A local farmer recently approached me with a request to remove a few gluttonous ground hogs from his truck patch. Having been in the ground hog “removal” business since the late 1950s, I jumped at the chance to spend some quality time outdoors, munching cucumbers and occasionally sniping at the voracious intruders with my trusty .22.
Right away some folks will say, “Oh, woodchucks are cute. How can you shoot them?” I usually reply, “With a rifle or shotgun,” but I don’t think that’s what they mean. The truth is that one “cute,” fat ground hog is an eating machine that, from a farmer’s standpoint, is an expensive nuisance. It’s been calculated that a single woodchuck can denude a full acre of alfalfa in one season, which is the equivalent of five to seven TONS of alfalfa. That’s a lot of alfalfa! The more alfalfa you have the more woodchucks you’ll attract, and ‘round and ‘round it goes.
My farmer actually started the bidding with an offer of (believe it or not) $100 per woodchuck. Are you kidding me? At least that’s what I asked him. Back in my younger days a farmer gave me 25 cents per ground hog and I thought I was going to be rich considering that a box of 50 .22 Short rounds sold (back then) for about $1. Donald Trump would have loved the profit potential!
I was not about to take $100 for shooting woodchucks but I did finagle a few free ears of corn, cucumbers, peppers and beans in exchange, but I was surprised to find that his offer still would not cover the damage an adult ground hog could do to a commercial garden.
As we walked the property to survey the damage and find the best, safest places to shoot from, I was amazed to see how much damage the ‘chucks had already done.
“I had over 1,000 sets of broccoli out here,” the farmer said. “They’re all gone.”
A “set” of broccoli would produce one big head and several smaller shoots, all worth about $10, so we were looking at $10,000 worth of damage. The rows of cucumbers, sweet potatoes and onions nearest the wood line were also nibbled down to the black plastic weed cover, suggesting that the hungry rodents had devoured about $20,000 worth of produce. Plus the farmer had no choice but to replant and hope for a better return, which is where I came in.
We figured there were “two or three” ground hogs doing the damage but we had miscalculated on that score. The first afternoon I guarded the plot I shot five woodchucks and saw two more that saw me first. The next night I moved to a more advantageous spot and removed three more woodchucks, and on the third night I showed up an hour later, just at sunset, and killed two more – big, fat, roly-poly specimens that were eagerly working their way up the rows of cucumbers as if they were being paid by the pound. The farmer was ecstatic and I was surprised that I’d encountered 10 woodchucks in a field that was less than 50 yards square.
I was not going to remind the farmer that, according to his original offer he owed me $1,000, but I did tease him a little about it. I told him I could make a good living picking up road-killed ‘chucks or shooting them elsewhere and bringing them back to his farm to collect the bounty. Of course, it was all in jest. I was more than happy to help him out in exchange for a few ears of just-picked corn.
This farmer also had trouble with deer, raccoons and porcupines, all of which cause damage to plants and produce and create a serious divot on end-of-the-year profits. Later this summer he’ll have me posted at a corner of his cornfield where, believe it or not, coyotes are the biggest problem. They like the taste of sweet corn, too, and overnight can devour a bushel or more per coyote. And then there are the bears...
By the way, my farmer friend does have an electric fence around his vegetable patch which, sadly, has no effect on woodchucks, porcupines and raccoons, which can walk right under the lowest wire without touching. The deer and bigger animals shy away from the fence but will walk the entire edge hoping to find a weak spot. Coyotes are especially good at thwarting farm defenses, by the way. I walk the electric line, too, and am always amazed at how small a gap it takes to satisfy the needs of a hungry coyote. They usually crouch down near the fence posts and do a little judicious digging if necessary which makes it easy to find their fence-line crossings.
Coyotes are more difficult to outwit because they are nocturnal and have a much larger home range. The average woodchuck will live where he eats, often literally inside a succulent field or garden, but a coyote will travel many miles per day in his quest for food. He’ll be back to visit the cornfield or garden at some point but there’s no telling when he’ll return.
My vegetarian friends are often shocked to find that so many animals are being killed to protect their beloved broccoli, Swiss chard, lettuce, cucumbers and other fruits and vegetables. When a farmer is willing to offer $100 to remove woodchucks from his sweet potato patch you know the critters are cutting deep into his profit margin. Crop depredation (meaning animals destroying crops) is a serious problem in Maine and elsewhere and farmers have no choice but to take action if they want to have anything left to sell to their customers.
Meanwhile, I’m in “hog” heaven because I get to enjoy fresh produce right off the vine and all the tasty woodchuck stew I can eat!