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Battling the Varmint Cong

(Warning/spoiler – the last pic in this post has a dead animal in it)

It was mid-summer.  With all the moving, unpacking, and other projects, we’d gotten the garden in entirely too late.  To boot, I’d mixed too much compost into the soil, so the plants were on a nitrogen high, shoots and leaves out of control.  This was great for the lettuce and spinach, but not for the fruits and veggies.  In the presence of so much nitrogen, the plant will use it for growing vegetation, not vegetables.

But now, the garden was finally starting to produce.  The broccoli was flowering – I love broccoli.  The peas and beans were starting to form.  Tomatoes, cukes, zucchini, and peppers were budding.  Each day, we’d watch the garden’s progress with anticipation of fresh vegetables gracing our table.

It started with the broccoli.

One morning, nearly all the leaves and some of the flowers were gone in our row of one of our family’s favorite vegetables, nibbled by a sneaky broccoli assassin.

The damage started at about 1′ off the ground, so the first culprits I suspected were the deer that bed down in our woods.  Two does, one with twins and one with triplets, had been browsing around the farm.  We had a 6′ woven wire fence around the garden, but that evidently hadn’t stopped them.  What made us doubt the deer as our garden destroyers, however, was the absence of deer tracks between the rows.

Then we found the split in the fence behind the blackberry brambles, and I thought rabbits.  There aren’t many in this part of NH, but the chipmunks and squirrels that inhabit the surrounding woods weren’t big enough.  No problem, though… I repaired the fence, and that was that.

The next morning, there was a tunnel dug under the fence and the beans were in shambles. 

Elmer Fudd’s famous rendition of Wagner began playing in my mind…

Rabbits are easy to take care of.  I used to hunt them many years ago, and a bit of rabbit stew sounded like a good midsummer’s meal.  However, hunting equals time, and time was something I was pretty short of.  I couldn’t plan to spend a lot of it staking out the garden (it’s out of sight of the house itself).  This is where my old Boy Scout experiences (not to mention the taxpayer dollars invested in my USAF survival training) paid off.  I’d make some snares.

Wabbit (Sylvilagus wascallyus)

Snares have always been pretty successful for me, whether filling my belly during survival training or snagging some squirrels that had taken up residence in our attic when we lived in Alaska.  In fact, I had been enlisted to instruct survival skills at an Army camp later in the year, so this was a good time to brush up on those skills.  I picked up a coil of 20 guage brass wire from the hardware shop, fashioned a few snares, tied them to drag sticks, set them around the hole, and I was in business.  I went to bed with dreams of rabbit stew.

The next morning, the snares had all been pushed out of the way, and the peas were now damaged.  No problem, it was a bigger rabbit than I thought.  I made the snare loops larger and reset them.  Big rabbit meant more stew, right?

The next day, I found out that I’d made the snares the right size.  Two of them had been tripped, drug outside the garden… and snapped.  Now, I’ve caught a few cottontail rabbits (the kind we have here), and never have they snapped 20 guage wire.  During winter survival training in Alaska, we’d been told the snowshoe hares could do it, which is why we twisted the snare wire double.  But snowshoes don’t live down here.  My neighbors told me it was a woodchuck. 

Woodchuck (Marmotus destroyergardenus)

Time to get serious.

A buddy at work offered the use of some big live-catch traps, which I set to compliment the double-wire snares.  None of this worked.  The woodchuck wouldn’t set foot in the cages, and he’d figured out snares – he’d push them aside to get to our produce.  Over the next days, our garden was getting decimated.

One evening just before sunset, after a week of unsuccessful attempts at trapping the woodchuck, my wife saw it.  He was a big fellow, munching on dandylions near the edge of the horse pasture.  The next day, he was there again, within 5 minutes of the previous night’s time.  He’d violated a cardinal rule of guerilla warfare: never be predictable.

The next evening, I was ready.  A half hour before his normal time, I set up in the grass behind my portable turkey blind, our little .22 Crickett rifle loaded.  The time came and passed, and no varmint, just lots of mosquitos.  I put the rifle down to change positions and see if my leg would wake up again.  When I looked up, the woodchuck was staring at me.  I reached for the rifle but he dashed out of sight.  Foiled again.

Knowing he would be wary the next night, I thought about other places I could set up the ambush.  Because of the layout, there weren’t many options.  The upstairs balcony of the house would work very well, but the distance was greater than I could expect to shoot the Crickett accurately enough, and would require me to fire it over the horse runouts.  The best tool for that range (about 150 yards) would be my .300 Win Mag, but not only would that violate safety rules for lanes of fire, I was pretty sure that the earth-shattering blast that thing makes would send at least one of my horses over the fence.

I compromised, and the next night I set up a bit further back.  It limited my view of his approach, and it would be a longer shot for the stubby .22, but it would work.

The time came and went again, but just as I was getting ready to pack up, I saw him in a slightly different area, about 30 yards away.  Aim, breathe out, hold, and squeeze… and in the words of Bill Murray’s character in Caddyshack, “That’s all she wrote.”

The color, by the way, is pretty true in this pic.  Black is a color phase of some of the woodchucks in this area, although rarer than the browns and greys.

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