Described as plentiful in southern Maine in the mid-1900s, today the New England cottontail holds on in less than 15 percent of its former range in the state. Forests have matured, and now interlocking tree canopies shade out the 5- to 15-foot-tall thickets that once provided rabbits with abundant hiding spots and food during Maine’s long winters.
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.
In times past, Scarborough Marsh must have seen Atlantic hurricanes topple trees, and uncontrolled fires rage across the land. But no hurricane has come calling in decades, and we have suppressed wildfires. The result? Lots of middle-aged woods, and little shrubland or young forest. So in 2011, conservationists used clearcut logging to replicate, in a carefully planned way, the effects of landscape-altering storms and wildfires.
These parks are a haven for humans with their shifting light and changing weather, their rocky headlands, their forests and brushy fields alive with wildlife. Bunnies probably don’t spend much time looking at the view: They’re hunkered down in shrub thickets, or feeding busily in grassy strips mowed in old fields. This area hosts what is probably Maine’s largest population of New England cottontails. (Watch one in action here.)
This scenic old farm almost got turned into a 37-house subdivision. Today Highland Farm Preserve is a wildlife paradise with its old fields and pastures, young forest, rock outcroppings, and vernal ponds. Conservationists are cutting down trees and planting shrubs to help New England cottontails – which means that lots of other wildlife benefit, too. Take a walk on the New England Cottontail Trail, or learn more here . . . .
Saws whined and trees thumped the ground as loggers harvested oaks and pines. Using shovels, digging bars, and plenty of elbow grease, volunteers planted native shrubs in old fields. These very different efforts are creating much-needed homes for New England cottontails, along with a host of other wild creatures from tiny flycatchers to furtive bobcats.
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?