21 March 1997

Hair-raising spray may reduce rabbit damage

HAIRY wheat crops which resist rabbit damage can be grown to order by treating ordinary varieties with soluble silicates, Central Science Laboratory investigators have found.

"Rabbits are the main vertebrate pests of cereals, causing tens of millions of pounds worth of damage a year. One approach to alleviate that is to make crops less attractive than alternative food supplies found in hedges or field margins," says Dave Cowan, a CSL research scientist.

Chemical repellents have been used in the past. But good ones are hard to find, and they do not protect new growth, he says.

Some wild cereals rely on hairs or spikes to deter grazing. Although intensive breeding has reduced that defence, CSL Research has found treating Mercia wheat with cheap and readily available soluble silicates encourages hairs to regrow. In recently completed trials, rabbits preferred less hairy untreated plants, he says.

Plants will only need protecting until early spring. As the chemical effect wears off quickly, new growth should be smooth, reducing the risk of irritable harvest dust, says Dr Cowan.

The treatment could be commercially available within three to four years.


This highly magnified image of a wheat leaf shows the small hairs which repel rabbit attack.

This highly magnified image of a wheat leaf shows the small hairs which repel rabbit attack.