Or woodchucks, or whistle pigs. Call them what you will, one of the biggest issues we get contacted about is groundhogs “sharing” residents’ vegetable plots with them. When you’ve invested time, effort and resources in a vegetable plot, this can be extremely frustrating, especially for large community gardens.
There are several ways of discouraging unwanted encounters of a vegetable kind with Groundhog Nation. They all involve “exclusion” techniques, i.e. different variations on fencing and barriers.
First thing to know: hardware cloth: it’s your best friend. Hardware cloth is low-gage (strong) wire fencing that raccoons and groundhogs can’t bite through. This is not the case for chicken wire, which they can bite through and some animals will. While chicken wire may sometimes do the job for garden fences (NEVER for chicken coops!), hardware cloth is what you should be using for your vegetable gardens and coops to give yourself the very best chances of keeping wild neighbors out of your plot. Some of the videos we link to in this article use the right designs, but with chicken wire. Thick plastic garden fencing can also be effective and is very cheap to buy by the roll. Fence height should be at least 3 feet and preferably 5 feet above ground.
Second thing to know: not all groundhogs are born equal. So that wobbly plastic fencing put up in 10 minutes with a few silver pie cases flapping in the wind may be all it takes to deter “Nervous-Nancy”, people-shy groundhogs. On the other end of the spectrum however, there are a undoubtedly a few “Mad Max” woodchucks out there. Those determined critters who will expend every ounce of energy attempting to dig their way into your plot. It’s easy to get mad with the Mad Maxes of the Steel City. But just remember, they don’t know you don’t want them in there.
Building your anti-groundhog fortress
Two principles: stop them climbing and stop them digging.
Stop the climbing: this is achieved by creating a “wobbly” effect. Just like people, groundhogs (and raccoons too) don’t like the feeling of climbing something that feels unstable. So your mission is to leave the top 12-15” or so of your fencing material unsecured to the post and bending outward, so that it wobbles.
Stop the digging: some avid gardeners actually line the base of their raised beds with hardware cloth. This process takes some work, but will guarantee that no one will be tunneling their way to your tomatoes. Alternatively, a trench can be dug around the edge before installing fencing so that the fence starts one foot below ground level and blocks tunneling. Another way to prevent digging is to extend the fence material out to approx. 15” in an “L-footer” around the perimeter. Lastly, and often more easily, a separate layer of hardware cloth can be buried (lightly) around the edge, without leaving gaps with the base of the fence.
Don’t forget to use scare tactics: groundhogs are easily frightened by sudden movement (well, most are). Silver pie plates, well-secured mylar balloons, windmills, wind chimes... Use your creativity and change things around frequently.
In very rare cases where fences cannot be built efficiently, running a single low-voltage electric wire around the perimeter of the plot about 4” above ground has proven to be very effective. A second wire can be added 5 or 6” higher in extreme cases. Or as some might say: when all else fails, it’s better to shock than to kill.
Just one last tactic used by some: provide your groundhog with his own “patch.” They actually don’t like tomatoes that much and far prefer peas, dark leafy greens, clover, dandelion. So while it doesn’t really fit with the “reduce carrying capacity” approach that we like to promote at Scrap the Trap, some fence-averse residents wishing to live and let live swear by creating a small bed of groundhog-specific treats. Hmm... we say go for the fence.
We’ve searched the web for a few good examples of fence designs and there are many variations on the theme out there. You will need to adapt to your specific situation and to where your groundhogs fit on the Nervous-Nancy to Mad-Max scale, but these links should give you some ideas.
This video clearly explains why hardware cloth is your best choice.
For the meticulous-minded: how to line your raised bed with hardware cloth. Groundhog Kevlar, baby. Helpful video here.
This is a really nice fence design, except that it’s made with chicken wire again. This gardener is lucky his groundhogs apparently aren’t the biting kind. Read it!
Chicken wire is used in this video again, but you can clearly see the “C-fence” design (floppy top and L-footer at bottom). Watch the video to learn more!
And lastly, in the “Just because it looks good doesn’t mean it works” section. This is why you make it wobbly; Momma groundhog goes for garden gold at around 1’ 10”, climbing the rigid fence while Junior decides to sit this one out. Watch it here!
A little over a year ago, we organized our first “official” action, with hundreds of people attending our launch event at a wildlife-themed art show at Black Forge Coffee House. Since then, we have organized and taken part in many events, talked to hundreds of residents, welcomed Portuguese street artist Bordalo II who created a “trash raccoon” structure just for Scrap the Trap at Construction Junction, and have met several times with City of Pittsburgh officials.
The trapping situation during that time? If anything it has gotten worse, with social media misinformation exacerbating the problem. Time to review the situation and recap the strategy we have been proposing.
What we heave learned:
From our various meetings with City of Pittsburgh officials, it seems that the City does acknowledge that it has a wildlife trapping problem. Decades of relying on trapping as the solution to every wildlife-related call from residents has resulted in two things:
There seems to be broad acknowledgement that:
What there doesn’t seem to be agreement on is the need for other measures to be taken if and when trapping is to be eliminated, to make sure that a trapping-free Pittsburgh remains that way. Much as we want to see trapping stopped ASAP, attempting to pass legislation without taking adequate measures first to replace trapping, as some have proposed, would be an exercise in futility.
So what should the ideal response be?
First off, let’s look at the situations for which people call Animal Control:
1. People who are unwilling to take measures to resolve a problem themselves, or don’t know what measures to take, even though they are potentially able to implement those measures. For example, they haven’t fenced in a vegetable garden, fixed a gap under a porch, don’t store trash correctly, don’t bring in pet food at night… In these cases, it’s time to learn some best practices. Those residents require proactive education on what to do and on why trapping ultimately won’t help them. And in the case of steadfast refusals to keep trash stored away responsibly, for example, then fines should start to be issued. Bad trash habits are a big part of wildlife conflict in Pittsburgh.
2. “Serial trappers.” These are residents who repeatedly trap animals and are well-known to Animal Control. Some of them even set traps in woods and parks, off their own property, although proving that can be difficult. The City should not be pandering to these individuals. We understand concerns that they will “dispose” of the animals themselves if they can’t rely on the City, but taking the wrong action to prevent a worse one isn’t a viable solution in the long-term and only feeds into that practice. Trapping wildlife without a permit, when there is no “nuisance” issue for the resident, is an issue for the Game Commission to handle.
3. Then there is another group: residents who are experiencing wildlife conflict situations beyond their control. It may be because a neighbor is leaving open trash out every day, or due to abandoned houses in the area that haven’t been boarded up, or it may be that they can’t cover the cost of repairs to multiple access points in the exterior of their homes. There are houses in Pittsburgh that are like “Swiss cheeses” for wildlife, with residents endlessly trapping animals without ever resolving the problem, while increasing the disease or injury risk in the process. In this case, we would like to see the City get creative in using some of the funds it would save on widespread trapping to really address the issues in some of the city’s “wildlife hotspots”: Deal with the trash problems; assist residents on low incomes with vegetable plot fence construction (simple and relatively cheap); and also seek federal housing grants, for example, or other measures, to assist residents with vital home repairs that they cannot otherwise afford.
A City Wildlife Panel?
Scrap the Trap believes that the City should consult with advocacy groups in the fields of housing and urban agriculture in particular, to find out what measures, in addition to a high-profile communications and education campaign, would be most helpful to residents in keeping wildlife conflict to a minimum. We have suggested that the City create a “wildlife panel” with local wildlife experts and representatives from citizen advocacy groups, to work on these issues in an effective way.
In other words, we’re proposing that the City of Pittsburgh engage actively in setting up an infrastructure to efficiently support a phase-out of city-funded wildlife trapping, ultimately reserving the use of city traps strictly for true emergencies (animal in living area of home, animal injured or sick).
One year on, another breeding season just starting, hundreds of thousands of city dollars about to be wasted yet again in an inefficient, outdated trapping program. It’s time to start turning the talk into action to the benefit of all residents of the Steel City, both human and wild.
The week before Christmas, a news story about an apparent attack by a raccoon on a 4-month-old infant in a run-down Philadelphia row house went viral. Read the article here.
We obviously deplore the injuries the little girl suffered. However, the tidal wave of bad press about urban wildlife that ensued compels us to comment on what there is to learn from a very unfortunate situation.
Several versions of what happened can be found in the media. Some of the first articles claimed that the child, Journi Black, had been pulled from her crib. This led many wildlife professionals to doubt the story given the improbability of even a large adult raccoon being able to pull an infant out of a crib. Subsequent stories seem to suggest that the child was alone on an adult bed before being pulled off by the raccoon, who was then reportedly seen leaving down a stairway but never tracked down.
It’s likely that we will never know exactly what happened in those few minutes. Here is what we do know however, and we can learn a lot from it. Firstly, this is not fundamentally a wildlife problem, but a social problem. The child was living in a row house owned by an unlicensed landlord in a block that had already been reported for wildlife issues. Certain Philadelphia neighborhoods are notorious for being like “Swiss cheese”: derelict homes (occupied and unoccupied) riddled with wildlife access points, and trash-strewn neighborhoods providing wildlife with a food source. As a result, the wildlife “carrying capacity” (food + shelter) for these neighborhoods remains high. While that situation persists, trapping and removing individual animals is a bit like trying to empty a lake with a teacup.
There are definite parallels between the prevailing conditions in that Philadelphia neighborhood and many here in Pittsburgh. Let us learn from this unfortunate incident and take this opportunity to set a viable course of action to prevent similar incidents here in our own city. Any wildlife policy aiming to efficiently reduce trapping and also human-wildlife conflict (or perception of that) must not only work to educate the population and provide residents with hands-on assistance in wildlife-proofing their property, but also pull in all actors in the non-profit and government spheres that in some way or another encounter these wildlife issues: environmental non-profits, urban agriculture groups, housing organizations, community associations, and organizations dealing with trash/litter issues. The list is potentially long, but all of these groups can help ensure a wholistic approach to managing wildlife issues. If landlords are unlicensed, they need to be reported and sanctioned. If landlords are not doing their jobs in repairing homes, action needs to be taken. If residents need assistance in wildlife-proofing property, community organizations must reach out to assist, failing any measures being taken to free up city budget for this purpose. There is so much that can be done to improve interaction between wildlife and residents in Pittsburgh to vastly reduce both pointless trap-and-kill and the type of clash that was observed in Philadelphia last week, both of which are completely unacceptable as we move into 2018.
Rabies cases down
And while on the subject of avoiding unnecessary panic… Some good news on the rabies front.
Of note in the Allegheny County bite statistics by species for 2015 and 2016: only 3 positive raccoons, 0 positive groundhogs, and only 1 positive skunk in two years. Only 20 total positives across all reported species in two years, and half of those were bats. Raccoons only accounted for 0.6% of all possible exposures. Look for a more detailed article on this subject soon.