Setting Live Traps for Mammalian Garden Pests

Reader Contribution by Eric Reuter and Chert Hollow Farm
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Setting a live trap for groundhog, with metal stake to hold the trap firm and bait wedged behind to lure animal deep inside. 

Mammalian garden pests can do serious damage to your crops in a short period of time. Whether it’s rabbits reducing your lettuce, raccoons rampaging in the sweet corn, or groundhogs gorging on greenery, a furry invader with a taste for produce must be stopped. Preventative measures, such as fences or guard animals, should be the first line of defense.

My wife and I always prefer to create a situation that keeps an animal from being a problem — this is generally less stressful for both us and the wildlife. However, preventative measures sometimes fail, and once a critter gets a taste of fresh produce, it becomes much harder to deter. Sooner or later, most gardeners in our wildlife-rich world will decide that it is time to trap an invader and remove it from temptation.

Humane live traps, such as those made by Havahart, are a practical answer to this situation, but outwitting the animal can also be frustrating. Here are a few tips from our experience battling mammalian marauders.

Locate the Trap Along Known Routes

Live traps will be more effective if the intended animal is sure to encounter them. Look for established paths or areas where you know the critter has been moving. For example, seek out a hole in your fence that they’ve pushed through, an entrance to a burrow, or a well-worn path to and from the garden.

Ideally, set up the trap to naturally funnel the animal into it by orienting the door against a hole or burrow, or setting up barriers to guide the animal in.

Mask the Appearance and Aroma of the Trap

Some animals are wary of an unfamiliar metal cage, so disguising the trap can help it blend in with the surroundings and deter the animal from clambering all over it and pawing for the bait from the outside. We sometimes use grass clippings or straw for this purpose. However, do not cover the trap with artificial items such as plastic bags — we did so only once and returned to find the plastic shredded into hundreds of pieces by the angry raccoon below.

For tough-to-trap critters such as crafty groundhogs, you might also consider the scents associated with the trap, which may include human smell or musk from a previously trapped animal. We wash the trap well in such a situation, and we will often rub the bait — such as a piece of overripe melon–over the outside of the trap to mask other scents.

Ensure the Trap Stays Upright

A trap just sitting on the ground can fail in multiple ways. If an animal intrigued by bait climbs onto it, or tries to reach inside, the trap can tip over and trigger the door, ending its usefulness and frightening (or possibly educating) the target. Even if the trap works, a trapped animal attempting to escape can tip over a loose cage.

The doors on many live traps only stay closed when the trap is upright, so a cage tipped on its side can release a trapped animal that may well avoid such traps in the future. We pass a metal or fiberglass rod through the cage mesh at the far end from the door and drive it into the ground as far as practical, preferably at least 6 inches.

Alternatively, it could work to lash a trap to a post or tree, or pile rocks or concrete blocks against it. Just be certain that any objects against the trap don’t interfere with the door release mechanism.

Select the Right Bait for the Target Animal

The ideal bait for a live trap is cheap or abundant, easy to deploy, relatively stable, and highly attractive to the particular target. Lettuce, for example, is not ideal bait for rabbits because it will probably wilt before the animal gets a chance to be tempted by it. The bait should also be special: something that animal does not otherwise have access to.

For example, we won’t use the crop being raided to bait the trap, since the target animal is unlikely to be enticed into a metal box to eat something it knows how to pick right off of the plant. Peanut butter is a good all-around bait that will catch many critters, particularly raccoons, opossums, and even the occasional skunk (oops!).

For rabbits, we have had success with sweet potatoes, either plain roots or sprouted with leaves. We’ve tried overripe musk melons for groundhogs based on other advice, though success has been limited. Memory says that we once trapped a long-elusive groundhog with peanut butter when we were going after a raccoon, but we attribute that to good trap placement and a little luck.

Place the Bait with Care

Standard instructions say to place the bait just beyond the trigger plate, but bait placed too near the trigger, or too loosely, can make it easy for a crafty critter to grab it and retreat without setting off the trap. If baiting with peanut butter, we’ll smear some directly onto the trigger, encouraging the animal to lick and jiggle it. The rod we use to hold the trap down also comes in handy for baiting.

A little peanut butter smeared high on the rod way at the back of the trap can encourage the animal to come deep into the trap where it is almost certain to put its weight on the trigger. Non-smearable items, such as melon, can be wedged behind the metal rod, once again forcing the animal to delve deep into the trap.

We’ll sometimes put a bit of bait in front of the trap, giving the critter a free trial and enticing it to enter the shop for more.

Use a Remote Camera to Monitor the Pest and the Trap

Over the past few years, we’ve monitored mammalian activity with “trail cams” of the kind used by hunters to scout game. These simple devices pair a basic digital camera with motion detectors, scanning their field of view and snapping photos of anything that moves. Many include infrared night-time capability as well. If you have a pest problem, consider using a trail cam to monitor the situation before setting a trap, to learn what you’re dealing with, and when and where it’s moving. This information will help you set a trap more effectively.

Once the trap is set, it may be worth leaving a trail cam to monitor the trap. This way, even if you don’t catch anything, you’ll know whether (and when) anything nosed about, and can improve subsequent efforts. If you do catch something, you’ll learn when it happened, behavioral information you can store away for future efforts.


An overnight remote trail-cam image showing a fox investigating a trap which has already caught a raccoon.

Check the Trap at Least Daily and Rebait as Needed

It’s important to check any set trap at least once a day. Even a “humane” live trap is a very stressful experience for the animal caught in it, and the trapped animal should be dealt with as soon as possible. Once you’ve lived-trapped your intended target, your next step is legally constrained by the wildlife code or other relevant laws in your state. It’s worth researching and considering your options, both legal and ethical, before deciding how to proceed.

If the trap was unsuccessful, bait may need to be refreshed. Peanut butter can be eaten by ants; melons that started as too overripe for us can soon become too overripe even for a groundhog. Also consider changing the location or the bait.

Finally, it is worth considering whether something could be done differently to prevent an animal from becoming a problem in the first place. Could electric fences around specific tasty crops keep out the problem critter? Would other deterrents have done the trick? Trapping problem animals is one of our least favorite activities, so it’s worth putting some thought and effort into ways to minimize this task, always striving to keep trapping as a means of last resort.

Eric Reuter and his wife, Joanna, founded their homestead farm in 2006, within a narrow Ozark-style valley with diverse landscapes and ecosystems. Chert Hollow Farm seeks to integrate food and farming into the ecosystem, at various times managing vegetable & grain crops, perennial fruits, dairy/meat goats, poultry, timber resources, and natural habitats. Read all of Eric’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here

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