By Hearld Dalton, Horticulturalist
Habitat is the key to rabbit survival. Rabbits need the same elements for survival as humans: Food, water, cover for protection, and areas to
If you are going to build a training pen for your hounds, or manage a significant area of land, the thing to remember is the amount and condition of its habitat is the most important factor determining how many rabbits survive in a particular area. If any of the habitat factors are lacking it will limit the number of survivors and is called the limiting factor.
FOOD: Rabbits eat specific foods, regardless of other foods that are available. Some plants have more nutritional value than others, and this will change according to the time of year, and because of these changes, both the quantity and quality of the food are important. The first part in improving your rabbit habitat will be defining the plant life that already exists. Instead of duplicating what is already there one should try to supplement the existing food supply by increasing the diversity of plant species. If you already have plenty of honeysuckle and clover then you should look at adding some rye grass, wheat, oats, snow peas or some other plant favored by rabbits.
COVER: Rabbits need cover to protect them while feeding, sleeping, loafing, breeding and traveling. Cover can take many forms, such as vegetation, burrows, man made shelters, rocks and other features. Brush piles can be made for cover as well as leaving plants for cover. Honeysuckle, multi-flora rose, privet hedge, and low growing shrubs can be used for cover. Leaving fence rows grown -up and planting a few hedgerows are great ways of providing cover.
WATER: Rabbits need water, and some sources of water are surface water, dew, snow, and succulent vegetation. A good place to put your food and cover plots is near the water, a pond, creek, river or spring. When putting your plots near water you are creating a good habitat.
LOCATION: The locations of your plots are critical. Rabbits are normally edge feeders that prefer not to venture out to far into the open to feed. A long narrow strip of food with cover on each side is better than a large square plot. A good spot for food plots are under power lines and in old logging roads. If they aren’t wide enough for good light penetration then trim some limbs back and cut some small trees to open it up and use what
you cut for a brush pile. Create an area about 20 feet wide. The carrying capacity of these long strips is very good. Anytime your rabbit population gets above the carrying capacity the rabbits will die from starvation or lack of cover. When rabbits are to numerous, competing for food and cover, there will be some damage to the habitat; therefore, trapping and releasing more rabbits in an area will usually mean death unless you improve the habitat first. The only time releasing more rabbits is going help is when the limiting factor is predators. The best way to increase rabbit numbers is to increase the carrying capacity and this is the intent of this article: to help others in improving rabbit habitat. Having now identified the best area for some food and cover plots it is time to start the work.
The first thing would be to decide what vegetation you are going add, and this is very important. If you are going add legumes such as: ladino clover, crimson clover, white clover, Annual Lespedeza, Serecia Lespedeza, alfalfa or snow peas then the fertilizer required will be much lower than for grains like wheat, rye, millet, oats and barley. The planning stages being done, now take soil samples from several different areas of the plot and have soil test ran, following the directions of the test for proper fertilizer and lime requirements for the crop you are sowing. This is the correct way of doing it, but for those that do not want to go thru the aggravation or have the time for testing I will make some suggestions. Most areas need some lime applied, watch for plants like sedge grass, cedar trees, and moss these are all plants that is suggesting the need for lime.
Adding 500 lbs per acre of lime is a good start; get the pellitized lime it is much easier to apply and a lot healthier on you. Add 200 -250 lbs per acre of fertilizer to grains or 75 lbs per acre for the legumes. Use a complete fertilizer like 12-24-24 on the grains (note: if you use 6-12-12 you need to use twice as much) use a low nitrogen fertilizer for the legumes like a 6-18-24. Often people use a combination of vegetation, I like lb of clover, 1 lb of serecia and 1/4 lb of turnips with 25 lbs of perennial rye and 5 lbs of timothy per an acre of ground. This combination would cover 2 strips 25 feet wide by 850 feet long.
The fertilizer and lime may be applied before the ground is tilled or after. The ground can be tilled with a tiller turned with a moldboard plow and then disced, or just cut up with a disk harrow or bog. If there is unwanted vegetation it may be sprayed with a non-selective herbicide like glysophate (Round-up) or diquat, or it may be turned under like a cover crop and then harrow up into a seedbed. ATV ‘s can often be used for these projects, there are disk, fertilize spreaders and seeders available for the ATV and sometimes they can be rented. Work up your seedbed as loose as feasible and drag it down smooth with some type of drag and then sow the seed.
Now, an important part of seeding is often over looked, the seed need be embedded in the soil so run a culipacker over the seeded area or you can run a roller over them or track them in with your tractor or ATV.
Another very effective way of seeding is by slicing or drilling the seed directly in ground. Slicers and seeders can often be rented at farm supplies and usually they charge by the acre and they can also be rented at rental agencies. My final recommendation is before you do much on your own check with your local Natural Resource Agency, Wildlife Biologist, Agriculture Agent or Soil Conservationist for assistance. Their job is public service; they are there to help you and will be happy to do so if you ask, but they don’t know what you need until you tell them. Ask if there are any programs that can help you with your project. They may provide assistance with labor, use of machinery or help purchase supplies or just be able to give advice, but I’m sure they will provide you with literature better than this article. I have learned one very important thing being a professional horticulturist.
What you know and remember is not as important as knowing how and where to get the right information when you need it. If I’m lucky, perhaps I’ll get to hunt in someone’s improved habitat.
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