How to handle woodchucks in your garden
New gardeners and experienced gardeners alike can fall victim to pests. When the pest is a furry woodland creature, though, managing the havoc it wreaks is a little bit different than if your garden is afflicted by a bug or pathogen.
For gardeners in Maine, one such threat is the woodchuck.
“Woodchucks are an exceptionally common species here in Maine,” Griffin Dill, integrated pest management professional at the University of Maine, said. “They’re found throughout the state. It’s a very common wildlife species, and one that is commonly found around people [and] residences. We really have ample opportunity to cross paths with woodchucks.”
Dill explained that woodchucks are especially active in the early spring during their breeding season, and then again in mid-April through May once they have borne their offspring.
“There’s all of a sudden more of them on the landscape because they’ve been reproducing,” he said.
What do woodchucks do to gardens?
Even though woodchucks seem furry and cute to the unsuspecting onlooker, they can wreak all sorts of havoc on your garden.
“To the dismay of many gardeners the woodchucks can be a significant problem in the home garden and even around the home landscape itself,” Dill said.
The vegetarian rodents not only feed on gardens as if they are their personal salad bars, but also on the grasses in home landscaping.
Without seeing a woodchuck in action, though, Dill said that pinning garden damage on the fuzzy critter can be challenging. He explained that if you can see teeth marks, judging the size can provide hints — tiny gnawing marks would be mice, large ones are more likely to be deer and woodchucks fall somewhere in between — but woodchucks don’t always leave such clues behind.
Catching a woodchuck in the act is a gardener’s best bet. If you spot a rodent in your garden and are wondering if it is a woodchuck, the tell-tale sign is size. Woodchucks are significantly larger than mice and rats, generally closer in size to the beaver, the muskrat and the porcupine. However, beavers and muskrats are generally found around waterways, and porcupines we have are covered with a large quantity of spines, leaving woodchucks as far as rodents of that size in the garden.
How can I keep woodchucks out of my garden?
Dill explained that the ideal solution for managing woodchucks in the garden is to take preventive measures before you have an issue through fencing.
“Once you have the problem it can be a little bit more of a challenge to fence that area while trying to keep that woodchuck out,” Dill said. Woodchucks are prolific diggers so they are really adept at getting through fences. For it to be a true barrier, you would have to bury the fence, chicken wire or other materials that won’t rot ten to twelve inches into the ground to prevent the animals from burrowing underneath.”
Though they are elevated off of the ground to evade burrowing, raised beds are not safe from hungry woodchucks.
“You might be lifting the surface of the garden 8 inches 12 inches to a couple feet — in those types of settings the woodchuck can easily climb up the bed,” Dill said. “There are raised beds that are much higher than that and those might offer some added protection against woodchucks. But if there’s something they’re really interested in and that’s the only attempt at exclusion they’ll find a way to get up and climb in there.”
Gardeners with raised beds should also use exclusionary measures like covering the top with chicken wire so the woodchucks can’t get in.
“You can easily cover a raised bed,” Dill said. “Chicken wire [will] keep pests like woodchucks out, [and] certainly raised beds make that much easier to deploy.”
Strategically placing your garden can help if you know where a woodchuck den is, but Dill said it will only go so far without additional measures.
“Without any kind of exclusion, it’s not going to make a huge difference,” Dill said. “A lot of times they’ll den under sheds or porches, but not always. It can be a challenge trying to discern where exactly their den is located.
Besides, most people with gardens have an established garden in their yard they use year to year, and woodchucks will move into the area once they catch wind of the tasty snack bar in the neighborhood.
“Changing the location of the garden itself is not going to be a feasible option for most people,” Dill said.
Humanely handling woodchucks in the garden
Once you have exhausted preventative measures for keeping woodchucks out of your garden, you can move on to trapping. Dill said that since woodchucks are a wildlife species, it’s important to check any laws and regulations regarding their trapping.
“I always recommend checking with your local game warden if a wildlife species is causing damage around the home,” he said. “It’s generally acceptable to control that animal.”
In order to use a lethal trap, you have to be a licensed trapper, so odds are, live traps made of steel mesh are going to be your best bet.
Still, if you have trapped a woodchuck, Dill said that relocating it is not the most humane option because you are releasing it into an area where it doesn’t know the area, doesn’t have a habitat or places to hide, making it easy prey for predators. If there are other woodchucks in the area, too, they can be territorial.
“A lot of people’s first instinct is to trap and relocate,” he explained. “You’re really probably limiting the potential survival of the woodchuck to next to nothing anyway. It’s generally not recommended to move wildlife around like that because you can spread wildlife disease.”
Dill said the more humane option is to euthanize the animal, which is done primarily through shooting it. If you are not comfortable with that, Dill recommends hiring a professional pest control company to handle the problem for you.
“Not everyone is comfortable in that situation which is understandable,” Dill said. “There are a number of pest control companies that handle wildlife calls like that.”