By Mike McCoy, Executive Director, Kern County Museum
With the Easter season now safely passed, we can bring up the subject of rabbits and their negative impact on Kern County Agriculture. Rabbits have been part of the San Joaquin Valley for centuries and thrived in the wet marshy conditions of pre-European Central California. The native American tribes used small game including rabbits as a regular part of their diet, and their furs were used for clothing and bedding. With a number of human and animal predators in the lush valley, wild rabbit numbers were kept to a balanced level.
With the creation of valley farms in the 19th century, the rabbit population exploded. Many of their natural predators such as bobcats, hawks, owls and cougars were eliminated. Farmers laid out huge fields of grain and alfalfa for their dining pleasure. Their well-known propensity for breeding took over and soon the new farms were overrun with the brush rabbit (S. bachmani), the cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii) and jack rabbits (Lepus californicus). Because of its size and breeding abundance, the jackrabbits were the most destructive.
To combat the problem, early California farmers organized regular rabbit hunts. These were not your cartoon Elmer Fudd hunters with a shot gun or small gauge rifle. These were large events that involved dozens of people. Typically, a large group of men and boys would create a large, fenced enclosure about four feet tall in the center of a mown field. They would then spread out in a large circle and beat the bushes driving the rabbits toward the fenced area. Soon the fenced area was filled with hundreds of rabbits. Boys would then club the rabbits. It was a wild scene and well-remembered by old timers who participated in the hunts in Taft, Buttonwillow, Old River, and the desert near Lancaster.
One observer remembered a huge rabbit drive in 1892 near the Mountain View Dairy about 13 miles southwest of present-day Bakersfield. That year had been eight large drives in January, February and March. The chronicle estimates that 135,000 rabbits were killed in those eight drives “sparing the farmers in the end of the valley from surrendering their farms to the pests.” Rabbits still present a problem to Kern County Farmers but not in the locust like numbers of the late 19th and early 20th century.
You’ll usually find jackrabbits in open or semi-open areas of California’s valleys and foothills but seldom in dense brush. Once they find a habitat they like, jackrabbits are quite adaptable. In Kern County they are found near green belts, golf courses, parks, and farmland. The airport has been a popular habitat. They make a depression in the soil, called a “form,” beneath a bush or other vegetation and use it for hiding and resting during the day. Jackrabbits depend on speed and dodging to elude predators. In Kern County’s rural areas, there is an average density of about 2 jackrabbits per acre, but during breeding season, this number can increase.
Jackrabbits breed from late January through August, although breeding is possible during any month of the year when the weather cooperates. Litters average between two to three young, and jackrabbits can have as many as six litters per year. Young jackrabbits are born fully furred and with their eyes open. Within a day after birth, jack rabbits can run and evade capture.
Rabbits can be very destructive in gardens, farms and landscaped places. They also gnaw and cut plastic irrigation lines, especially small diameter tubes. You can protect these by hanging them out of the reach of rabbits or by encasing them in regular 3/4-inch PVC pipe. Most rabbit damage is close to the ground, except where snow allows rabbits to reach higher portions of plants.
For control measures, all California rabbits are game mammals. Farmers and their employees can control rabbits anytime or in any legal manner if the rabbits are damaging crops, landscaping, ornamental plants, or gardens. No license is required for the owner or tenant to take rabbits doing damage.
For most farmers, the best way for long term mitigation is fencing with poultry netting. Use 48-inch-tall wire and bury the bottom at least 6 to 10 inches into the ground. Bending a few inches of the fence bottom outwardly will further deter rabbits from digging beneath it. Electric netting, a type of electric fence, also is suitable for rabbit control. It is designed for ease of installation and frequent repositioning. Electric netting is intended for temporary use is perfect for seasonal gardens.
Various chemical repellents can reduce or prevent rabbit damage. They are most useful when you apply them to trees, vines, or ornamentals. These products work by creating an unpleasant odor, taste, or stickiness. Research has shown that repellents with whole-egg solids can reduce rabbit browsing. Apply repellents before damage occurs, and reapply them frequently, especially after a rain, heavy dew, or sprinkler irrigation or when new growth occurs.
One night a couple years ago, I was playing in a night golf tournament at the Buena Vista golf course using golf balls that lit up. My friend and I rode the cart over a hill and the entire ground began to move. The green was filled with hundreds and hundreds of rabbits. We sat in the cart marveling at seeing a thousand rabbits in one place. No wonder the greens were so closely clipped. Time for a round up?
Thanks to the University of California Davis for the information on rabbits and the Morning Call Newspaper for accounts of early hunts.