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Helmut Schmidt, Published July 08 2012

Tips for gardeners trying to halt the bunny buffet

FARGO - Hear that wailing?

That’s gardeners in the metro area after rabbits with big, sharp, pointy teeth have turned their carefully maintained spreads into all-you-can-eat bunny buffets.

Those flower and vegetable lovers are going through the stages of garden grief: Denial. Anger. More Anger. And more anger still.

Who needs the other stages when you want to go all Elmer Fudd on their hopping heinies!

No scheme is too hare-brained for the desperate if there’s any hope of protecting their petunias, parsnips, peas or pansies.

Janice Tuel spent 20 years fighting the good fight in north Moorhead, but she’s gone into full defensive mode with her recent move to south Fargo.

“The very first time I discovered them, I thought they were cute,” Tuel said.

Now?

“I hate the little buggers!”

It started with a brand new plant. She likes miniature hostas. Some of them are $25 a pop. The next morning …

“There was nothing but a stalk left. My hatred started growing from there,” Tuel said.

If she found nests, she rousted the occupants. She tried poison, but gave it up for worries about neighborhood pets and her grandchildren. She live-trapped, but they mostly ignored her baits for the growing things outside of the cages. She went for firepower but nothing of the killer caliber.

“I have a pellet gun, and I got pretty good, but it just didn’t deter them,” she said.

“Nothing stops them. Nothing. I’ve tried pepper spray, fox urine. Fox urine!” Tuel said.

“Every winter, no matter what I do, they chew down my clematis down to the snowline,” she said.

When she found snowbank rabbit runs by her house, she stamped out the squatters.

“I’d be tromping away down at the snow. I was the crazy woman. I thought if I kept it (the snow) down, they couldn’t live next to my house,” Tuel said.

At her new south Fargo digs a couple of blocks south of Doolittle’s, she has a fenced backyard.

“I’ve used hardware cloth all around (the bottom of the fence). I have a shed which they live under. My plan is to lift the shed, and fill in underneath,” she said.

“But, south Fargo has rabbits, rabbits and rabbits,” she said, noting that four were congregating in the street the other day.

These rabbits are bold, she said. They’re like rabbit delinquents, just needing cigarettes, beer and tattoos saying, “Hopping to heck!” to fill out the part.

“I’ve gone running out at night in my nightgown, yelling, ‘Yahhhhh!’” Tuel said. “I’d chase the rabbits. Never. Caught. One.”

To the ramparts!

Amber Dew admits to being “kind of a softy” with rabbits.

But this is war. And if Peter Rabbit wants to get too aggressive, well, it’s bunny kebab time.

Dew, a student who lives near the Cass County Courthouse, spent nearly $400 on plants this year.

She figures she’s lost about half of that. And that doesn’t include what’s gone that she planted last year.

She’s used bone meal and blood meal, hoping the scent would work, but now she’s using Iron Age tactics.

Dew installs “ramparts” around her tender plants.

Using wooden shish kebab sticks, she creates spiky wooden barriers around the plants.

Think of the coneflowers as little Roman centurions, and the bunnies as barbarians. You get the picture.

“I take wooden skewers, insert them into the ground at all angles to protect my land,” Dew said.

Odd as it sounds, it works.

“Every once in a while I find a broken rampart. If there’s something pokey, they’re not going in there. This week, it’s been fairly successful,” Dew said.

Hold your fire, Mr. Fudd

Rabbits are a gray area with law enforcement.

First off, you definitely can’t use guns or BB guns or bows in town, says Kari Waller, a community service officer with the Fargo Police Department who works the animal control beat.

No matter how effective a .22 bullet is in sending Thumper to the big rabbit warren in the sky, it’s a misdemeanor offense to discharge firearms in the city limits of Fargo, Moorhead or West Fargo.

Poison is usable, but it can be a danger to pets and children, Fargo police Sgt. Ryan Dorrheim said.

You can live trap rabbits and try to relocate them, Waller said.

Smiting one lustily with a shovel or a garden hoe might get a pass. But actions that could be considered torture, such as drowning, would be illegal, and could pull a fine in Fargo of up to $500 for animal cruelty, Waller said.

It’s far safer, legally, to stick with a defensive strategy, like fencing, Waller said.

She said human hair, dog hair, moth balls and sprays available at lawn and garden stores are sometimes effective, too.

Know your enemy

Cole Rupprecht, a Cass County Extension agent for agriculture, raises rabbits.

He’s said a fence will do the trick, as long as it’s not wood or plastic, which can be chewed. Chicken wire works especially well, he said.

Rabbits are finicky when it comes to smell, so using repellent scents makes sense: blood meal, moth balls or hair can be a deterrent, he said. But they must be applied often.

Rabbits like new growth, Rupprecht said. Soybean seedlings are toast if they can get to them. Same goes for alfalfa and leafy greens and green vegetables.

“They like to eat the tops off most things,” he said. And they roam around, grazing from garden to garden, he said.

Rabbits look like rodents but aren’t. They’re lagomorphs, Rupprecht said. Their digestive systems are similar to a horse, so they’ll eat pretty much what a horse will eat.

Rabbits are similar to hares, but rabbits are born hairless and blind.

Jackrabbits are actually hares. They are seen more on the edges of the metro area in less habited areas, Rupprecht said.

Rabbits do breed fast.

A rabbit is mature in as little as six months. The gestation period for a litter is 28 days, Rupprecht said.

Keep a watch cat

Lynn Propp of Wheaton, Minn., has found the perfect anti-rabbit ally.

It’s Echo.

His cat.

The 8-year-old kitty has been keeping the Propps’ many gardens free of rabbits for years. As have the family’s previous two cats.

In all, the Propps have enjoyed 42 years of relatively rabbit-free gardening, thanks to their ferocious feline fence.

“They’re housecats, but they can come and go outside anytime they want to. They always stick around the house,” he said. “All our cats are always females. Cats are extremely territorial. Anything on their territory, they defend.”

Propp said he and his wife have hedges. The cats simply kill the small and half-grown rabbits in the hedges, he said.

“Real little, they’ll eat off the heads and bring up the bodies and leave them on the steps for us. Kind of like bringing home groceries,” Propp said.

None of their large vegetable and flower gardens gets chomped, he said.

“So I think the cat’s presence. She’ll sit out on the back step. She’s like a watcher,” he said. “It’s good to have a watch cat.”


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583