Rodents, and Moles and Deer, Oh My!

    Being an ecological gardener can be challenging.  You want to be able to invite wildlife into your garden; but you don’t want your time and effort in growing your own produce or creating a beautiful landscape wasted just because some little critter ate more than you expected.

    Before you invest in plants and labor, try to anticipate animal pest problems.  If you are in a rural area, or know that a particular animal is present in your neighborhood—use that knowledge when planning your garden.   Alternatively, you should decide whether to continue to try and protect existing plants – or plant something different.  For example, try “deer resistant” plants if deer are a problem.

    Although it is often difficult because many animal pests are nocturnal, identification of the pest that is responsible for damage is essential for effective management.    Deer, rats, mice, voles, moles, rabbits, squirrels, pocket gophers, mountain beavers, raccoons, skunks, opossums, bears, and many bird species may cause damage.  The kind of damage or other signs such as paw prints or scat may help to determine the type of culprit.

   Next determine what are the benefits and costs of control vs. the economic and aesthetic cost of damage.  Also consider the value of the species ecologically, to your neighbors and whether it is legally protected.   Before deciding on a control measure, consider the possible effects on non-target organisms and the environment.

The general types of control methods in order of most ecological (least toxic) to least ecological (most toxic) are as follows:

1)      Elimination of shelter and availability of food and water:  Although not very practical in wilder areas, especially if you are trying to encourage other wildlife species, you should at least block critters from finding shelter in buildings and dispose your garbage and manage your compost pile properly.   Birdfeeders may need to be put away, at least temporarily.

2)      Distractions & deterrents:  You may try planting other fruit & nut species more preferred by wildlife than your food crops.  Scarecrows, owls, fluttering objects, reflectors may work temporarily but birds soon become accustomed to them.  Motion detectors attached to sprinkler systems may scare some offenders away.

3)      Barriers: Wrapping the base of young tree trunks may discourage rabbits or rodents from eating bark.  Placing netting over berry bushes or chicken-wire cages around young plants provides some protection.  You need a fence at least 8 feet tall to keep out deer, especially if you want to grow “deer-candy” such as apples or roses.   For burrowing animals, a barrier can be buried around the area you are trying to protect.

4)      Repellents are products that are sprinkled around or sprayed on foliage to discourage an animal from entering an area or that they find distasteful when they eat it.  Repellants need to be reapplied frequently to replace what may have washed away or to cover new growth.

5)      Traps:  Live traps, although considered “more humane,” leaves you with the problem of where to release the animal after it is caught!  You should be aware that all body-gripping and impaling traps, other than “common rat and mouse traps,” are illegal to use in Washington. 

6)      Baits or poisons:  Extreme care should be taken whenever toxic chemicals are used.  Accidental pet poisoning is tragic.  Also predators such as raptors that eat poisoned rodents could also be at risk.

    If we can alter our aesthetic ideals, it may be easier to learn to live with nature than to fight it.  As long as they don’t threaten our livelihood, allowing other animals to exist enriches our lives

(Some of this article was first published in the Peninsula Gateway on Feb. 2, 2011 as Landscape with Native Plants, for Soil’s Sake.)

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