“It’s right there, see it?”
“No.” I reply as I move a thorny branch to the side and squint my eyes and closely examine the leaf-littered ground. This was the fifth or sixth time one of the wildlife biologists had pointed out a cluster of small brown pellets right under my nose. I just couldn’t seem to find them until someone literally had their finger right on it.
“Oh, yes. Now I see them.” The round pellets suddenly came into view and I could clearly see that they looked very similar to the rabbit scat I remember from my childhood bunny. So what am I doing tromping around outside looking for rabbit scat? Well, I’m actually looking for rabbits – New England cottontail rabbits to be exact - but this might be as close as I get as they are very rare and quite good at hiding among the leaf-littered December ground.
It’s a Wednesday afternoon and I am walking through the woods – well, more like thorny thicket – that surround Stonyfield’s factory with the foremost experts on the threatened New England Cottontail rabbit species. Wildlife biologists believe there are only a few dozen left in New Hampshire and that Stonyfield’s land may hold up to a dozen or so of these rare little guys. They like to live in ‘messy’ places that are difficult to walk through – not yet forests but certainly not a field either. Over time this type of habitat has declined New England due to reforestation as well as development.
The New England cottontail is the native rabbit to New England. It is different than the Eastern cottontail rabbit, which is the kind most people see munching on their backyard garden. Eastern cottontails have larger eyes, which help them to spot predators more easily, and embolden them to venture into suburban gardens and open spaces, habitats where New England cottontails avoid. Despite their great hiding skills and a rabbit’s reputation for prolific breeding, the New England cottontail is being considered for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, and is currently listed as an endangered species in New Hampshire.
About six years ago, the land around Stonyfield was identified by wildlife biologists as prime habitat for the New England cottontail. In order to keep it that way, Stonyfield agreed to manage the landscape so that it provided the thicket habitat that cottontails love. My walk in the woods corroborated what the biologists had hoped – that the New England cottontails were indeed thriving in the environment created by Stonyfield, a very good sign. Despite all the signs I saw that day – hundreds of pellets, dozens of gnawed thorny shrubs, and two direct sightings by the biologists – I have yet to set my own eyes on the elusive New England cottontail.
If you’d like to help support this species, come run the Earth Day 5K at Stonyfield Farm on April 20th! A portion of the race proceeds is being donated to New Hampshire’s Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program to help support species conservation efforts. You can also learn more about the New England Cottontail at http://www.newenglandcottontail.org/.