Ram Island Farm, Cumberland County

A Farm’s Ongoing Commitment to Cottontails

Can a family farm make habitat for New England cottontails and still remain a working, profitable enterprise? Absolutely, says John Greene, property manager at historic Ram Island Farm on Cape Elizabeth in southern Maine.

Helping Cottontails

Ram Island Farm lies along the coast 10 miles south of Portland. About half of the 2,122-acre property is forested; the rest is pastures, hayfields, shrublands, wetlands, dunes, and ocean beach. Sprague family members live on the farm, and there’s a horse-boarding operation with trails and bridal paths.

Rabbit feeding in brush

A New England cottontail feeds safely in thick brushland habitat on Ram Island Farm./J. Greene

Ram Island Farm is a great place for wildlife – an oasis in a region where development has surged. Thanks to the Sprague family’s generosity and conservation ethic, managers have begun creating and improving habitat for New England cottontails: shrubland and young forest that also provide homes for other native wildlife including American woodcock, ruffed grouse, brown thrashers, chestnut-sided warblers, yellow warblers, and northern black racers.

Timber harvests keep patches of young forest shifting about on the landscape, acting much like the natural disturbances, such as wildfires and floods, that in the past periodically produced the dense year-round vegetation that New England cottontails need. The sale of timber products returns a profit for the farm.

In 2007, when biologists surveyed the farm for cottontails, they identified 160 acres of existing and potential habitat, with a population of cottontails in place. Ram Island Farm lies near other important undeveloped lands, including Crescent Beach, Kettle Cove, and Two Lights state parks, giving this region great potential for providing the interconnecting areas of habitat that this kind of rabbit requires.

CCAAs a Helpful Tool

Property manager John Greene oversees the habitat work, which is aided by the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Workers in rabbit habitat at Ram Island Farm

Farm manager John Greene, left, and his work crew plant native shrubs (marked with yellow flagging) to improve habitat for cottontails./J. Greene

The plan sets up three cottontail habitat units, each 25 acres or larger. The project also demonstrates how a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances, or CCAA, can work. Drawn up by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and cooperating state agencies, CCAAs let landowners help wild species – those that are candidates for listing as “threatened” or “endangered” under the federal Endangered Species Act – while continuing to use their land and gain income from it. (CCAAs promise to be valuable tools throughout New England, where many of the region’s remaining native cottontail populations live on private land.)

Habitat management unit 1, on the northern part of Ram Island Farm, contains 33 acres; to the south, unit 2 has 39 acres; and unit 3, bounded on two sides by coastal dunes, has 25 acres. The units take in shrub swamps, coastal shrublands, old fields, overgrown orchards, brushy hedgerows, and patches of logged land.

The longterm goal is to make new cottontail habitat while maintaining and improving habitat that already exists.

Chestnut-sided warblers also use New England cottontail habitat

Chestnut-sided warblers are one of many wild creatures that also use the thick, brushy habitat required by New England cottontails./T. Berriman

Managers will enhance and expand mixed-species thickets having densities of at least 20,000 woody stems per acre, or about 46 stems in a 10- by 10-foot-square area – thick habitat indeed! New England cottontails need such tangles for feeding, avoiding predators, and surviving winter’s cold and snow. Conservationists will create this sort of vegetative density, or “structure,” in various tree and shrub communities in the three habitat management units.

During winter, Greene sets out motion-triggered video cameras to detect rabbits as they use manmade tunnels and brushpiles in the thickets. While he isn’t necessarily seeing more rabbits by day, he knows they’re around. “The evidence keeps coming in,” he says, “through the game cameras, tracks in the snow, signs of rabbits browsing on shrubs and other plants, and the pellets, or droppings, that they leave behind.”

Seth Sprague, president of Sprague Corporation, says simply of New England cottontails: “We like the little critters.” He notes that the different state and federal programs for helping landowners make habitat worked to persuade the family to launch the project.

How to Visit

Property manager John Greene conducts birding walks on Ram Island Farm and hopes to share his expertise with school students and other groups wanting to learn about New England cottontails and their habitat needs. Conservation-oriented groups wanting to visit should contact Jeff Tash, New England Cottontail Restoration Coordinator (Maine), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wells, ME, jeffrey_tash@fws.gov, 201-646-9226 x 32.

Funding and Partners

The Sprague Corporation, Environmental Defense Fund, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program), Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Wildlife Management Institute