Rabbits: Management options for preventing damage (TIN003)

Lethal control methods

Shooting

Shooting is a popular method of rabbit control and is most effective when conducted at night, using a spotlight.

The Ground Game Act 1880 gives an occupier the right to shoot rabbits on his land during the day and to authorise in writing one other person to do so. The person must be a member of the occupier's household or staff or be employed for reward. Under the Pests Act 1954, an occupier may apply to Natural England  for authority to use a reasonable number of extra guns, if the owner of the shooting rights will neither permit the occupier to bring on extra guns, nor undertake to destroy the rabbits himself, and it is necessary to use more guns than the occupier has the right to authorise.

Under the Ground Game Act 1880 as amended by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, the following are allowed to shoot at night:

  • An owner-occupier with shooting rights.
  • A landlord who has reserved his shooting rights.
  • A shooting tenant not in occupation who has derived his shooting rights from the owner.
  • An occupier or one other person authorised by him provided he has written authority from another person with shooting rights.

The Firearms Act 1968 requires any person possessing, purchasing or acquiring a shotgun to obtain a shotgun certificate from the police. A firearms certificate is required for rifle use.

Single shooting operations are not particularly effective and reduce rabbit numbers by only about 30%. The technique should only be used therefore as an adjunct to more effective control methods or to remove problem individuals that cannot be disposed of by other means. Shooting also tends to target adult males and therefore has a relatively limited effect on the breeding potential of the population the following spring unless considerable time and effort are expended.

Baited cage trapping

This technique involves the live capture of wild rabbits in galvanised wire-mesh cages baited with carrot. The technique can be used throughout the year, but is most effective at catching adult rabbits during the winter. Additional benefits are that the technique does not require access to burrows and non-target species can be released unharmed.

The traps should be set in short open vegetation and checked twice a day, early morning and late afternoon. Captured rabbits must be dispatched humanely. Cage trapping has been shown to reduce numbers by about 65% and is most appropriate for protecting high value crops where manpower is available for frequent checking of traps. A detailed advisory leaflet on the use of cage trapping is available from Natural England  (see under Further Information).

Drop box trapping

Drop boxes are designed to be used in conjunction with wire-mesh netting. A tunnel is either inserted into the fence line at right angles or placed parallel to the netting on the harbourage side of the barrier. Rabbits are caught when they enter the tunnel and fall through a hinged flap into a box that has been buried in the ground. The lid returns to place by means of a counter balance weight fixed to it.

Drop box traps should be visited at least once a day, when set, preferably early in the mornings. Captured rabbits must be despatched humanely. Traps should not be installed where they may be at risk from flooding. Permanently sited traps can be an effective method of capturing rabbits where fences are newly erected and where rabbits are passing through holes in established fences.

Spring trapping

Under the Pests Act 1954, only approved spring traps designed to catch and kill rabbits humanely may be used. Those currently approved by the Spring Traps Approval Order 1995 are the Imbra Trap Mark I and Mark II, Juby Trap, Fenn Rabbit Trap Mark I, Fenn Vermin Trap Mark VI (Dual Purpose), Springer No. 6 (Multi Purpose), Victor Conibear 120-2, BMI Magnum 116, and clones of any of these listed spring traps.

Spring traps generally consist of a pair of clamps that are triggered to catch rabbits that step onto a plate mechanism. The traps should be set firmly in position with the treadle plate flush with the floor. The plate should be concealed by covering lightly with soil. To minimise the risk to non-target species, stock and pets should be excluded from the trapping area and the traps must be set only within the overhang of natural or artificial tunnels.

The Protection of Animals Act 1911 requires that all spring traps set for the purpose of catching rabbits (or hares) should be inspected at reasonable intervals and at least once every day between sunrise and sunset.

Snaring

Snares are intended for use to tether animals for subsequent humane despatch. They are made from stranded brass wires that run freely through a small eye made in one end of the wire. The looped end of the wire (100 mm (4 in) diameter), into which the animal places its head, is positioned about 90 mm (3 in), above the ground using a short, notched stick (the 'pricker' or 'teeler'). The free end of the wire is securely tethered by a strong rot-proof cord to a peg, which is driven firmly into the ground. This prevents captured animals from escaping. Snares with a 'stop' or knot about 140 mm (5 in) from the eye can be used. The 'stop' prevents the loop from closing fully, thus ensuring the snare tethers rather than kills the rabbit. Snares should be set on well-used rabbit runs, in short vegetation, close to the harbourage from which rabbits are gaining access to crops. Where rabbits are numerous, the use of well-placed snares can catch animals quickly and efficiently, but results are poor during dry weather and frost.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 prohibits the use of self-locking snares and requires legal snares to be visited daily. Care is needed in their siting since the law requires that all reasonable precautions be taken to avoid catching protected species such as the badger. It is recommended that they are inspected at dawn and dusk, and that they are not set where livestock are present or if there is a risk to domestic pets.

Ferreting

This involves the introduction of ferrets into the burrow system. The ferrets drive rabbits into nets, which are placed over the burrow entrances or to waiting guns that shoot them as they bolt from tunnel entrances. Ferreting is most successful outside of the breeding season and, having the advantage of capturing more females than males, may serve as a valuable technique for dealing with intransigent populations. However, the method is time consuming and, when used in isolation, is unlikely to produce effective control of rabbit infestations.

Damage reduction methods

Tree-guards

Individual tree guards and shelters can be used to protect young trees and shrubs from rabbit browsing and bark stripping where it is impractical or uneconomic to enclose them with fencing. There are many types available including plastic net guards, split plastic tubes, spiral plastic sleeves and welded mesh cylinders. Spiral plastic sleeves are perhaps the least successful because they tend to be displaced by wind or animals. The effectiveness of split plastic sleeves and net guards is greater because they are more robust. To effectively reduce rabbit damage tree guards should be at least 60 cm (2 ft) high. 

Repellents

The use of repellents can be expensive, and does not always provide long-term protection from attack by rabbits. Any benefit they can provide is often offset when, as is often the case, repeated applications are necessary. Their use should therefore be restricted to small plantations or to areas that cannot be protected in any other way. Only repellents approved under the Control of Pesticides Regulations 1986 may be used. Users must comply fully with the label instructions.

Further information

In England further advice on dealing with rabbit problems, as well as problems caused by other mammals and birds can be obtained by contacting the Natural England Wildlife Management & Licensing Service at: Wildlife Licensing Unit, Natural England, Burghill Road, Westbury-on-Trym, Bristol, BS10 6NJ. Tel: 0845 601 4523 (local rate). Email: wildlife@naturalengland.org.uk.

A range of leaflets on wildlife topics is available online www.naturalengland.org.uk. In particular see:

The Forestry Commission produces a number of publications and these can be obtained from Publication Section, Forest Research Station, Alice Holt Lodge, Wrecclesham, Farnham, Surrey GU10 4LH. Tel: 01420 23337.

The Health and Safety Executive Agriculture Information Sheet No. 22 Gassing of rabbits and vertebrate pests is available via their Infoline (Tel: 08701 545500) or online at www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/ais22.pdf.

This leaflet was produced by Natural England and the Central Science Laboratory, now known as the Food and Environmental Research Agency (FERA).

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