War on homestead invaders…

Squirrel with a nut

Ever fight an urban squirrel? It’s not pretty. I like squirrels, but there are some creatures that need to go. I wasn’t happy when they took one bite of every tomato, then left it to rot, but when they ate my house, that was it. That was the line in the sand.

By “ate my house” I mean they ate a hole in the soffit vent, crawled in the wall, and moved in.

“I don’t hear a thing!” my husband said. I did–every morning and evening I heard something in the walls.  The exterminator agreed. “Yup, they’re active at 5:30 AM for breakfast and about dinnertime you’ll hear them again.”

Cost of eviction?

“Could be $200, or could be $2000,” he said. “We’ll trap and relocate them.”  No thanks. They had to go. We put the battle plan in action. First, we reinforced the soffits. We did this in the middle of the day when they were up and out in the neighborhood. Then, we sent them packing–to the Lord’s garden, one by one.

I felt bad, but it was necessary. These cute little veggie thieves also eat wires, nest in insulation, and tunnel through walls causing thousands of dollars in damage. I once saw a squirrel take a peanut butter jar from the recycle bin up into a tree, then toss it at the elderly neighbor’s head when it was empty. Squirrels–and any creature, really–are no joke.

Even on the Poser Homestead, where I can order a pizza if the animals take over my garden–it’s important to pick battles wisely. With a little bit of knowledge, I can win. Every victory means I get to eat bit more of my own homegrown food.  In this article I talk about how Charlotte the Farmer helped me get over my stubbornness about plant sprays.

“Look, no one wants to spray, but you want to eat, don’t you?” I learned to diagnose bugs and blight early, when things are easier to treat. Battling creatures can be a bit more challenging, though, because not all creatures are created equal.

First, learn the big creature picture

It’s easy to say, “There’s a something eating my garden,” and nuke it, but, that might be a bad choice. I killed swallowtail and monarch caterpillars for two years before I realized what they were. I just saw fat bugs eating my dill. Now I plant extra dill for them. We share.

It’s easy to get things wrong without knowing the big-picture ecology.

Here’s an extreme example. In 1958, China’s Chairman Mao Tse Tung went to battle against the “Four Pests.” On the surface, it made sense to combat mosquitos, rats, and flies. They spread disease.  Sparrow earned the #4 pest spot because they eat several times their weight in grain.

But, you know what else sparrows eat? Bugs–the types of bugs that wipe out crops. Villagers banged gongs to scare sparrows away from their nests (they’ll die of exhaustion). This pushed them to near extinction, leading to a plague of locusts which now had no natural preditor.

By the time Chairman Mao figured this out and swapped in “bed bugs” as the forth public enemy, it was too late. Locusts swarmed the countryside, contributing to the 1959–1961 famine that killed over 30 million Chinese people.

I won’t starve if my garden fails, but if I build on the natural balance in the garden, Mother Nature can do the heavy lifting for me.  Before I get rid of a pest, I take a look at how they affect the big picture, then decide whether to send them packing.

Hawks:

  • The bad: One ate my chicken, and a nest of baby robins I was watching. And, they’re loud. They sound like seagulls on crack every single day outside my window. I want to hire a more musical bird to give them singing lessons or buy them a mute button.
  • The good: They’re beautiful. They eat mice and rats, both of which used to be pretty abundant.  I don’t see them much since Hawk Family moved in.
  • Cost of removal: High/difficult. I can’t shoot them (it’s illegal) and I’m not climbing a tree to ask them nicely to shut up or leave.
  • Verdict: Hawks can stay.

Mice:

  • The good: Cute. Cuddly.
  • The bad: Disease carrying. They ruin anything made of cardboard or cloth. They can eat wires, chew through plastic and contaminate food.  They stole rice and dried beans from my pantry and placed them in piles in corners of the basement.  This attracts other creatures. They’re prolific breeders–one never has “just one mouse.” You have a million.
  • Cost of removal: It can be pretty low with traps and poisons, but it’s a process. Poisons are be dangerous to kids and dogs, and if a mouse gets sick and escapes before it dies, whatever eats it can die, too. Even no-poison traps are gross. Someone’s got to check, empty, and reset them.
  • Verdict: Evicted. Mice cannot stay.  But, keeping the hawks means I don’t have to battle the mice.

Rabbits:

  • The good: They’re cute and cuddly.
  • The bad: Wipe out veggies. The cute baby bunnies I saved from the blackberry net wiped out my greens in one night. They also like chicken food as a snack.
  • Cost of removal: High. Once a rabbit feels secure, it’s staying–and breeding. I’d have to dig my garden fence down a foot and replace the whole perimeter with a much smaller gauge wire–the traditional deer fencing won’t work for rabbits. This is very difficult and expensive.They’re masters at getting into a garden, and they have no fear. “Oh, hey! Nice to see you!” they say as they eat everything I just planted–again.
  • Verdict: We co-exist. I plant them an extra row of salad, or leave some clovers for them away from the garden. When I plant greens, I tunnel them over for a few weeks. And, keeping the hawks around also keeps the rabbits under control–but they’re pretty good at hiding, too. I plant extra for Hop and Baby Hop.

Bears:

  • The good: I haven’t seen one myself.
  • The bad: They’re in the area, even around my street. And, they’ll hunker down in empty den-like spaces (like the space underneath the former pool deck where I built the greenhouse). Bears are dangerous and can do a ton of damage quickly.
  • Cost of removal:  You’re not on your own with bears unless you’re somewhere remote. Here, the authorities will help out.  But, since I’m not in Montana or rural Maine, bears aren’t something people protect enough against, and it’s easy to have some awareness and do some good bear prevention–keep garbage secured, don’t leave bird feeders filled or food out, and secure animal food.
  • Verdict: I haven’t had a bear problem, but they’d get a “move along” notice if I did.

Deer:

  • The good: They’re beautiful. I love watching them up close.
  • The bad: They mow down my plants and trees, especially in the winter. They eat the fruit off my pear tree every year. They don’t share well.
  • Cost of removal: It’s hit or miss getting rid of deer. I can use deer spray, but it smells. The dogs, for the most part, have kept the deer away the last couple years. Also, DEM issues hunting permits in the land behind my house–that keeps the population under control.
  • Verdict: They come and go as they wish. My best option is to fence the fruit and gardens I don’t want them to bother.

Coyotes:

  • The good: They eat the things that eat my chickens and garden.They usually don’t come that close, and they’re more active at night and early morning, so we each have our space.
  • The bad: They eat small dogs, calves, sheep, and unsecured chickens and travel in packs.
  • Cost of removal: You’re not going to remove a pack of coyotes unless you’re in a city. Then, DEM or local animal control will do it for you. Here, a large farmer can shoot coyotes with a proper “nuisance license” if they go after livestock. Otherwise, we co-exist.
  • Verdict: They stay. They’ve never been a problem for me, except for once taking the puppy out at 4AM. There was a pack very close. We went back inside. Everyone was happy.

The rest of the creatures:

We have skunks, opossums, fisher cats, bobcats, raccoons, turkey, fox, gophers, and other chicken-eating creatures.  Knowledge is power–this is their land.

The best practice here is to keep chickens in a run, secured. Some people allow their chickens to free-range, but there’s a risk. You can get livestock dogs that are trained to like chickens instead of eating them. They’ll know to protect the flock. But, sometimes the wildlife will win.

I keep my chickens in a secured run.  Then, I check the coop and run regularly. Chickens dig to make dust baths.  Often they dig around the perimeter, which makes it easier for wild things to get in.  Ideally, I should install a two-foot deep chicken wire border around the outside of the coop, curving it outward so creatures can’t dig under.  Things like woodchucks dig pretty deep. I didn’t do that, so I check for gaps often–in the tarp cover and around the perimeter of the run.

Other helpful creature-fighting tips:

  • Plant herbs and plants known to repel pest critters. Rabbits hate basil, marigolds, onions, lavender, and oregano. Planting this stuff everywhere–in gardens, raised beds, and around the outside of your fence–can help.
  • Using deer and rabbit spray (“Liquid Fence”) works, too, but, that smells like the predator urine that it is.
  • A lot of people swear by cayenne pepper. I hate it, so I haven’t tried this organic method.
  • Installing motion sensor lights can scare predators–but some are smart and they learn that lights are harmless.
  • Scarecrows and chimes can work, but I always ask myself how dumb a bird has to be not to see the scarecrow doesn’t move.
  • Installing an electric fence around protected areas.  This works well for beehives in bear areas or for livestock pens.

To sum it up

I can win the creature war with thermonuclear pesticides and an unlimited budget, but if it costs me less to hire Oprah’s chef to personally shop and cook for me, and I ruin the ecology of the garden, it doesn’t make much sense.

Poser Homesteading is about learning to be a little more self sufficient with a reasonable amount of effort–to get rid of pressure and have some fun. Poser Homesteading isn’t always easier or cheaper, but it’s a pretty good way to live. In the beginning, the creatures won every time. But, with a few strategies, I’m getting to more of what I grow every year.

 

Photos: Vincent van Zalinge, Jeremy Hines