Management Over Time
Managing habitat for New England cottontails and other wildlife can take many forms, depending on the acreage involved and the current condition or growth stage of the vegetation. While shrub areas often can be maintained fairly easily, creating new habitats or restoring older, overmature habitats may require more time, effort, and expense.
Landowners and managers can use mechanical cutting (done by hand with chainsaws, on up through large brush- and tree-removing machines); the careful use of fire (often called "controlled burning"); herbicide application to suppress exotic invasive shrubs in favor of native species; and planting native shrubs. Qualified natural resources specialists, including foresters with wildlife training and employees with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), can help landowners and property managers decide what will work best on a given site, plus guide them toward funding that may pay for management activities.
How Much Is Needed?
Because some management actions – brush-hogging a field, clearcutting a forest – can temporarily eliminate a certain amount of habitat, managers must ensure that rabbits will always have enough other habitat close by. A thoughtful management plan can shift habitat-creation efforts throughout a tract, keeping enough good cover over time and space so that cottontails thrive. Remaining core habitats should be at least 25 acres. Landowners with smaller holdings can cooperate with neighbors to put together larger habitat projects. Folks can visit demonstration areas to see what rabbit habitat looks like.
Think 5 - 5 - 5
Most shrub habitats will grow out of a usable condition after 20 to 25 years. (Wetlands and coastal shrub areas may last longer and may need less-frequent management.) Most young-forest habitat should be returned to an earlier growth stage after stem density falls below 20,000 stems per acre, which usually takes around 20 years.
Ideal is to divide a wooded area into habitat blocks 5 acres or larger, and log some of those blocks every 5 years; that way there is a constant cycling of young forest on the landscape. To benefit a variety of wildlife, conservationists recommend keeping at least 5 percent of a woodland in young forest. State private-lands habitat biologists and foresters with knowledge of wildlife can help landowners manage their holdings to achieve a healthy, wildlife-friendly mix of different-aged forest stands.