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by Lyle Zerla

          In Real Estate, the agent will tell you that there are three things that determine the value of a property: location, location, location. In rabbits, the three factors that determine rabbit population are: habitat, habitat, habitat. Rabbits are found throughout most of the United States and, are most common in areas where the habitat provides cover.

          I like to refer to rabbit habitat as "rabbitat". One reason that I like the word is that it saves a lot of repetitive writing and, it describes just what I am talking about. Rabbitat is where rabbits can survive and thrive. Rabbits need several things from their habitat, with cover and food being the most important. Without cover and food there is no reason for a rabbit to be in a location. If both food and cover can be improved in an area, the rabbit population can, and will, improve . If only the food is improved, without improving the cover, one has only improved the food supply for every Great Horned owl, fox, and coyote in the neighborhood.

          Our sportsman’s club, The Short Creek Sportsman’s Club, recently purchased 2,400 acres of reclaimed strip mine. Some areas hold a good rabbit population, while other areas will not support a field mouse. Since neither cover nor food is present in some areas, there is no habitat there. Cover is the most important item in rabbitat; without cover the rabbit won’t live long enough to need food.

          If you are a serious rabbit hunter or Beagler, you can look at a field and tell if the area holds a rabbit population. Rabbits are the low man on the food chain and need all of the help that they can get in order to survive. Rabbits have a natural coloration that helps them blend in with their surroundings. What they need are surroundings in which they can blend. If the field contains standing weeds, multiflora rose bushes, berry bramble, timber tops, or old buildings you can bet that the field contains at least one rabbit. Farms that have been abandoned are excellent sites for rabbitat if the scrub brush has not grown too large.

          Naturally occurring rabbitat is left to chance. With a couple of days work, you can convert, what is now a barren field, into prime rabbitat. One of the simplest things that can be done is the enhancement of fence rows. If there are small trees growing there, cut several about waist high, leaving parts of the trees attached to the stump and letting them drop into a pile. The trunks, resting on the waist high stump, provide an area for the rabbits to hide.

          Another simple method of establishing rabbitat is to build a fence that encloses an area ten to twenty feet square. This fence does not have to hold anything in or out. It can consist of four metal fence posts and a single strand of wire. All you are doing is constructing a bird perch. "A bird perch," you say. "I thought this was about rabbitat." Birds eat berries that are full of seeds which pass through the bird only to be deposited on the ground below the fence. You now have an instant briar patch, excellent cover for rabbits.

          The third method of creating rabbitat is seasonal. I own a small Christmas tree farm and, I am acutely aware that landfills do not accept Christmas trees. All that you need do is collect the slightly used Christmas trees and place them together in piles of five or six trees along the edges of fields. You have and instant rabbitat! The only drawback to the use of Christmas trees is that they only last about four years.

          Old skids are also an excellent source of rabbit cover. Most newspapers receive their newsprint on skids. They often beg people to take the skids as they must dispose of them. The skids are made of hardwood and they last much longer than Christmas trees. You will need to place the skids in a pile in a manner that the rabbits can get under them, but foxes and coyotes cannot get to the rabbits.

          Brush piles provide hiding places from ground predators and give the rabbits thermal protection during cold weather. Brush piles should be placed away from the edge of wood lots and close to food sources. This denies hawks and owls a perch on which they can wait for their prey. The ideal brush pile should be four feet high and about fifteen feet in length. Use a non-decaying material for the base, such as stones which are at least six inches in diameter, large hardwood logs, or clay or plastic pipe. Criss-cross layers of logs and limbs until the pile reaches the desired size.

          My favorite method of creation rabbitat is to aid Mother Nature. The sportsman’s club has over a thousand acres that will not support a field mouse in the winter, let alone a rabbit. The grass that is growing on the reclaimed strip-mined land, while quite lush and waist high in the summer, falls flat under the weight of the first snow. This makes any small animal that lives there easy prey to predators. The State of Ohio, through the Department of Natural Resources, offers the services of a private lands biologist. The gentleman that serves our area is Dan McMillian.

          Dan has visited our club on several occasions and has offered many suggestions to improve the habitat for all game. One of these suggestions is to plant Switch grass on large areas of the club grounds. The DNR provides the seeds, which have been raised on state farms. We have been able to obtain enough seed to plant seventeen acres in each of the past two years. Switch grass is a warm season grass that is native to the high grass prairie that once covered much of the Great Plains. Warm season grasses do not green up until the temperature gets warm, but stay green all through the summer, long after the cool season grasses have turned brown. The Switch grass is high in protein, containing between 20% and 24% protein. It grows three to six feet high when mature, providing both food and cover, the two main ingredient for rabbitat.

          In the early fall of the year, prior to planting Switch grass, you will need to spray the area that is to be planted with a herbicide such as Roundup, to kill the existing vegetation. The site will need to be sprayed again, several weeks prior to planting in the spring, to kill any surviving vegetation. The Switch grass can be planted from April to mid May with a grain drill suitable for no till planting. The drill is set to plant the seed at a rate of six pounds per acre at a depth of 1/4 inch. This rate will give a sufficient seed deposit to establish a great Switch grass stand. One hundred pounds of seed will cover seventeen acres.

          The first year, the Switch grass will reach a height of eight to twelve inches. The second year, the Switch grass will develop seed heads and reach a height of eighteen to twenty four inches. At this stage, the Switch grass stand will begin to provide the two main ingredients of rabbitat: food and cover. The grass is strong enough to stand up under the weight of snow.

          We have established two seventeen acre tracts in the past two years, separated by a one hundred feet wide strip of blackberry bramble. We now have fifty acres of rabbitat that support five rabbits per acre, in an area that only supported a couple of rabbits in the past. By improving the rabbitat, we have improved the club and the sport of Beagling.

Should you have a concern regarding the health of your Beagle(s), you should contact your veterinarian. All information on this site is presented solely for educational and informational purposes and should not, at any time, be considered a substitute for seeking or receiving veterinary care for your Beagle(s).