Sooner or later, most every farmer or homesteader runs smack up against the problem of one or more marauding groundhogs. The burrowing busybodies may only weigh 5 to 12 pounds, but — once they've found you — these unstuffable greens lovers can carve their way through your vegetable garden, your hay field, and even your flowerbed!
As if that's not enough devilment, the energetic rascals (scientists call 'em Marmota monax down east and Marmota flaviventris out west, but the locals call 'em woodchucks, rockchucks, marmots ... or just plain trouble) dig billions of pounds of dirt a year. A cow, a horse, or even a human can easily break a leg in one of their steep den entrances. Heck, tractors have been known to overturn in collapsed burrows.
Of course, groundhogs aren't all bad. They do aerate the soil, provide dens for other wildlife, and — come February — signal the end of winter. But when a family of the earth-sheltered squatters decides to belly up to your butterbeans, you have to do something about it. Here are a few methods of groundhog control.
The most considerate was to deal with a problem 'chuck would be to simply plant the critter a garden of its own. Just find the ground-grubber's burrow holes (a den may have as many as five) and sow some nearby crops of those woodchuck favorites, alfalfa and clover. This cooperative approach won't keep the mining marmot from digging more holes (and I can't even swear he'll stick to his greens and stay out of yours) but — for folks who're opposed to sterner measures — it's certainly worth a try.
Some folks transport their groundhog problems away. This isn't as big a moving job as it may seem, because the territory-minded rooters either live in one-family units, or bunk alone and "batch it." So, if you can capture your current landmates, drive them away to wilderness country, and then plug their vacant holes (to keep any home-seeking "buck" chucks from moving right in), your troubles may be over.
The best way to capture the mammals is to use a live animal trap. [EDITOR'S NOTE: The Havahart people make a darn good "catcher." Or you might read This Humane Trap Can Guard Your Vegetable Patch! and build your own!] Such devices won't harm the marmot or any other innocent critters who stray in. Simply bait the cage with vegetables (use all the tricks you can think of to keep your "giveaway" human scent off the trap), then set it in a likely spot and wait for results. One more tip: When you finally release the furry felon, keep your mitts away from its teeth!
If neither "sharing" nor "snaring" solves your groundhog predicament, it's time for more direct tactics. One plan I don't recommend is trying to fence the scourges out. Woodchucks can scamper over wooden fence posts and dig under metal ones. Of course, you could (with a lot of sweat) bury an 18-inch wall of chicken wire, but a shrewd 'hog will remember that his own den entrance is a four-foot vertical shaft and just burrow right below your barrier.
I don't have a garden fence — or garden woodchucks either — but then, I own one of the world's great groundhog discouragers: Mooch. That energetic canine of mine barks like a hot-tempered demon at any intruder in "her" yard or garden, and the local groundhogs are convinced she's a killer.
Ol' Mooch has more bark than bite, though, so it's fortunate that our resident woodchuck's a patsy because a scrappy 'hog can wound a normal-sized dog and even kill a small one. If you decide to use a "garden guardian," be sure the chuck-chaser is either a coward at heart (so it can escape when the going gets tough) or both big enough and fierce enough to finish what it starts.
Now, all the suggestions I've given so far are basically nonviolent, amicable ways to resolve your woodchuck disputes, and such ideas will work for most folks. But "most folks ain't all folks," so peaceful solutions might not do the job for you. In spite of your efforts, that pernicious bunch of crop crooks may keep devouring your tender, succulent plants (and believe me, groundhogs can ravage a garden). When that happens, you have to make a tough choice: them, or you.
If you choose "them," you might try smoke-bombing the critters' burrows. Most farm supply stores carry the firecracker-sized sticks you'll need for this common 'hog-killing tactic. What you do is plug all but one of your woodchuck holes, poke the lighted fume spreaders down the last entrance, and then immediately fill the opening. Your groundhogs should expire quickly and quietly. (The bombs — obviously — won't work if the animals don't happen to be at home.)
Smoke bombing is neat and effective. But if you've got to declare war on the varmints it's a lot more useful to trap or shoot' em because, to tell the truth, groundhog meat make excellent eating. American Indians, early settlers, and plenty of present-day farmers have all enjoyed the rabbitlike meat. Not only that, tanned chuck hides make very durable rawhide thongs, too! [EDITOR'S NOTE: For more on tanning, read How We Tan Sheepskins Into Beautiful Rugs, How We Tan Pelts the Easy Way and How to Enjoy Furs Without Killing Animals.
The best meat-saving weapon for a markswoman (or - man) to use is a .22 rifle. Just carefully stalk your garden raider until you can be sure of a clean and humane head shot. (Or use the baited live trap I talked about earlier and finish off the beast at close range.)
No matter what way you catch your supper, it'll taste a lot better if you bleed and clean the woodchuck immediately. One of my favorite recipes begins, "Have someone else clean your freshly killed groundhog." Fortunately, the job is easier than that line implies. Bleed the carcass by cutting off its head and hanging it upside down. Then remove the paws, slit the skin near the middle of the back, and slip the hide from the body.
Next, discard the innards. Be sure to cut off the tear-shaped musk glands. These gray or tan sacks lie on the small of the marmot's back and directly behind its forelegs.
If your groundhog is stuffed with pre-winter plumpness, you can chill the carcass and scrape the fat off with a spoon. Then, cut the meat up into nice, eating-size sections. (At this point, you'd best tenderize an older "toughie" by some prolonged freezing or parboiling.)
The last step is to soak the meat for a day or two to get rid of any gamy taste. You can fancy up the basic marinade—salt water—by adding vinegar, red wine, onion, garlic, sage, thyme, bay leaves, or all of the above depending on how much gaminess you want out and "familiar" flavor you want in.
When all that preparation's done, you can roast, bake, fry, or stew your viands the same way you'd do chicken. Of course the flavor's different, but that's fine by me. I wouldn't swap a good groundhog for a case of the barnyard bird. And what's more, I always serve my woodchuck flanked by fresh garden produce: vegetables that probably wouldn't be on my plate if the groundhog weren't there too.
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