Rabbits seem to be everywhere. Are there really more than usual?

Peterborough gardeners have a new foe to contend with: hungry rabbits decimating their plants.
A rabbit out munching grass near the Rotary Trail. Rabbit sightings in Peterborough have risen dramatically in recent years. (Photo: Will Pearson)

As a gardener, Alison Potter knows the damage rabbits can do to a vegetable patch. But she never expected it to be as bad as it’s been this season.

Potter’s family grows a variety of vegetables and herbs in their north-end back yard. They’ve had a number of bumper crops over the years, and have only occasionally noticed visits from rabbits.

But this year is different. “We have definitely noticed a significant increase,” Potter said. “This year, the bunnies are prominent residents of our yard. I expect to see at least one or two every time we go outside.”

The bunnies are cute, and Potter’s youngest daughter delights in observing the docile, friendly creatures, she said. But the rabbits also wreak havoc in the garden. “This year, the bunnies have snacked on almost all our seedlings and we have really struggled to establish our plants.”

It’s not just in Potter’s neighbourhood. Across town at the Talwood Community Garden, people have noticed the increase as well. When Currents reached out, gardeners had just seen “six of them chasing each other” around, a gardener said.

Anecdotal evidence from across the city suggests Peterborough is in the middle of a rabbit boom, as the creatures are sighted more and more often in yards, parks and gardens. 

Dennis Murray, a professor at Trent who specializes in population dynamics and behavioural ecology, said he hasn’t personally noticed an increase.

But Murray offered some theories as to why rabbit populations might be on the rise locally. “Perhaps there is a site-specific effect related to fewer dogs or more cover than in previous years,” he said.

“Last winter was a bit milder than usual,” Murray added. “This could be beneficial at the tail-end of the toughest time of year for cottontail rabbits, which are at the northern edge of their range.”

There are two native species from the rabbit family in central Ontario, according to a spokesperson from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. They are the cottontail and snowshoe hare. Cottontails are the most likely ones to be spotted in Peterborough.

“Cottontail rabbit abundance fluctuates from year to year depending on environmental conditions, such as winter severity and food supply,” the spokesperson wrote to Currents. However, the spokesperson said the Ministry “does not actively monitor cottontail rabbit abundance.”

But they do monitor snowshoe hare populations at sites north of Peterborough, including in Algonquin Park and near Gogama, Ontario, the spokesperson wrote. “Snowshoe hares exhibit cycles in abundance that are 8-11 years long,” they wrote, and the hares “were in a lower phase of abundance” when they were last monitored in the summer of 2022.

Vern Bastable, the director of GreenUP’s Ecology Park, said he’s hearing more reports of people struggling with rabbits. “Here at Ecology Park we too had an increase in rabbit damage … [specifically] more damage to young tree bark,” he said. To protect young trees with delicate bark during the winter, Bastable recommends wrapping them with tree guards. During the summer, he recommends caging up plants with chicken wire.

Don Smith, coordinator of the Lakefield Community Garden, next to a newly-installed perimeter fence that has been successful at keeping out rabbits. (Photo: Will Pearson)

At the Lakefield Community Garden, rabbits became a big problem for the first time last year, according to garden coordinator Don Smith. “It would not be unusual to come here and see six or seven bunnies,” he said. “It was a smorgasbord for them.”

At the end of last year, gardeners told Smith that building a fence was their biggest priority. This spring they built perimeter fences with the help of students from Thomas A. Stewart Secondary School.

“They’re working,” Smith said. “No bunnies have gotten in.”

Smith hypothesized that the loss of a local predator is behind the rabbit boom. “We used to have a resident fox that kept the population in check,” he said. The fox “would sit on the little hill off the basketball [court] and watch me while I worked. I haven’t seen the fox lately.”

Beyond causing gardeners headaches, the rabbit boom might be telling us something about broader trends. That’s because rabbits are important indicators of larger natural processes — like climate change.

According to Forbes, rabbits could represent the next “canary in the coal mine” for the impacts of climate change, because they are especially impacted by temperature changes. 

The Forbes article stated that climate change would likely have different impacts on rabbit populations depending on species and location. While cottontails might benefit from warmer winters in Ontario, the opposite might be true for snowshoe hares, for example. 

For Shelley King, a board member of the Peterborough Field Naturalists, the rabbit boom has made her more aware of the interconnections of nature. King is an avid walker, and she knows that even when leashed her dog might injure or kill a rabbit.

“I love observing wildlife of every kind, including the rabbits,” she said. “I also witness how precarious their lives are, whether it be a bunny being taken by a hawk for food or an adult rabbit being hit by a moving vehicle. We’re very interconnected. Whether human, rabbit or hawk; we all contribute to each other’s experiences of wonder, joy, tragedy and sadness. Life is precious.”


This site uses cookies to provide you with a great user experience. By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy.

Scroll to Top