Article and photos by Rob Danforth  

There are many critters that can affect your gardening satisfaction – I have had them all: deer, skunks, racoons, voles, mice, dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, chipmunks, groundhogs, rats, shrews, and squirrels!  Also bats, tree frogs, toads, snakes, and hawks.   

Tip:  it is much better to work with nature than against it!  A war with nature only leads to frustration and disappointment – and maybe high blood pressure!  Critter damage can be very annoying – even disheartening; however, usually the damage can be cut away and the produce salvaged!  

(Photo: Live Trap, Groundhog Sized)

Special Note:  unprotected snap traps and live trapping are not recommended(see Ontario Fish and Wildlife and the Humane Society on-line) Traps are not particular about what they catchPeanut butter bait attracts much more than rodents so protect your snap traps from creatures you do not want to catchI have seen birds, squirrels, and chipmunks in rat traps

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  • If you live-trap any animals, Ontario advises you that it is illegal to relocate them beyond one kilometer from where they are caught. 
  • Relocating animals may condemn them to death because they need to re-establish themselves concerning food, water, homes, territory boundaries, and neighbours, both friends and enemies.  
  • Trapping and relocating a parent may leave babies to starve to death or wander unprotected and untrained as orphans.  
  • Years ago, I tried for the resident groundhog and caught only a rabbit.  A neighbour tried to trap a groundhog and caught a skunk – he was totally unprepared for what to do next.   

Caution:  Animal poisons have no place in an organic garden.  Such poisons around food, children, and pets are a very bad idea, and poisoned critters may hurt those animals that eat them.  Someone had poisoned a neighbourhood groundhog and I saw it minutes before it died in the street.  The poor creature’s misery was an unforgettable horror to witness!  

(Photo: Hardware cloth, 1/2″ and 1/4″)

In most cases, physical barriers are a good, humane solution.  Hoops or frames allow for a variety of covers:  poly tunnels, bird/squirrel netting, bug netting, sun screens, row covers, and various grades of chicken wireBamboo rods and zip ties make a quick and sturdy rectangular frame or A-frame to support coversHardware cloth above and below ground keeps out rodents. Buried landscape fabric, hardware cloth, and chicken wire can deter burrowingAbove and below ground hardware cloth can keep critters from homesteading under a deck, shed, or composter.

(Photo: Hardware cloth base to a composter)

Special note about Urban Composting:  if you compost (I have done so for 45+ years and highly recommend it!) it will pique the interest of racoons, skunks, and all rodents (in particular, mice, voles, & rats).  Whether you have seen them or not, they are attracted to your compost just as they would be attracted in a forest to any material that is decomposing – they like the bug feast and the warmth among other things.  Your compost is not contaminated by their presence!  Any disease that they might bring is immediately diluted by mixing compost with your garden or potting soil. Nevertheless, I do not want them in my compost (or yours) – I want to protect the bugs that are working on my behalf to turn kitchen and garden waste into excellent fertilizer.  Barriers are the best and safest defence.   Place your composters on hard surfaces (e.g., Patio stones, plywood sheets) or make a floor with hardware cloth (it’s not actually “cloth” at all but galvanized steel mesh of ½ or ¼ inch squares). The footprint of the hardware cloth should be greater than that of the composter and the excess can be bent upwards bathtub style all around.  Of course, you could also get any of the elevated composters that suspend the compost drums above ground.  

(Photo: Mouse chewing on a dandelion)

Mice – a problem in homes, storage areas and garden sheds due to urine, poop, chewing, nesting, & Hantavirus (in dust from dried poop);

Deterrents: hardware cloth (no gaps!); protected snap traps; non-chewable containers with tight lids for storage (seeds, bulbs, string, cotton rope, and fabrics that can be used as nest material); mint; rubber snake (moved occasionally).  

  • Hantavirus in dry mouse droppings makes people sick!  Do not breathe the dust. Wear a mask when cleaning up dried mouse poop!  (Photo: Snap Traps: first 2 for mice & 1 with toothed jaws for rats).

  • Plastic, canvass, or tarp bags are not rodent proof!  Tip:  recycled food or ice melter buckets with lids store chewable items safely and also make great garden work seats for senior gardeners.  
  • Live traps are available but not recommended – if you live-trap, monitor often as a rodent will urinate, poop, chew trap edges, & perish in a very short time – like overnight!  Ours did.  Plan your relocation site and have gloves and hand sanitizer nearby.  Do not sanitize the trap.

Voles – larger than mice but smaller than rats, shortish tails, very prolific breeders, move at light speed, come in boom & bust cycles of 2 to 5 years, do not hibernate, eat greens, roots, bulbs, and the shoulders off my carrots.  Watch for holes roughly the size of a golf ball and shallow  trenches in the garden or lawn in springWhen I disturbed a neighbour’s pile of straw mulch, there was a starburst of voles rushing to all points of the compass

(Photo: Vole)

Deterrents: hardware cloth (available at building centers) 6-inches under soil & 6-inches above, reduce hiding places (e.g., piles of open compost, garden debris, mulch …), protected peanut butter baited snap traps, rubber snake moved about occasionally, plants from the onion family, daffodils, grape hyacinth in flower (aka “muscari”), castor oil spray or full strength household ammonia down the hole.  Tip:  household ammonia is very like human urineIf you have no ammonia handy, perhaps a pee nocturnally?

(Photo: Shrew)

Shrews – about the size of a mouse but with short tails and a dense short furThey eat worms, insects and carrionOur protected snap traps have been raided – and only the remains of mice were found in the traps.

Deterrants: protected snap traps, hardware cloth but not chicken wire.

Rats – are omnivorous creatures and will eat almost anything in your composter including vegetables, bugs, and dead creaturesThey can easily chew through wood or plastic to gain accessLook for chew marks in plastic and access holes.

(Photo: Rat in a toothed trap)

Deterrents:  Keep your composters closed, aerate (stir) them often, do not put cooked food or animal products in the composter, keep the garden areas clean, and visit the garden frequently – rats do not like your companyIf you find a hole, use a protected rat sized snap trap and bait it with peanut butterTip:  there are new traps available that open from the back like a clothespin so you do not have to touch the dead creature as you empty the trap.  Gloves are recommended as well as hand sanitizer for the gloves – not the trap!

Knowing your critters and their habits can give you ways to manage them.

Whatever the challenge, keep calm and carry on gardening!