Different Kinds of Habitat
How to Do It
Visit demonstration areas to see cottontail habitat and learn more about creating, renewing, and maintaining it.
Following are brief summaries of management techniques for different kinds of young forest and shrubland.
Old Fields stay useful to cottontails for 10 to 25 years after farming has ended. Brush-hog fields so blackberry and other thickets grow back densely. Every 5 to 15 years, cut down fast-growing trees before they shade out shrubs. Reclaiming fields where trees have been growing for more than 25 years calls for large machinery. Cut down and herbicide stumps of less-desirable invasive shrubs. Planting native shrubs may keep non-natives from dominating.
Old Orchards provide great food and cover for cottontails and many other wild animals. Keep them in good shape by “daylighting” apple trees: cutting down other, taller trees that cast shade on them. (Such trees generally will have trunks 3 inches or larger in diameter. Cut them into pieces and let them rot on the ground, or harvest them for firewood.) To keep shrubs growing vigorously between the apple trees, mow or brush-hog them every 5 to 7 years.
Shrub Swamps are thick with alder, blueberry, meadowsweet, buttonbush, dogwood, and willows. Remove large trees to keep them from blocking sunlight that shrubs need. In winter, cut back overmature alder thickets using chainsaws or tracked machines with mowing heads; the shrubs will grow back vigorously. Controlled burning every 10 years can help to keep shrub stands dense.
Young Aspen Stands offer good habitat. Aspens grow on dry and wet sites. Heavy cutting will promote growth of understory shrubs and plants such as blackberry, winterberry, alder, viburnums. After clearcutting in winter, aspens resprout vigorously from their root systems. Periodic cutting or burning will restore a thicket of young sprouts. Clearcutting other hardwood stands can also spur dense regrowth.
Pitch Pine and Scrub Oak Barrens occur on dry coastal sand plains, old pastures, and other sites with nutrient-poor soils. Cutting or brush-hogging every 10 to 40 years will keep cover dense, since these trees resprout from their cut stems. Controlled burning at similar intervals will help pitch pine and scrub oak by removing other types of trees that otherwise would overtop them.
Coastal Shrublands occupy the high salt marsh and adjacent uplands along the New England coast. They also grow on the back sides of dune and cobble beaches. Wind, flooding during storm tides, and salt spray combine to keep vegetation in a shrubby state by suppressing shrub growth and making it hard for trees to root and thrive. In less-exposed areas where shrubs and other plants come in more densely, use periodic mowing, shearing, or burning to keep cover thick.
Field-Forest Edges exist where fields abut woods. Cut back field borders to create a "feathered edge" where shrubs, small trees, brambles, vines, and weeds can grow. A minimum of 50 feet of edge is good, and wider borders are better. A field-forest edge that wanders (rather than makes a straight line) provides more habitat. Feathered edges serve as travel and dispersal corridors for cottontails, keeping local populations connected.
Invasive shrubs may provide the only low, dense vegetation available to New England cottontails. Such species include tatarian honeysuckle, barberry, multiflora rose, autumn olive, Oriental bittersweet. New England cottontails likely prefer native plants, but they will feed on and shelter among non-natives as well. Before launching an all-out effort to suppress invasives, make sure enough native shrubland or regrowing forest is in place to support a local cottontail population.