Different Kinds of Habitat
Visit demonstration areas to see cottontail habitat and learn more about creating, renewing, and maintaining it.
Following are brief summaries of management techniques for various 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 shrubs grow back densely. Every 5 to 15 years, cut down emerging trees before they shade out shrubs. Reclaiming fields where trees have been growing for more than 25 years calls for large machinery. Planting native shrubs may keep non-native invasive shrubs 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. (Cut these competing trees 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 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 leggy, overmature alders 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.
Mountain Laurel can provide adequate cover for cottontails. When shaded by mature trees, laurel stands can get too sparse and “leggy”; they can be made thicker by selectively harvesting individual forest trees or creating small openings in the forest canopy. Cutting or burning is another way to restore thick stands, since mountain laurel sprouts profusely from stumps.
Young Aspen Stands offer good habitat. Heavy cutting will promote growth of understory shrubs and plants such as blackberry, winterberry, alder, viburnums. After clearcutting in winter, aspens will resprout vigorously from their root systems. Periodic cutting or burning will restore a thick growth 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 dunes. Wind, flooding during storm tides, and salt spray keep vegetation shrubby and make 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 the cover thick.
Brushy Corridors let cottontails move between habitat patches. Powerline and railroad rights-of-way and shrubby roadsides offer dispersal routes as well as breeding, hiding, and feeding cover. Remove trees so they don’t get too tall and large and start shading out shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers that hide cottontails as they move across the landscape.
Field-Forest Edges exist where fields abut woods. Cut back field borders to create a "feathered edge" where shrubs, small trees, brambles, and wildflowers can grow. Fifty feet of edge is good; wider borders are better. A field-forest edge that wanders rather than makes a straight line yields more habitat. Feathered edges serve as travel and dispersal corridors for cottontails, keeping populations connected.
Invasive Shrubs may provide the only low, dense vegetation available to New England cottontails. Such species include honeysuckle, barberry, multiflora rose, and autumn olive. New England cottontails probably prefer native plants, but they will feed on and shelter among non-natives as well. Before launching an all-out effort to suppress invasives, leave enough shrubland to support local cottontails.