Thursday, March 21, 2013

Wild Life in the Garden

Being right next to a Canadian national park with very few people living around, we see a lot of wild life at Roche fleurie: bears, deer, Sandhill cranes, wild turkeys, squirrels, chipmunks, porcupines and raccoons. Besides these, there are the animals you very rarely see, but are always around, such as foxes and coyotes. Raccoons are the only major pest in the garden. We have rabbits, not the small eastern cottontails most common throughout southern Ontario, but the larger snowshoe hares with brown fur in summer that turns completely white in winter to blend in with the snow. They even blend in on patchy snow: in the fall their legs are the first part of their body to turn white, so they become invisible between patches of grass when there is snow on the ground. 

They do not get into the fenced garden (or hardly ever...famous last words), and so they are not a problem. You just have to make sure you do not plant anything they like outside the fence. You learn what they like by trial and error. Last year, they ate up overnight a lespedeza shrub I had just planted. They only left a 1 cm stump which, reluctant to throw it out, I moved inside the garden proper. To my surprise, it did come back.

Snowshoe hares are not very shy. They won't jump away until you are about 2 meters from them (they are mighty jumpers). There were lots of them in the summer of 2012, so I expect there will be fewer this year as the coyotes and the foxes will have had a good winter.
Fortunately, we do not have a serious deer problem. On average, we see deer around the garden 3 or 4 times in a summer. Theoretically, they could jump over our fence which is about 2.5 meters high, but food has never been scare enough to have them attempt the jump. There is a meadow as well as a whole national park for forage just behind us, and, of course, there are hunters in the fall.
Squirrels and chipmunks will eat a few tulip bulbs when they have just been planted (somehow they leave alone bulbs that have been in place for a year or more – I suppose they cannot smell them). However squirrels and chipmunks are not very numerous, because the Bruce Peninsula is well-known for its fisher population. The fisher, a beautiful chocolate brown member of the weasel family, is a great enemy of squirrels, chipmunks, porcupines and snowshoe hares. When we were just starting to build the house in 1995, one fisher came around and examined what we were doing for a few minutes. Not much afraid of us, it would dive in the limestone crevasses and moments later, his/her head would resurface a few meters away, like a submarine periscope, making a survey of everything around.
The only real pests are raccoons. You have to learn to live with them, because they are numerous. A high fence might actually be an enticement to raccoons as they love climbing up things, especially if they can run on top. They also visited us often when we were building. You would not see them since they are nocturnal, but in the morning you would find they had left a visiting card just where you had stopped working the day before.
Fortunately, they are not interested in most of what we grow. There is only one thing we have had to abandon to them, and it is grapes. We have two grape vines, and raccoons keep a very close watch over these grapes. They eat them just as they ripen. We have tried putting a net over them but it does not stop them. An electric fence would but setting it up is too much hassle. They also love gooseberries but we use all our gooseberries to make jam, and unripe gooseberries are better than ripe ones for jam making. So I pick them when they are still tart and the raccoons find them too sour. They do not seem to be much interested in black currants.  They would love sweet melons but whenever we have grown these, we grew them in the cold frame. We do not grow corn as it is a magnet for raccoons.

 Dieter, our neighbor, grows corn, but he has built a compound surrounded by a complex network of electrical fences. One of the main problems with raccoons has to do with their curiosity. If you plant something, they will often dig it up, not to eat it, just to check what you have been doing. They may also be attracted by the smell, if you have added compost.  One last thing to remember about them is not to put a bird house where they can climb to reach it (for instance, on top of a wooden post). They will wait till the eggs are laid and then eat them and destroy the nest. We lost some wrens this way last summer.
As I said, we regularly see bears, flocks of wild turkeys and Sandhill cranes, but they always keep their distance. They visit the meadow next to the house, but never the garden. The cranes have an regular end of day ritual. Just before the sun sets, they fly low above the house, making very loud calls, their own way of saying good night. 

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