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West Virginia beagle enthusiast struggles to protect rabbits

April 8, 2018

In this March 22, 2018 photo, Ballard Slone routinely releases a couple of dogs into his enclosure and allows them to trail and chase the rabbits on his property near Alum Creek, W.Va. Twice in the nine years since he turned the grassy field into a rabbit warren, Slone has seen cottontail numbers decline dramatically on the property. Twice he has responded by bringing in trappers to eliminate the predators responsible for the decline. (John McCoy/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP)

ALUM CREEK, W.Va. (AP) — It’s hard for a rabbit to make a living in West Virginia.

Prime rabbit habitat has become scarce. But even where habitat is good, predators can wreak havoc on cottontail populations.

Ballard Slone has seen it happen. Slone, a beagle field-trial enthusiast, created a 5-acre habitat for rabbits on his Alum Creek homestead. Rabbits loved it. Unfortunately for Slone, so did bobcats, coyotes and foxes.

“I created a smorgasbord for predators,” Slone said. “They were wiping me out.”

Twice in the nine years since he turned a grassy field into a rabbit warren, Slone has seen cottontail numbers decline dramatically on the property. Twice he has responded by bringing in trappers to eliminate the predators responsible for the decline.

“The first six years, I had no problems,” Slone said. “Rabbits reproduce like rabbits, so I had plenty of them after I got the habitat in place. I could walk the grounds with my wife and see 10 to 15 rabbits in a typical evening.”

Three years ago, however, he and his wife noticed they weren’t seeing nearly as many as usual.

“They started disappearing,” he recalled. “Then I started seeing bobcat and fox scat (droppings) with rabbit hair in them. I knew then that I had a predator problem.”

Slone had put plenty of time, effort and money into creating his 5-acre “rabbitat,” and he didn’t want to lose his investment to a gang of furry bandits.

“I knew that could happen,” he said. “I’d talked to a man down in Kentucky a few years ago who had built a 15-acre enclosure. He said it just didn’t work out because he couldn’t control the predators. No matter what he did, he couldn’t keep the predators out.”

Slone figured — correctly, as it turned out — that it might be easier to control the predator population on a 5-acre tract. After all, how many predators could be prowling such a small area?

Plenty, he discovered.

The winter after rabbits began disappearing, Slone asked a couple of friends to set out some traps on his property.

“We ended up catching three gray foxes, a red fox and a bobcat,” he said.

With fewer predators to dodge, the rabbit population bounced back. Once again, Slone’s beagles had plenty of cottontails to chase. Last summer, however, he started finding rabbit hair-laced predator droppings again.

“So, when trapping season began last November, I brought the trappers in again,” he said. “From November to mid-February, we caught a 20-pound female bobcat, a 30-pound male bobcat and two coyotes.”

Slone hopes the trapping effort will allow the rabbit population to bounce back yet again.

“I haven’t seen any fresh scat since then, and the rabbits seem to be doing well,” he said.

He knew when he developed the property that predators could be a problem, and he’s done his best to create habitat that not only kept the rabbits well-fed, but also kept them reasonably protected from predators.

“When I started this project nine years ago, most of the property was mowed lawn,” he said. “I didn’t want to mow, and I wanted a place where I could run my dogs. So I had a guy come in with a bulldozer to take out a lot of trees and create a flat perimeter to put a fence on.”

With the help of some friends, Slone surrounded the tract with vinyl-coated wire mesh to keep rabbits from wandering into the nearby woods where they could more readily be caught by predators. He reseeded the plot with Serecea lespedeza, a thick green ground cover, and blackberry bushes. He asked a friend who owned a skid-steer loader to create brush piles from tree slash and from autumn olive bushes he had cut down.

“Rabbits have to have places to hide,” Slone explained. “The thicker the undergrowth is, the better they like it.”

To give the rabbits extra places to hide, Slone placed lengths of ventilated 6-inch PVC pipe around the property. The pipes are small enough for rabbits to enter, but too large for predators.

Slone realizes that even those efforts aren’t enough to protect all the rabbits all the time.

“I’m still going to lose an occasional rabbit to a hawk or an owl, but nothing can be done about that because those are protected species,” he said. “I can do something about the foxes, the coyotes and the bobcats. It takes work, but it’s worth it because I have a place to train my dogs.”

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Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://wvgazettemail.com.

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