If your lifestyle brings you close to the land, sooner or later, you’ll encounter wildlife. As humans continue to encroach on wild areas – altering the natural world as we do so – wildlife encounters are becoming more frequent. Gardeners, even in urban and suburban areas, have to fend off deer, rabbits, woodchucks, and a host of other creatures. Poultry owners regularly experience run-ins with fowl-loving predators, including hawks, skunks, and raccoons. And hikers and campers, particularly in the western part of the country, are seeing more cougars, bears, wolves, bison, elk, and moose. How you react to any of these encounters could not only save your poultry, livestock, and garden, but it could also save your life.
The increase in people-wildlife encounters is one of human design. Over time, humans have altered the environment so much that wildlife, which normally avoids people, has little choice but to interact with us. Rural farmland and forests have given way to homes and commercial buildings, pushing wild animals to the very edges of their habitats. Additionally, they become emboldened when they’re fed by people, as David Baron points out in his book The Beast in the Garden. Some people will set out food for wild animals, usually out of a desire to see the animals up close, or concern for their well-being. What many people don’t realize, however, is that feeding wildlife usually does more harm than good, for a host of reasons. One of the biggest issues is that when you attract animals such as deer, rabbits, and turkeys close to your home, you’re bound to attract predators as well.
Given that humans are responsible for the increase in wildlife encounters, it’s up to us to find a solution. Large-scale eradication techniques aren’t the answer; we did that with wolves and mountain lions a hundred years ago, and the result was an explosion of coyote populations. The key is deterrents, and limited lethal elimination when necessary. Wildlife has adapted to humans, so it’s time we adapt to wildlife in ways that are safe for both us and them.
Here are a few techniques for deterring unwanted wildlife from your property, as well as some advice for avoiding dangerous animal encounters in nature. Animals are quick learners, and they’ll only hang around if they feel safe and the pickings are good. If you make them feel unwanted, chances are they’ll move on. Keep in mind that nothing is foolproof, and, for various reasons, some things may not work for you.
Eliminate Free Food
The first step to avoiding wildlife encounters on your property is to eliminate food sources. Everyone enjoys a free meal, and animals are no different. Secure any unintentional sources of food, such as improperly stored grain, and never intentionally feed wildlife. (In some places, it’s actually illegal to leave food out for certain wild animals.) Additionally, properly dispose of all garbage. Bears, skunks, foxes, and raccoons love to tear through trash looking for a meal, and it’s not a large leap from the garbage to your poultry.
Guard Your Garden
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that no matter what I do, birds and mammals will get some of my garden crop. After coming to terms with this reality, I’ve found a few ways to minimize the damage.
Fencing. When it comes to gardens, I’ve found that a good fence is the best defense against rabbits, woodchucks, and squirrels. The key to an effective garden fence is to make sure the openings are small enough to keep animals out. A good rule of thumb is that if an animal can get its head through an opening, its body is sure to follow. Another trick is to bury your fence about a foot into the ground to prevent burrowing animals, such as woodchucks and ground squirrels. If deer are an issue in your area, make sure your fence is high enough to prevent them from jumping over it; typically at least 7 feet tall.
Movement. Movement in and around a garden will help scare off unwanted wildlife. You can create movement by attaching ribbons to poles and allowing the ribbons to blow in the wind. I’ve also had moderate success with children’s pinwheels, placed so they spin in the breeze. Even letting my small dog run around the garden area helps deter wildlife. Change it up to see what works for you.
Scarecrows. Believe it or not, the old scarecrow does have its place in a garden, especially to deter birds. Owl decoys seem to work too, though I’ve found that both decoys and scarecrows are only effective for a short period of time. Birds are smart; they’ll soon figure out that stationary deterrents aren’t a threat. If you want to use either scarecrows or predator decoys, make sure to move them around regularly to keep birds off guard.
Protect Bees, Poultry, and Livestock
If you have animals, you know the danger wildlife can pose to your farmstead. Bears can be a headache for beekeepers, poultry owners have to deal with aerial and ground attackers, and livestock owners are regularly on the lookout for larger predators. Here are a few ways to keep your crew safe.
Electric fencing. Animal keepers have been using electric fencing for years with good success, but, like anything else, it’s not perfect. An electric fence may not deter a determined bear – though not much will. The trick with electric fencing is to use multiple strands, starting from the ground. One strand isn’t enough, because once the initial shock has worn off, predators will go over or under a single strand.
Traditional fencing. As with a garden fence, the size of the openings in animal fencing is important. Small predators, such as weasels, can get through all but the smallest mesh. If the mesh is large enough, raccoons, skunks, and fishers will reach through to grab poultry by the head or legs and pull them through the fence. The smaller the openings, the safer your animals.
Along with fencing, poultry owners should incorporate overhead cover to protect against aerial predators. Wire mesh and netting are both effective. Whatever you use, regularly inspect it and your fencing for breaks and other openings.
Livestock guardian animals. Dogs have long been the friends of livestock owners. Well-trained livestock guardian dogs are a real deterrent to predators. These types of dogs usually come from larger breeds, such as Great Pyrenees, shepherds, and Mastiffs. Smaller dogs are more likely to get picked off by a predator.
In addition to dogs, a handful of other animals also make effective guardians. I know many sheep and goat owners who keep ponies and donkeys in their herd, and llamas are another popular choice. Consider your setup and the requirements of your livestock, and then research to find the best guardian animal for your needs.
Look Out for Yourself
Gardeners and livestock owners aren’t the only people experiencing increased wildlife contact. Hikers, campers, and even urban and suburban homeowners are coming face to face with bears, mountain lions, coyotes, and a host of other creatures.
Most wild animals don’t want anything to do with people unless they’ve become conditioned to equate people with food. Most wildlife problems happen when an animal is surprised, feels threatened, or is protecting young. If you do encounter a wild animal, speak calmly and slowly back away. Give the animal its space.
When dealing with large nonpredators, such as bison, moose, and elk, keep your distance. These animals can hurt you. Slowly back away, and, if possible, put a solid object between you and the animal.
Large predators, such as bears, mountain lions, coyotes, and wolves, require different tactics. In some cases, these predators consider humans prey. When confronted with these animals, our instinct is often to run, but that’s the worst thing you can do, because it triggers a predator’s chase response. Instead of running, make the predator aware that you’re not prey. While the following is based on U.S. Forest Service information regarding bear contact, it does work with other predators. Here’s what to do if you encounter a large predator in the wild:
• Don’t run.
• Remain calm.
• Group together, keeping children in the middle.
• Face the threat, and then slowly back away from it.
• If the predator approaches, try to scare it away by making yourself as large as possible.
• Carry a deterrent, such as bear spray.
• If attacked, fight back.
So far, I’ve concentrated on avoidance tactics and the use of nonlethal means to deter wild animals, but there may come a time when lethal means are the only way you can protect yourself, your family, or your livestock.
I hunt to put food on the table; I don’t want to kill an animal for any other reason, but I will if I have to. I always carry a firearm when I head into the woods, but I hope I never have to use it. My two choices for firearms are a 12-gauge shotgun and a large-caliber handgun. If you choose to use a handgun, it shouldn’t be smaller than a .357 Magnum. Anything smaller won’t be effective. Although sometimes a single shot in the air will suffice, if you do need to fire at a wild animal, your firearm needs to able to kill that animal quickly and humanely.
In my shotgun, I use either 00 buckshot or slugs. My handgun is loaded with hollow-point rounds, which do more damage than full metal jacket rounds. Lethal means against wildlife should always be the last resort, but if you have to use your firearm, don’t hesitate to take the shot.
I consider it a thrill every time I see wildlife, but I also practice caution at all times. Wildlife is just that – wild. Wild animals aren’t pets, and they can be unpredictable. Deter these animals from encroaching into areas where they can do damage to livestock and crops and endanger human lives. By the same token, use caution when encroaching into their areas. Coexistence is possible, it just takes some caution and common sense.
Dana Benner writes about all aspects of survival, farmsteading, and the outdoors. His work has appeared in print for more than 30 years.
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