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Do Rabbits Dig Deeply?
Do Rabbits Dig Deeply?

Q. I read a recent article in the Reading Eagle (a Pennsylvania newspaper) about an appearance in our area where you were quoted as saying, "because rabbits can't dig and don't climb, a fence doesn't have to be buried deeply in the ground and doesn't need to be high off the ground."

Were you misquoted or did you just err in your answer? According to Wikipedia, "All rabbits except cottontails live underground in burrows or warrens." And the University of California Rabbit Management page states that 'fencing must be sunk 6 to 10 inches into the ground and a few inches should be buried laterally to deter rabbits from digging beneath it.' I found several other sources, studies, and accounts proving that rabbits can and do dig.

I bring this up because I was asked by my Mother if she should worry about rabbits digging under her garden fence, which ends where it meets the ground. Based on my research, I told her we should do something; but she came to me a day later with a copy of the article and told me I was wrong. I showed her my research; but what about others who could have problems after following your advice? I kindly ask that you take action to correct this error. Respectfully,
    ---Gregg in Newmanstown, PA (20 miles West of Reading)
Links to references:
University of California: Rabbit Management
Wikipedia: Rabbit

A. Well, bad advice coming out my mouth would be nothing new, Gregg—and the "Beagle" reporter quoted me close to perfectly. In fact, I've been telling audiences that American rabbits aren't good diggers for many years now, often reminding the crowd of how we've all found nests of baby bunnies sitting on the surface, maybe camouflaged by some grass clippings, but otherwise out in the open. If Mom or Dad could dig, I ask, why wouldn't the babies be in a burrow, where they'd be much safer?

But, like many things I've repeated over the years in my talks, I can't recall the original source of my information; and your very thoughtful email had me wondering if I didn't get crossed up on this one somehow. The references you sent—both from great sources—didn't help me decide. The Wikipedia entry made it hard to figure out which kinds of rabbits do what, and which parts of the world those kinds of rabbits inhabit. And the U of C Bulletin was great advice for Californians, but they have eight different species of rabbits, and I couldn't tell how many—if any—were the kind that invade gardens here in the East.

And to make things even MORE confusing, the very next paragraph in that California Extension Bulletin reads: "If you don't bury the bottom of the wire fence, you'll need to stake the bottom edge to deter rabbits from passing beneath it" , which is darned close to my advice.

The more I researched, the more confused I became. Then Stephen Vantassel came to my rescue. The resident critter expert for the University of Nebraska at Lincoln School of Natural Resources, Dr. Vantassel coordinates the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management, a co-production of Cornell, Clemson, Utah State and the U. of Nebraska.

In his reply to my frantic "help me" email, he explained that while both articles quoted by our questioner specifically state that "all rabbits except cottontails burrow", they fail to mention that cottontails are the most widely distributed rabbit in the U.S., and are typically the types of rabbits that need to be kept away from garden plants and the bark of tender young trees.

Then, eerily echoing a line I use in my talks (right after I call the deeply burrowed Bugs Bunny a fraud for his Brooklyn accent), Dr. Vantassel added that, "European rabbits dig holes; Eastern Cottontail does not."
(http://icwdm.org/handbook/mammals/mam_d75.pdf)

And it turns out that even the American rabbits that do burrow aren't living in Warner Brothers style underground dens replete with pool tables and recliners. "Even the notorious blacktailed jackrabbit doesn't dig a deep hole," he notes; "it's more of a shallow depression in the ground." Other sources he sent me added that even rabbits who can dig deeply prefer to use old unoccupied underground dwellings (like abandoned groundhog holes) for their dens.

"I feel your pain;" he told me; "here at the ICWDM we deal with wildlife mythology all the time."

But this has been far from a painful experience. It was a very thoughtful question. I wound up being right, which never makes for a bad day. And doing research after such a challenge helps keep me from relying on old stale routines which might be wrong. Most importantly, the fresh knowledge I acquire leads me to hone my advice a bit and make it better. To wit, I will use a few extra words when discussing wascally wabbits from now on; something like, "most of the rabbits who attack gardens—especially in the East—are cottontails, and since they don't dig burrows, a low fence buried a few inches in the ground is all you need to keep them out."

And let this be a reminder to all that while there is much great information on the Net, sometimes even a good source—like Wikipedia or that Extension Bulletin from California—may lead you down the garden path.

And one reason we always pester people for their location is that it often makes a big difference in the answer; if you want info on rabbits in Pennsylvania, that's where you look for the advice—not on the other side of the continent.

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