GARDEN WORKS: Ode to a woodchuck

Emily Catesby Emily Cates

I’ve got me a whistle pig, what should I do? Make him my friend, or put him in a stew? Groundhog. Woodchuck. Gopher. Whistle Pig. Who can deny the feelings of angst a gardener feels upon hearing these names or spotting one anywhere near the garden? Marmota monax – as it is properly known – is a common, mostly herbivorous large, brownish-gray rodent that burrows underground and has a reputation for devouring beloved garden plants (I like to use the name woodchuck derived from the Algonquian wuchak.)

Since woodchuck babies are sent out of the nest around early July to strike out on their own, encounters at this time are likely. This notorious character needs not a lengthy description: You’ll oftentimes see one standing in a field erect like a prairie dog, slinking across the tree line, or running when chased away. M. monax can even swim and climb trees if necessary. Potentially dangers when cornered, a woodchuck’s teeth and claws are not particularly pleasant to tangle with. Also, their burrows are claimed to be destructive to farm equipment, livestock and foundations. Also, they can become infected with and transmit rabies. However, I am compelled to come to their defense! Several years ago I wrote a column about this critter, and I must confess that since then I have gained more experience and a change of attitude towards them. While I have accepted the possibility of individual woodchucks in certain situations can develop bad habits and appetites for our gardens, I am not convinced that all of them deserve to be on our most wanted list. This article was written for and dedicated to the understanding of these creatures. If you’re curious as to why I would even think about defending the reputation of a woodchuck, then read on to find out.

First of all, please allow me to explain how I developed sentimental feelings toward woodchucks. (Insert derisive laughter, snickers and sneers.) I should tell you that I currently have two woodchucks near my garden area. One lives out back of my home in a retaining wall (Phil) and the other (Phyllis) at a tree line near a mowed area that borders part of the garden.

Phil – the one out back – is easy to watch through my windows. The birds let me know when he’s out and about, and it’s fun to spy on him as he gorges himself on Queen Anne’s Lace. Afterwards, he plops himself down on the retaining wall and sprawls about in the shade. I have yet to see him venture into the garden.

Phyllis oftentimes comes out of her hiding places and watches me as I weed the garden. While she seems to enjoy mostly clovers and grasses in the mowed area, I will occasionally catch her nibbling lamb’s quarters and pigweed in the garden. She hasn’t yet decimated anything of value, though I have seen one bite taken from squash leaves, and a dozen or so stalks of winter rye were found shredded. My tomatoes have begun fruiting, but she leaves them, the melons, garlic, onions, carrots, cabbages, potatoes, peppers and the fruiting shrubs and trees alone. Surprisingly, she hasn’t touched the peas. What will she do when my beans are in flower? I often wonder if it would be different if my garden was perfectly weeded – if she, for lack of choice, would be eating garden goodies instead? My hunch is that a lot of problems with woodchucks are the result of a lack of sufficient wild foods for them to consume, and then they develop a taste for garden goodies. Does the lawn need to be flawlessly mowed and the garden perfectly weeded? I should also mention that woodchucks will occasionally dine on slugs, snails, grasshoppers, and other small pests. This is only around one percent of their diet, but seeing how they need to eat one-third their body weight in vegetation every day – this could become significant.

Another factor to look at is the sonic critter chaser I installed a couple of weeks ago in the back corner of the garden. This year the deer have made an appearance despite my efforts with fencing. The critter chaser emits a flashing light and an annoying noise in the range of hearing of animals such as deer. I think it works, so far so good. (I wonder if deer damage is mistaken for woodchuck destruction?) Since my device has a setting for small animals as well, I could set it to repel woodchucks if I saw damage directly attributed to them.

Because the woodchucks at my place are used to my presence and I am aware of their habits and nesting areas, it would be fairly easy for me to construct plans to get rid of them if needed. While doing research, I happened upon some options that might interest you if you have problems with woodchucks.

The hint I most wanted to share involves dumping used kitty litter and mixing it into the soil around the entrances to woodchuck burrows. (If someone did that to my home, I’d want to move out, too!) The only problem with this method is the possibility that the critter will move on and become someone else’s problem – unless, of course, there is plenty of habitat and an abundance of predators to keep things in check. Foxes, coyotes, raccoons and hawks all prey on woodchucks. Dogs are especially good at keeping them away, but there is the danger of a beloved pet being injured or contracting rabies from woodchucks. Another option involves enhanced fencing. In an area where there is plenty of forage for woodchucks, a regular welded wire fence or something similar over three feet tall might be sufficient; however, if the varmints are determined, the fence can be buried a foot into the ground, turned out in an L-shape. Also, two strands of electric fence – one four inches near the ground, the other six to eight inches above the ground are effective not only for woodchucks, but for raccoons and deer as well.

I will admit that I am still on the fence regarding whether woodchucks are friends or foes for a garden. And perhaps as we get closer to autumn their appetites will pick up and I will regret defending them. But, for now Phil and Phyllis are fascinating to watch. If they’re not bothering anything, then why not preserve them and enjoy their antics?


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