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Rabbit Return

Every year, my brother-in-law’s family gathers at their homeplace for a reunion. After an evening of catching up, the men awaken at dawn and take to the field for a rabbit hunt. Then it’s time for a basketball game while the rabbits are prepared for the frying pan. After supper, the old-timers help their meal digest by spinning tall tales to the young folks.

It’s a tradition that dates to the Great Depression, when money was tight and putting together a major feast was more than just one household could afford.

The first time I attended one of these reunions, I heard wild stories about fields so thick with rabbits that breakfast was barely cold before you had your limit. It turns out that was one tale that wasn’t so tall.

Heavy snows that shut down many parts of the state in the winter of 1977-78 also decimated the rabbit population.

“In 1978, the rabbit population crashed and never bounced back to the levels they were in the 1960s and 1970s,” says John Morgan, upland game biologist for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife.

Add to that the growing loss of family farms to development, greater use of wildlife-unfriendly fescue grass, and the desire of many property owners to mow overgrown fields and fence rows, and Kentucky’s rabbit population hit rock bottom.

There is some good news, however.

“We’re doing well right now,” Morgan says. “The rabbit populations are up 6 percent this year, and have increased in four of the past five years.”

Part of the reason is better habitat and milder winters. More farmers are discovering the benefits of replacing fescue with native warm-season grasses. Unlike fescue, native plants grow in clumps and allow rabbits a place to hide. Although fescue is a hardy grass now in widespread use, it also carries a fungus that can cause reproductive problems in rabbits and cattle.

Simple things, like letting sections of a field go a few years without mowing or allowing blackberry brambles to grow thickly, can significantly boost the number of rabbits. Fields mixed with brush piles and heavy cover are great places to hunt—and to start your own family tradition.

Whether it’s a back yard or farm field, you can attract more wildlife to your property. Call Kentucky Fish and Wildlife weekdays at (800) 858-1549 for information about free Habitat How-To brochures.

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