woodchucks, you don't need a massive fence. In fact, an inexpensive 2 ft tall chicken wire fence has worked well for me. Could rabbits jump over it? Yup, surely. Will they? Nope. Just like with row covers, it creates just enough of an impediment to keep them out entirely. There are plenty of other things to go nibble on.
To be specific, I have used the following setup with great success:
- 24" tall, 1" hex mesh chicken fencing. The fencing at Tractor Supply was the cheapest per foot when I bought mine. The Tractor Supply fencing seemed to rust a little faster than other fencing from Lowes, so shop around.
- 5 ft studded t-posts from Tractor Supply. I really like the T-posts Tractor Supply sells, so I recommend you buy specifically the studded T-posts. The ones from Home Depot and Lowes are alright, but flimsy. The Tractor Supply T-posts are beefy and durable.
- While you're at it, get yourself a T-post driver like this one from Tractor Supply, you will not regret it. Unless you are the hulk, there is no way you could drive more than a few 5' or taller posts with a sledge. But I can put in 25 T-posts and barely break a sweat with a T-post driver.
- To secure the fence to the T-post, just use zip-ties like these from Lowes. Use any zip tie, but try to use UV resistant zip ties so they don't all break on you in a year. One more tip: get some flush cut wire cutters to cut the zip tie ends so they're not sharp. You'll eventually walk past one and cut your leg if you don't. Ask me how I know that...
That is the easiest and cheapest effective fence you can put up in a day, max.
A few drawbacks to this system:
- 1" hex mesh will not stop chipmunks or smaller rodents from getting through. But I've found they do little damage anyway (except strawberries, they'll wipe those out). If you're concerned about chipmunks, row covers are a better solution.
- This won't stop deer. However, I have plenty of deer here, but I have never had deer browse issues in my garden. If that is a concern for you, look into taller deer fencing instead of 2 ft chicken wire, I'd say at least 5 to 6 ft tall for deer. I have used Tractor Supply's horse fencing with good success, and it's been durable
- Chicken wire can be flimsy and you'll probably break parts of the fence after a few years. If you want it to be more permanent, upgrade to hardware cloth or woven wire fencing. Welded wire is fine too, but it can be stiff if you're going over a grade. For that reason I prefer woven wire fencing like this.
Now, combine even this minimal but effective fence with a floating row cover, and you'll be nearly invincible.
Deterrence and distraction
In the security business, there's a strategy called "defense in depth" which just means never rely only on one line of defense. That's where the deterrence and distraction set of tools will help in the garden. I wouldn't rely solely on these methods, but they can make your other lines of defense more effective.
In other words, these methods won't protect your garden on their own.
Plant sacrificial crops or flowers
This is the only method here I regularly employ on the farm. At the end of every row, I plant flowers that grow tall and partially obscure what's behind them. They're also destined to become rabbit food as the season wears on.
Their main purpose is to give the rabbit something to nibble on at the end of the row, and keep them from going further into the row. This works about half the time, but I definitely have rabbits going deeper into the rows.
You could do the same with sacrificial food crops at the end of every row like kale or cabbage, but I like flowers as they add some color.
These can also be done in-row and probably be more effective. In the years I have done that I do see less damage in that row.
A wide variety of animal repellents exist on the market, with varying levels of effectiveness. I have used the Liquid Fence Deer & Rabbit Repellent in years past, and if you are diligent with putting it down it can reduce damage. But you have to apply it regularly and after every rain, so you can go through it quickly.
They're not too expensive so try a few out and see if there's any improvement.
The Eastern Cottontail, the main rabbit pest in our area, likes to make it's home in small thickets or bushes that provide cover low to the ground. Not far from our growing area, maybe 30 ft away, we have some overgrown shrubs that provide great cover to rabbits. Low-lying juniper bushes are particular favorites for rabbits.
On the ever-growing to-do list I plan to remove these shrubs, but for the time being rabbits enjoy security there. You could also try adding a perimeter to your garden of just lawn, something that doesn't provide much cover. They might wind up nesting further away and find something else to interest them.
For woodchucks, I'm not sure habitat modification is particularly feasible.
Time plantings with pest lifecycle
Woodchuck and rabbit damage gets worse the later in the season you get. Each spring, both rabbits and woodchucks breed and give birth to offspring. As they're young, they do not need much food. But as they grow, the pressure on the area becomes more intense, pushing maturing offspring to go further to get a meal. This includes going greater distances but also becoming more aggressive, such as going around barriers and becoming desperate enough to avoid repellents.
You can time your plantings with this in mind. In my area rabbit pressure becomes intense in the second half of June and into July. But, rabbits also do not tend to bother large plants like tomatoes. So for example, your goal should be to get tomatoes planted and large enough by the time the rabbits get aggressive.
If you planted young tomato seedlings in late June, they may disappear as pest pressure increases. But if they're already two feet tall by then you're only likely to lose some bottom leaves, if at all.
For woodchucks, they'll eat anything so your best best is to ensure good fencing or covers are in place by late May.
This one will be controversial, but you can also reduce the pest population in your area using firearms or no-kill traps. You'll be most effective in doing this before breeding takes place, so get out there in late winter and early spring.
Be aware that many states consider rabbits or woodchucks to be small game and taking them may require a hunting license. They may also have a restricted season. Be sure to know your state's hunting laws and regulations before setting out.
If you're using firearms, be sure you have a safe area to shoot. You're responsible for whatever your bullet hits, so be very safe: know your target and what's beyond it. Also be sure to use a caliber large enough for small game hunting, and again check your state's regulations which may set a minimum caliber to ensure a humane kill. Your goal is to make the animal suffer as little as possible.
Accept your fate and plant extra
Finally, you could just accept that this is how nature works and you will have losses. You can do some things to minimize those losses, but you'll still have losses. So plant more than you think you need with the expectation you'll lose some plants.
If you've read this far, you must be as frustrated with the animals as I sometimes am! I'm by no means an expert, this is just based on my experience.
Share your experience and knowledge in the comments! Let others know what's worked for you.
Thanks for reading!
Other posts in the pest control series: