Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve, York County

Growing Great Habitat on a Research Reserve

A few years back, a big yellow machine spent a day on Wells Reserve acting like a giant lawnmower, cutting down old shrubs that weren’t doing much for wildlife. How can shearing off shrubs help wild animals? And what else have conservationists done at Wells Reserve to boost the local New England cottontail population?

Helping Cottontails

With its grasslands, brushy fields, and wetlands, Wells Reserve is a mecca for wildlife – and for people as well. The reserve protects 2,250 acres in southern Maine. Here, scientists study natural communities and monitor populations of fish, birds, and insects. Hikers watch wildlife from butterflies to bobcats – including thousands of resident and migratory birds – and may even glimpse a wary New England cottontail.

Biologist in dense cottontail habitat

Rabbits like cover this thick! A biologist wades through shrubs in early spring on Wells Reserve./C. Fergus

About that yellow machine: In 2006, conservationists used a hydro-ax to cut down 5 acres of straggling, overmature alder shrubs in two low areas. The machine did its work in winter when the ground was frozen to avoid causing erosion and soil compaction. Also, during winter the shrubs’ nutrients were stored in their root systems – which meant that, come spring, the alders grew back vigorously, sending up shoots by the thousands to the delight of the flycatchers, warblers, woodcock, and New England cottontails that live in such thickets.

The new dense alders provide prime cover for rabbits, which feed on the shrubs and use the thickets as highways to reach other areas, where they can find more food and shelter and raise their young. As well as beefing up the alder stands, conservationists are planting native shrubs such as dogwood, bayberry, and blueberry on nearby grasslands to create 5 acres of new dense growth along the edges of adjoining woodlands. Their goal is to build a network of linked habitat patches so there will always be at least 20 connected acres of top-quality rabbit habitat at Wells Reserve. Overall, about 70 acres will be managed to provide young forest and shrubland for bunnies.

In Years to Come

New England cottontail in habitat

Green food and protective cover equal good New England cottontail habitat./L. Cullivan

On 50-some acres where cottontails already live, cutting or brush-shearing will take place every few years, leaving plenty of intact habitat for the local rabbits. In wooded areas, managers will cut down small patches of trees to let sunlight reach the ground, spurring the growth of shrubs, weeds, and other plants that cottontails nibble on and hide in. Conservationists will “daylight” apple trees by cutting down taller trees that are shading out the apples, something that can harm the fruit trees’ health and productivity. (Cottontails and many other wild creatures love to eat apples.).

Non-native invasive shrubs – Japanese barberry, Oriental bittersweet, and tatarian honeysuckle – now comprise most of the thickets on Wells Reserve. It’s decent habitat for cottontails, but it’s not great. Research has shown that non-native plants can cause problems by drying out the soil and changing its chemistry. Once the invasive shrubs get too old and start to thin out, they don’t provide good cover for rabbits, especially in winter. And when they displace native shrubs, the invasive shrubs decrease the diversity of vegetation in a local area, which can translate into less food for wildlife. Over time, conservationists will gradually replace the invasive shrubs with native ones that provide better food and cover.

Come Visit!

Wells Reserve is a great natural place to spend a few hours or a whole day. The restored buildings of Laudholm Farm, south of Kennebunk, provide a center for research and education amid grasslands, shrubby pastures and old fields, forests, wetlands, a tidal estuary, and even a stretch of barrier beach.

Wells Reserve is just off Routes 1 and 9 near the Wells-Kennebunk town line. It is open daily, with a nominal admission fee from Memorial Day to Columbus Day. Seven miles of trails wind through different wildlife habitats; the visitors center has interpretive exhibits. To learn more about the New England cottontail management areas, contact Susan Bickford, GIS/Natural Resource Specialist, Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve, 342 Laudholm Farm Rd., Wells ME 04090, 207-646-1555 x 120, suebickford@wellsnerr.org.

Direct general questions about New England cottontails and their habitat needs to Jeff Tash, New England Cottontail Restoration Coordinator (Maine), 207-646-9226 x 32, jeffrey_tash@fws.gov.

Funding and Partners

Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve, Laudholm Trust, Environmental Defense Fund, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program and Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge), Maine Department of Conservation, Town of Wells, Natural Resources Conservation Service, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Wildlife Management Institute