As spring hits and we begin to prepare for the new growing season, gardeners are faced with the age old problem of nuisance wildlife. As wildlife rehabilitators, we receive many phone calls about groundhogs, deer, and rabbits entering and eating peoples' beloved gardens. Most of the time, people ask “Can you come trap this animal?” And our answer is...no! In fact, if we were to remove that one little groundhog, the likelihood of more animals coming into this now unclaimed territory is likely doubled.
To Trap or Not to Trap
More likely than not, your local wildlife populations have lived and thrived on your property longer than you have. It was their home first. Let’s put it this way, if someone were to kidnap you, drive 20 miles away, and “humanely” release you into an open field, how would you feel? You would feel afraid and unprepared to be in a new, unfamiliar territory. This is what happens when we relocate established wildlife populations. Animals feel pain, hunger, and fear, just like humans.
Let’s say you did relocate a groundhog. Assuming it isn’t a mom with babies left behind, there is now open real estate in your yard. This invites other animals such as raccoons, squirrels, skunks, and more groundhogs. Ultimately, removing this one groundhog indefinitely interferes with the structure of the biotic community. All animals play a vital role in our ecosystem. Trapping and relocating can do more harm than good. A quick fix is not always the answer.
So…What Can I Do to Protect My Garden?
There are many humane and effective ways to prevent our wild neighbors from becoming nuisances. The first option is exclusion. This may sound contradictory, but it is far more humane to run an animal off than to trap and relocate. To do this, you must make your yard uninviting to wild guests. (This tactic also works for keeping raccoons and squirrels out of attics). One way to do this is to put up motion sensor lights or set out a radio. Once the animals are gone, be sure to cover up the burrow/den completely ONLY after being 100% certain there are no babies. The exclusion tactic allows the animal to have autonomy and gives her ability to move her life elsewhere.
Another option is to use cayenne pepper. Sprinkling it on top of your soil and spraying it on your plants, is an eco-friendly way to deter wildlife from "wreaking havoc" on your garden. As many of us know, getting cayenne pepper in your nose is not fun! But unlike people, animals will not make the same mistake twice. You could also try using coffee grounds, castor oil, and garlic.
The third option would be to install a perimeter fence. I am personally not a fan of chicken wire, as it is really only good to keep in chickens! Animals such as raccoons, deer, and groundhogs will look at your chicken wire and laugh. A fence that will secure your garden needs to be some sort of welded hardware cloth.(https://www.lowes.com/pd/Garden-Zone-Actual-10-ft-x-3-ft-Gray-Steel-Welded-Wire-Rolled-Hardware-Cloth-Fencing/1000552603) Something that is not easily bent and manipulated. I would also suggest burying the underside portions of the fence to prevent clever rabbits and other animals from easily digging underneath.
Coexistence is Key
Gardeners know there are good and bad insects to have around, but did we ever stop to consider what animals could do if we allow them to live alongside us? A prime example is snakes! Most people will reach for their garden hoe as soon as they see a snake, but these animals mean you no harm. A healthy snake population keeps the rodent population at bay.
Native bird populations are also important to having a beautiful, thriving garden. Birds help by keeping bad insects away. In addition, birds help pollinate our gardens.
Other animals prefer to hang out in your garden at night. Bats are a great example of this! They are wonderful to have around because they predate on mosquitoes and other undesirable insects. Bats are considered nocturnal pollinators. Depending on the species, bats will drink nectar from a plant, similar to a bee! Installing a bat box nearby is a great way to encourage bats to stay our of your attic and stay in your garden!
While animals like skunks and opossums, may be temped to take a bite at some of your delicious fruits and veggies, the benefits of having them nearby outweigh the cons. The number one complaint we hear about skunks (other than smell) is that they dig up yards. If you see a skunk digging in your yard, it may be because it is digging for food. That's right! Skunks tend to feast on hornets, moles, mice, beetles, grubs, etc. Opossums on the other hand, are slightly less problematic as they don't dig and are not very fast. They eat many of the same things as skunks, in addition to snakes, ticks, and rats. These omnivorous mammals are truly nature's pest control!
So, before you reach to kill that snake you just found or attempt to trap that unsuspecting skunk, think about the role they play in your garden and in our ecosystem as a whole. Even the animals that aren't "cute" are important and play a part in the big picture.