When the winter months arrive, many wild animals are left without a reliable source of food and begin munching on cultivated plants to make up the difference. According to the Ohio State University Extension, rabbit damage to young fruit trees is common, and horticulturalist Ron Smith of North Dakota State University confirms that peach trees can number among the victims.
During the winter season, much of rabbits' preferred food dies back or is covered by snow. According to the Iowa Cooperative Extension Service, between the months of December to February, tree bark becomes a primary food source for rabbits. During autumn and spring, when other food sources are present but not abundant, tree damage may also occur.
Rabbits will gnaw and consume the bark from your young peach tree from the soil or snow line to as high as they can reach. The process of removing bark around the entire circumference of the tree is called girdling and, through the destruction of vascular tissue that lies just beneath the bark, disrupts the distribution of nutrients throughout the tree. According to the Ohio State University Extension, girdled trees usually die in the spring. Peach trees with less damage may survive but become more susceptible to diseases, pests and weather damage.
According to the Iowa Cooperative Extension Service, rabbit damage occurs from about an inch above the soil or snow line to as high as the rabbit can stretch on its hind legs. Bark will show the distinctive marks of the rabbit's incisors. If your peach tree is still a sapling, marks will be parallel to the ground, as the rabbit must turn its head to feed on smaller trees. You may also observe rabbit tracks and droppings in the vicinity of your peach trees. Rabbits form tracks with the two large back feet together and the smaller front feet slightly staggered.
For the home gardener with just a few trees to protect, preventing rabbit damage is relatively easy to accomplish. Chicken wire fences exclude rabbits from areas with trees as long as the wire is buried a few inches into the ground to prevent digging. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension recommends flaring the fencing outward underground for added protection. If fencing isn't an option, protect tree trunks with chicken wire cylinders positioned at least 2 inches away from the tree trunk. Tree wraps also protect peach trees from damage. The Iowa Cooperative Extension Service recommends heavy-duty aluminum foil as a cost-saving homemade alternative to commercial tree wrap.
When protecting your peach trees, keep in mind that you must protect enough of the tree to be out of reach of rabbits standing on top of snow. According to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension, tree damage increases during extended periods of snow coverage, as rabbits have fewer food options and can easily reach higher parts of the tree.