Tuesday, July 22, 2014

My war with the squirrels, pt. 2: defeat

Three years ago, I wrote about my war with the squirrels. Well, the war is over. I've accepted defeat. I've laid down my arms. I'm surrendering, unconditionally.

The end was sudden, and I really didn't see it coming. In fact, I thought I was winning handily. My electric fence around the backyard - similar to a cattle fence, but low-powered - was keeping it almost entirely squirrel-free.

I keep peanuts in my pocket, and my squirrels were so tame they'd come running right up to me,... in the front yard. In the backyard, they knew to keep out. Even when I was out there, they'd just look at me from a distance, pleading with me to come feed them a peanut. Meanwhile, I grew apples, peaches, pears, plums, apricots, cherries, strawberries, raspberries - just all sorts of good stuff.

Of course, I was still at war with the birds, and with the insects, and with disease, but I'd won the war with the squirrels. Until I was stabbed in the back by my own species.

My new neighbors actually called the police to complain about my squirrel fence! Why? I don't know. I'd given them plenty of free fruit last year. And the chainlink fence was mine, not theirs. (They only rent, anyway.)

Note that the electric wires were on my side of the fence. They couldn't have been shocked unless they came into my yard or reached over the fence.

But you've got to live with your neighbors. I didn't want a war with them. So when the policeman came by, I agreed to shut it down. (He clearly thought the whole thing was a waste of time, but they have to take complaints seriously. He said he thought that kind of electric fence wasn't allowed in town, though he wasn't sure.)

Anyway, it took the first squirrel only two days to discover that the electricity was off. Since then, I've been swamped by them. They've eaten all of my apricots, all of my summer apples, all of my peaches, and one whole tree of Asian pears. Now, they're working on my fall apples and the rest of my pears.

I even found a squirrel in my raspberry patch, eating the raspberries. And one day, I saw a squirrel hanging on my bee shelter, pulling out the cardboard tubes, then pulling the paper liners out of the tubes and chewing up the young bee larvae. I couldn't believe it! (These are solitary bees, not honey bees, so they don't sting. But I can't imagine why tiny bee larvae would even be appealing to a squirrel.)

Note that they've completely wiped out most of my fruit crop weeks - and in some cases, months - before the fruit even got ripe. And I couldn't figure out another solution. Certainly, repellant does nothing.

I can chase them away (although, as I said in my first post, they were so tame it was actually hard to scare them, at first), but even if I could remain in the yard from sunup to sundown, every single day, I still can't be everywhere in the yard at once. (Even when I'm working in the yard, they'll be eating fruit twenty feet away, wherever I can't actually see them from where I'm working.)

I've had people recommend slingshots, pellet guns, paintball guns, and all sorts of things, but they're missing the point. The whole world is dangerous to squirrels. That's just their life. They die in droves simply crossing the street, and even dogs won't keep them out of an area.

If I'm dangerous to them - or appear dangerous - they won't come close to me. But that won't keep them from my fruit trees when I'm not there. The reason the electric wire worked was because it was a physical barrier which was there all the time.

They learned very quickly where the wires were, and when I first set it up, they found ways to avoid them. Every time, I had to discover how they were getting past the fence, then patch it up. After awhile, they couldn't find a way. I'd beaten them.

Sure, new squirrels would still get inside occasionally, because they needed to learn about the biting wires. Each one had to learn for himself, and there are always new squirrels. (As I say, the world is a dangerous place for squirrels. They don't live long, but there are always new squirrels to take their place.)

Well, now that's done. They've won. I'm cutting down my fruit trees, because there's no point in trying to grow anything anymore. Oh, I'll keep my sour cherry tree. I don't think squirrels will eat them. And I'll keep growing raspberries. Despite my experience earlier, squirrels can't be as big a problem with black raspberries as birds.

They do like strawberries, I know. (I used to spread strawberry juice on the electric fence. They got so they wouldn't even take a peanut from me, if I had strawberry juice on my fingers!) But I don't think they can eat enough strawberries to keep me from getting some, too - especially since the bird-netting might make them hesitate.

(No, bird-netting won't stop them. But they panic when they get scared, and they get mad as hell when they can't just run through the bird-netting. When calm, they have no trouble at all getting through it. But they'll tend to remember it as a trap, I think. It won't stop them, but it might slow them down.)

So I might get enough strawberries for myself, just not enough for friends and neighbors, too. (I've always given away most of the fruit I grow, because I've had so much of it.) I'll try it another year, at least.

I don't think they'll eat grapes, either, but I'm not positive about that. I've got new varieties of grapes now - sweet varieties - and if there's no other fruit,... who knows? The thing is, it's a lot of work to put bird-netting on my grapevines. It gets harder every year, as I get older and the vines get bigger.

If I don't put up bird-netting, the birds get all of them. But if I go to all that work and the squirrels still wipe me out,... well, that doesn't sound very appealing. Besides, we've got racoons and opossums around here, and I know they like grapes. (The electric fence probably discouraged them, too.)

So I haven't decided yet. I'll keep the grapevines, but I might not net them this year, just to see what happens. Will the squirrels eat them? Will I get any grapes at all without keeping the birds away? I just don't know.

Everything else - all of my trees - are going. I've started chopping them down already. (Some of this isn't because of the squirrels. I'd already decided that my sweet cherries weren't worth it. They were getting too big to net, so the birds were getting all the fruit that the bugs and fungal diseases hadn't already destroyed.)

My last remaining pluot tree - "Flavor Supreme" - had probably the best tasting fruit I've ever eaten. But there were never enough on the tree to make it worthwhile. This year there were just four fruit on the tree - which is still twice as many as I've ever had before - but the squirrels destroyed them before they got ripe. So it's gone now, but I was probably going to get rid of it, anyway.


Oddly enough, one of the worst things about this has been that I've taught my squirrels to fear me again, since I've been (futilely) chasing them out of the backyard. They were so tame, they'd come running right up to me in the front yard.

And at first, as I noted, I had trouble getting them to run away at all. I'd throw a stick at them, and they'd just sniff at the stick, expecting to find something good to eat. I'd run at them, stomping my feet and yelling, and they'd just look at me in amazement, wondering what in the heck I was doing.

Eventually, I had to poke several of them hard with a stick, just to get them to run. (Even then, they'll only run as far as they have to. You can't bluff them. If you want them to leave, you have to chase them the whole way.)

But now, they won't come up to me on the front porch, either. Well, one squirrel still runs up for peanuts, but even he is warier than he used to be. That's a shame. They're a pain sometimes, but they're still fun to have around.

I mean, sure, we were at war. But we could still be gentlemen about it, right? :)

Now that I've surrendered,... well, we'll just have to see. I'm still going to want to grow tomatoes. And strawberries. And raspberries. So we'll still have skirmishes, I'm sure. I doubt if we'll ever have that understanding between the front yard and the backyard again.


Chimeradave said...

that's crazy your neighbors should have to buy you all the fruit you lost. What is their problem with the fence?

WCG said...

I don't know, John. They never said a word to me about it - still haven't, in fact. But at this point, it hardly matters.

Tae Kang said...

Hi Bill,

I have the same "squirrels vs a dozen fruit trees" war going on yearly in my backyard in Cupertino, CA. I stumbled across your blog while researching electric net fences and now I'm very depressed about my prospects.

I was genuinely sad for your loss. If it were me, I would not have let my neighbors influence me to remove MY electric fence. I hope you ultimately found peace with your outcome. I intend to continue my fight (3 yrs into it so far with better results each year).

Bill Garthright said...

Oh, well, this is one of the problems with living in town, Tae Kang. If it violates the city code, it will only last as long as no one complains about it.

I still grow strawberries, raspberries, sour cherries, and grapes. The squirrels will eat the strawberries, but since they're right up next to the house, and I'm nearly always home, I can keep them away for the relatively-short time they're in season. (Luckily, they won't eat strawberries while they're still green, as they will many other kinds of fruit.)

They eat some of the grapes, too, but not other varieties. But the birds are a far bigger problem, since my grapevines get harder and harder to net every year. The last two years, I've just let the birds eat them all.

Besides, I've taken all that space and use it to grow tomatoes now. Last year, I had so many tomatoes I struggled to even give them all away. (I also grow asparagus. I love it, but the squirrels don't.)

Anyway, thanks for the comment. Hang in there. The electric fence worked for me, as long as I had it. But if there's any way the squirrels can get past it, they'll find it. So it just depends on your own circumstances.

If it doesn't work,... maybe try to find something they don't like very much? For example, they don't eat my sour cherries. Twice this year, they got under the bird-netting and chewed up some branches (and the netting) getting out again, but the cherries themselves are too sour for them, apparently.

Good luck!