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What to do about uninvited diggers in the garden

“To dig in one’s own earth, with one’s own spade — does life hold anything better?”

— Beverley Nichols, “Down the Garden Path,” 1932

I agree with Beverley Nichols that digging in the earth is one of the most sublime pleasures of gardening; however, there’s an important distinction between digging in the garden with “one’s own spade,” and having uninvited visitors poking about.

I’ve had a lot of experience with diggers in the garden: my two dogs, pet rabbits, neighborhood cats, turkeys, rats, ground squirrels, moles, voles and, most recently, three young raccoons that have made themselves at home in the laurel hedge bordering our property in east Medford. They’ve found a steady supply of insects and earthworms under rocks lining the garden paths and beds, and they relish a morning swim in the backyard pond. They hiss at the dogs, and they cast baleful, beady-bright eyes at me if I dare to disturb their activities.

The raccoons have to go. For answers, I spoke with Dana Sanchez, associate professor and wildlife specialist for the OSU Extension Service, who said capturing the raccoons and releasing them elsewhere is illegal in Oregon.

“Translocation is not a humane option, and it’s not a legal option,” Sanchez said. Releasing animals in another place frequently transfers the nuisance to someone else. Also, introducing new animals may spread disease and disturb the ecological balance at the relocation site.

Raccoons are listed in the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s “furbearer” category, along with red/gray foxes, otters, beavers and bobcats. A permit is required from ODFW in order to capture and euthanize any of these animals on your property. Homeowners can also contact a licensed wildlife control operator to remove and euthanize the animals.

An ODFW permit is not required for onsite capture and onsite euthanasia of those listed as “predatory animals” — coyotes, rabbits, rodents, feral pigs — or for starlings, house sparrows and Eurasian collared doves. And permits are not required for onsite capture/euthanasia of species ODFW classifies as “unprotected mammals” — badgers, gophers, moles, yellow-bellied marmots, nutria, opossums, porcupines, spotted/striped skunks and weasels.

If any live species of predatory or unprotected animal is to be transported offsite for euthanasia, a transport permit is required from the ODFW regional office in Central Point (541-826-8774).

However, before setting out a trap or calling wildlife control, Dana suggests five considerations for management of diggers:

1. Correctly identify the nuisance animal. It’s important to know for sure what kind of animal you are dealing with, even though identification may be difficult if the animal is nocturnal.

2. Understand the animal’s ecology. In addition to learning what the nuisance animals eat, it’s helpful to know their annual and seasonal lifecycles, modes of travel, and how they reproduce.

It’s also important to understand how the animal provides ecological services. Gophers, moles, voles and many other diggers are native species that play a vital role in maintaining ecological balance. Even though diggers can become a nuisance, they also provide benefits — mixing up soil layers and bringing nutrients to the surface so plants can make use of them, depositing nitrogen, and aerating the soil.

3. Assess the extent of the nuisance. Knowing that many nuisance diggers are a natural part of the landscape, gardeners may want to adjust their expectations for managing them. Rather than trying to eradicate all the nuisance animals from the property, a more feasible plan may be to exclude them from particular areas, or accept minimal damage as a part of gardening in co-existence with wildlife.

4. Modify onsite habitat. Gardeners often inadvertently create the ideal habitat for uninvited wildlife by leaving out cat or dog food, throwing table scraps in an open compost bin, leaving trash can lids loose and bird feeders accessible. Ponds, fountains and water bowls provide drinking water.

Remove as many incentives as possible, block gaps in fences and gates, cover open vents leading to attics and crawl spaces, use straps to secure trash can lids, place 1/2-inch hardware cloth at the bottom of raised beds, and fence off garden plots. Whether a tall or short fence is needed depends on the nuisance animal; fencing that extends below ground is needed for diggers.

5. Use deterrence methods. Installing hotwires or devices can scare the animal with noise or light, or use materials that smell or taste bad to the animal. One wildlife control operator in Ashland suggested spreading cayenne pepper all around the areas I don’t want the raccoons to be. Changing deterrence tactics periodically helps prevent nuisance animals from getting used to them.

Sanchez will present “Dueling with Diggers” from 10:45 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. at the Winter Dreams/Summer Gardens Symposium Saturday, Nov. 2, at the RCC/SOU Higher Education Center, 101 S. Bartlett St. in Medford. Sanchez will also present “Be Bear Aware” at the conference from 9 to 10:30 a.m.

For more information about the symposium, see www.jacksoncountymga.org.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/ and check out her podcasts and videos at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.