URBANA -- Colder weather, frozen soil, fallen and windblown leaves, and accumulated snow will force rabbits and mice to take shelter and begin to look for food anywhere they can, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.
“Once the ground is frozen, the wildlife will have fewer places to take shelter or hide,” said Richard Hentschel. “Foraging for food will mean staying a lot closer to the protection of their winter home.”
While the weather remains favorable, rabbits will feed on all the plant material in the home landscape and will do less damage to individual plants. They will eat grass, clover, and other lawn weeds as long as the ground has little or no snow cover.
“Once those choices are gone, rabbits turn to young twigs and branches of plants and, once that food source is exhausted, to the tender bark on thin-barked trees,” he said. “Examples are fruit trees, crabapples, and burning bush. It is common to find young trees completely girdled, from the ground up to several inches high, by rabbits.” They can eat smaller plants down to the ground quickly if that is their sole source of food.
Rabbits tend to find a place to live for the winter and then move out from there, locating food. The damage is worst close to their winter home, even if the plants farther away are the same.
There are several ways to prevent feeding damage to valuable landscape plants. Chicken wire can be used. Fencing designed to keep younger rabbits from getting into the plantings is also available. It has the wires spaced closely together near the bottom where a baby rabbit could get through.
“This is not so important in the winter but is great for next spring when offspring are feeding,” Hentschel said. “If possible, get the fencing in place before the cold weather. Work it down into the soil surface so that later, when the ground does freeze, it is locked in place and wildlife cannot burrow underneath. If you have a perennial bed, it is easier to fence out the entire bed than create individual structures for each plant.”
To protect young trees, the fencing will need to be several inches higher than the trunk. A typical roll of poultry fence may not be high enough if snowdrifts tend to form around the trees; a rabbit will climb the drift and feed higher up on the tree.
There are other materials that can be found at most garden centers that work well, such as. plastic wraps that spiral around the trunk. More than one may be needed to get up high enough on the trunk. There are also rolls of tree wrap that prevent feeding and deflect the winter sun, which is especially important on thin-barked trees.
“Mice have many more places to hide out during the winter and usually find a good spot before the soil freezes,” Hentschel said. “They will live in yard debris, in the mulch around trees and shrubs, and in the leaf litter that piles up in the perennial beds. Mice do not like to be exposed while they are feeding and then become food for other predators. If your trees are mulched, be sure there is no mulch around the very base of the tree trunk as it enters the soil.”
Other small wildlife may appear during the winter months. Shrews, which in summer eat earthworms, snails, slugs, and even salamanders, turn to roots, fruits, nuts, and birdseed in winter.
“Shrews do not hibernate and will be feeding every few hours,” he said. “Come spring, you will find numerous trails throughout the lawn where they have been foraging for food and hiding out nearby in landscape plantings. The damage will go away as the lawn begins to grow.”
In the case of rabbits and mice, gardeners can apply repellents to prevent feeding damage.
“These will need to be re-applied as weather wears them away,” he said. “They are first applied in the late fall and again in January or February to maintain protection into spring.”