Bluebell had been saying that he knew the men hated us for raiding their crops and gardens, and Toadflax answered, “That wasn’t why they destroyed the warren. It was just because we were in their way. They killed us to suit themselves.”
― Richard Adams,
The cottontail rabbits that live on our place have a cozy deal.
They have shelter in the woods, they raid the garden all summer and early autumn, they eat discarded greens from the compost pile after the hard freezes of late fall, and they nibble bark from young trees and feast under the bird feeders through the winter. Posh accommodations for rodents.
In exchange, they let our two bird dogs chase them around the perimeter of the yard three or four minutes each morning when they first get out of their kennel runs. Neither Sasha nor Abbey has ever caught a rabbit, but they take great joy in the pursuit. And for some reason, perhaps an anthropomorphic empathy created by reading “Watership Down,” we like having the rabbits here.
Yes, replanting rows of beans that have been eaten down by the bunnies is more than an annoyance, but we do like to sit on the deck on a warm summer evening and watch them socialize, dance, scuffle, nuzzle, and feed (in the woods, not the garden). We do not pretend to truly understand how each piece of the wildlife puzzle fits into nature’s grand drama on our farm, but we want the rabbits to remain actors on the stage, the same as the redtail hawks, deer, foxes, crows, toads, moles, rat snakes, coyotes, the dozens of types of song birds – all the thousands of species that play roles in the production.
Maintaining suitable environment for the rabbits requires some effort on our part, more than you might think. They may be an invasive pest in Australia, but in the North Country of the upper Midwest their numbers have been declining. Their habitat has diminished as farms have become huge tracts of agricultural industrial land bathed in herbicides, insecticides, anhydrous ammonia fertilizers, and other chemical poisons.
Our own woodlands have become less beneficial to wildlife over the past thirty years as the hardwood trees have grown tall and canopied, shading out the undergrowth. A mature northern forest is a beautiful place for a morning walk and a contemplative setting for deep thoughts about life and purpose, but it is not the best environment for most wild species, certainly not for cottontail rabbits. Fortunately for them (and me), I have been able to offset some of this habitat loss through the creation of dozens of brush piles that my wife calls “rabbitat.”
Most rabbitat on our farm is a by-product of cutting dead trees, some for firewood, some to clear driveways and paths, and some to bring down the “widow makers”: toppled trees that are caught in the branches of adjacent trees, awaiting their Murphy’s Law moment to come crashing down. Elms are prolific but doomed trees in our part of the world. Dutch elm disease infects virtually all elms when they reach about twenty-four inches girth, and they die slowly over the next several years. Forlorn skeletons standing here and there in our woods, these dead elms shed their bark and small branches over the course of a couple harsh winters, and then they are ready for their ultimate destiny in the wood stove.
Once felled, the trunks are cut into foot-long sections and stacked to await the splitting maul. Actually, in my senior years, they await the hydraulic splitting machine. The larger limbs are also cut into stove-sized lengths and hauled directly to the woodpile. The small limbs and branches – and the snarled tangle of wild grapevine, creeper, bark, and other “junk” – gets tossed into a pile during the process. Perfect rabbitat.
Do not make a pile the size of your kitchen table, a shelter too small to protect a rabbit family from even mild weather and no safeguard at all from predators. Make the pile the size of your kitchen, or bigger. A two-tree pile is good. A three-tree pile is better. A four-tree pile is excellent.
Come spring, avoid that arsonist’s urge to set a match to these brush piles. For some reason, city folk seem to think a brush pile in the woods is a blemish. I think it is a beauty mark. The more the better. There are at least a dozen on our place, and they provide habitat for many species of wildlife, not just the rabbits.
One cool October evening a couple years ago, while I was watching the rabbits socializing on the “porch” of their rabbitat brush pile east of the house, an unexpected, nostalgic memory of rabbit hunting as a ten-year-old boy filled my mind. I was briefly tempted to get the .22 rifle and pick off a cottontail bunny or two for the stew pot. But I couldn’t do it.
There I sat, cup of hot coffee in hand, watching the last shadows of evening fade away to darkness, quietly enjoying this moment of autumn beauty and wonder in a world that seems to have fewer and fewer such moments. And that, I thought, is probably what the rabbits are doing, too.
I have my comfortable and secure habitat, they have theirs. Let’s savor it for a peaceful hour.
Tomorrow morning, Sasha and Abbey can chase you rabbits all around the brush piles again.
If you enjoy reading posts on this Dispatches from a Northern Town blog, you may like my novel, Hunting Birds, available in paperback or in Kindle edition at Amazon.com