Hunter holding a rabbit and gun.

8 ways to improve rabbit and squirrel hunting habitat

Deer habitat gets all the press. But there are a lot of simple projects you can do to improve your mini-game habitat. As a bonus, working on a habitat for rabbits and squirrels will benefit whitetails and turkeys, too.

One of the nice things about small game habitat projects is that you don’t need a lot of land to work on to improve the animals’ living conditions and increase their abundance. Even if you don’t own any land, chances are a neighbor, friend, or relative owns it. Most land owners who lease deer rights to you will also be happy to see some of these improvements made to their property. Be sure to discuss your goals, plans, and expected benefits with them before you get started.

Here are some of the projects I’ve used on my land in West Virginia to simultaneously increase rabbit and chipmunk populations and improve grouse, quail, and woodland habitat.

1) Create a Feather a Field Border

When rich mantle farms were the norm, this could have been a useless venture. There were densely wooded areas in every corner of the field and along the forest border. But with the widespread spread of modern agriculture and mechanized clean farming methods, few of these areas are left. Fix this by building the edges and corners of your field, and making a gradual transition from mature woods to open fields. Rabbits do not like to expose themselves in open areas and need these areas to be able to use nearby fields safely without fear of hawk or wolf attack.

Borders should be 25 to 50 feet wide, moving from taller shrubs near the forest to lower shrubs, grasses, and beneficial herbs near the open field. If you want to go the easy way, you can simply stop planting the edge of the field. Over a few years, weeds, seedlings, shrubs and useful herbs will grow.

The joint cuts down low-value trees like this red maple to create a feathered border from woods to fields. Gerald Elmy

Broomedge, which often takes over in uncultivated fields, is particularly beneficial to cotton according to Virginia Small Game Project leader Marc Puckett. “They are usually found near where blackberries grow, and they provide rabbits with food and cover,” he says. “Rabbits love it. When I was younger we used to jump around this group. They also love sumac. They eat bark near the ground in winter.”

In addition to not planting the edge of the field, you can speed up the process by planting other valuable shrubs along the border of your field. Good varieties include crabapple, raspberry, cervisberry, red ozier or silky dogwood, honeysuckle, indigo shrub, sumac, chincapine, and lepidice.

Another way to improve these border areas is to cut down some trees along the edge of the forest, leaving only a few mast producing or economically valuable trees. Leave the trees you cut partially attached, only the bark, so that they continue to grow and provide food and cover for small game and birds. Honeysuckle and grapevines will also grow and wrap around the tops of felled trees making it a little gamer’s paradise.

2) Planting fruit trees for rabbits and squirrels

Both squirrels and rabbits love to nibble on fruits. Choose a gentle, low slope or flat open area and plan to place at least six trees to ensure cross-pollination. Pastures, fallow fields, and natural waste are good places for farming. Ensure that the site is exposed to sunlight for at least six hours each day. Apples, pears, crabapples, and peaches are good choices. Persimmon is the best ever.

Bush with fruit on it.
Plant Fruit Trees – The persimmon, shown here, is one of the best trees. Gerald Elmy

To protect these trees while they are young, set up wire barriers or tree shields around them. Make sure they get water for the first few months. After it has solidified, add compost annually.

3) Plant oaks for mini game

If you have a lot of open land with meadows and fields, then dedicate some of it to oak trees. But not just any oak. Most oaks take 10 to 20 years to produce a mast. Saw oaks begin to bear fruit in only 3 to 6 years. Plant 20 to 80 seedlings 25 to 30 feet apart where there are no other oaks, and they will draw squirrels (and turkeys) like a magnet. Uncultivated fields are good places for a toothed oak grove. After six months, add a 10-10-10 or similar amount of fertilizer around the tree. Repeat annually at the outer edge of the tree’s crown as it grows. Fertilizer booms are appropriate for this targeted approach.

4) Even or disk strips in the fields

Open fields can be valuable for small game, but not if they are growing weeds or weeds such as blueberries, which provide no food or cover. Chances are that there are some seeds from beneficial native herbs and flowers hidden in the soil that have been outlived by unwanted plants. Release them and add them to the plant variety by tilling or slicing in the fallow fields. This also has the benefit of restoring the age structure of plants, preventing open ground from eventually growing into a forest, and enhancing the diversity of native plants—all pluses for young game species.

A man is riding a tractor on a piece of food.
Alternating even strips or pinching in fallow fields to stimulate growth of beneficial plants on the soil bank. Gerald Elmy

Pastures or fallow fields are great places to do this. Pinch a tape 10 to 20 feet wide, then skip over 40 to 60 feet and pinch another tape, alternating across the field. Rotate the strips on a disc for three years to allow plant succession to occur and the emergence of different local foods. Don’t get yourself too deep – a few inches will loosen the grass and release beneficial seeds like raspberries, raspberries, and brooms.

5) Cultivation of small pieces of food

Cutting food isn’t just for deer. If you’ve never jumped on a rabbit out of a clover patch, you haven’t done much cotton hunting. Place these diagrams near the field edge transition path you created along the forest boundary or in a natural space in the forest.

Kill existing plants well with glyphosate herbicide, then pinch the soil several times after existing vegetation has died. Make sure you have a hard, smooth seed.

Ladino clover like Imperial white-tailed clover or atypical clover Good options because they last from three to six years. For the best yield, first plant wheat or oats as a nurse crop to a depth of 1 inch, then plant them. Just before it rains, spread the alfalfa seeds over the wheat planting.

Rabbits will eat the new, tender sprouts of wheat all winter long. In the spring after it reaches 12 to 18 inches tall, prune it back and the clover will take over. As an option, let some slices of wheat grow. Alfalfa will still thrive, but the wheat seed will provide more food and will also attract game birds such as pheasants, quail, pigeons, and turkeys.

Plant small grains and alfalfa on log roads. Species such as sorghum, buckwheat and millet are very valuable for young animals and birds. Mix it up with some red and crimson clover and spread it out on wooden roads or drop-offs. To ensure the seeds get adequate sunlight, “daylight” the tracks by cutting down some trees along the border.

6) Create a water source for a mini-game

Small toy animals require water daily. Draw them into your land with a source they can rely on for 12 months of the year. Small ponds can be easily excavated with a backhoe on a mini-tractor. Look for low troughs that drain side ridges and dig down through the topsoil to reach a muddy bottom that retains water. State and county governments can provide advice, soil information, and any permits required. A good starting point is your local Soil Conservation Service office.

Pond with grass growing around.
Provide a year-round water source for small animals. Gerald Elmy

If you want something cheaper and faster, consider blocking a small stream from wet weather so that it retains water year-round. Use rocks and logs and build small dams by hand or by tractor. They don’t have to be pretty, just able to hold water all year round.

Another option is to dig a small area and put a plastic pond for children or a tank for livestock in it. Make sure there is a branch in the water that leads to land in case a rodent or rabbit falls into it so that it can escape. You may have to fill the tank occasionally. If it dries up, rabbits and squirrels will look elsewhere.

7) Make a small, clear cut

Squirrels like walnuts, walnuts, beech and other mast. But they do need variety in their environment, and rabbits desperately need more cover than a mature open forest can offer. Satisfy their needs with small, clear cuts, which provide both cover and food.

Leave a few high-quality mast trees in the cutting, as well as dogwood, but remove almost everything else. You will probably need to rent a pulp or firewood cutter for this project. If you try it yourself, be as safe as possible. Registration is dangerous.

Layout on irregular shapes and parcels with an area up to 2 acres. Seedlings and shrubs such as raspberries, green raspberries, blackberries, honeysuckle, and other valuable species will grow soon because more sunlight encourages new, lower growth. Have the logger push some of the tops into little piles for rabbit shelters.

A man pulls a tree.
Pull up red cedar or pine rub to add to brush piles to give rabbits extra heat protection during the winter. Gerald Elmy

read the following: Tired of your Treestand? Go out and jump some bunnies

8) Create brush piles for the bunny cap

Even if you haven’t removed any wood, you still need brush piles. If much of your habitat is open, creating strategically located pieces of brush will be very beneficial for rabbits. Cut down low value trees like red maple, some all the way, some part way. Group them at odd angles to provide passages under the mixture where the rabbit can hide, but there are many escape routes within easy reach.

Also add some pine trees or cut and pull red cedar from nearby fields to provide the animals with denser pine cover for the winter in addition to the felled deciduous trees. Several small brush piles are better than a large one, which can attract wolves. When your picks get a little slim in your rabbit hunt, head over to one of these brush piles or any other habitat improvement you’ve made. You’ll be almost guaranteed to go home with a bulge in your game bag.


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