Whenever snow cover becomes substantial, wildlife will eat whatever is available to them, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator. For rabbits and mice, that can mean the bark and buds of shrubs and trees.
"This becomes a problem for homeowners when they begin nibbling on rose bushes, fruit trees and flowering crabtrees and favorite shrubs," said Richard Hentschel. "If hungry, a rabbit will attempt to eat just about anything. A rabbit can quickly girdle or seriously damage trees and shrubs in just a matter of days."
Imagine what the damage can be if the feeding continues all winter, he added. Young shrubs can be eaten down to the ground, and larger shrubs and trees will have the bark totally removed from the soil line to as high as the rabbit can reach.
Protecting your trees and shrubs is primarily done through separating the rabbit from the shrub or tree through fencing or wrapping and can be the most economical. Poultry wire, commonly referred to as chicken wire, can be used, or hardware cloth to prevent rabbit-feeding damage.
"A gardener should construct a cylinder of the wire that is several inches larger than the trunk of the tree or canopy of the shrub," he explained. "The cylinder is secured to the soil with stakes so the rabbits cannot push them into the shrub and feed anyway.
"Another tactic is to bury the bottom of the fencing with soil or mulch that will later freeze and hold the fence and keep any animal burrowing underneath," he said.
Hentschel cautioned that, if the snow gets deep, rabbits will feed on the plant parts that are within reach. Rabbits will stand on their hind legs so be sure that wire is high enough and or far enough away from the plant material to prevent feeding. Be prepared to go out and shovel the snow away from the fence to keep the rabbits from just walking up and feeding.
Wire that is 18 or 24 inches in height is a starting point. If you know the snow drift pattern in your yard, you may need to buy taller fencing or wire some cylinders together. For single-trunked trees, there are plastic wraps and flexible wraps designed to protect the trunk. Often these are used starting at the soil line and extending up to the first branches. Several layers of burlap are also effective.
Repellants can be applied in late fall. This material often contains hot pepper that make the shrubs undesirable after the first bite. As these materials are sprayed on, they will need to be reapplied in early spring to ensure continued protection until the native plant material becomes available as a food source. These repellants are also effective against mice.
"Mice are more troublesome to deal with in the home landscape," he noted. Mice will live in the leaf litter and snow accumulations at the base of shrubs, dining on the bark and the tops of roots during the winter, and can go unnoticed until the snow melts or you are cleaning up the beds next spring.
"Mice do not like open ground as they become a food target of hawks and cats. Keeping a clear area at the base of shrubs can help," he said.