Rodents in the Garden and Homestead

rat in garden, peeking rodent

Rodents can be a real problem in the garden and homestead. It seems that one day they’re not a problem and then one blinks and… they are a big problem!

“Rodent” can refer to a good many different species.

The term encompasses not only rats and mice, but also moles, voles, ground hogs, rabbits and squirrels, just to mention a few! In this article I’ll focus mostly on mice and rats, but remember, much of what is written here can also be applied to other kinds of rodents.

What do rodents do?

They damage crops.

rat damaged squash, rodent damaged squash
Rats hollowed out this squash, just before harvest.

Brooklyn Botanic Garden: Keeping Rodents Out of Your Garden

 

rodent damaged bean pod
Rodents will sometimes climb pole beans, eating the seed out of the bean’s pods.

 

rodent damaged corn
Mice chewed on this newly harvested corn, ruining much of it for seed and human consumption purposes.

They can damage buildings and equipment.

The other day I needed to water my sweet potatoes, which are set up with drip tape. No sooner was the water turned on and … we had a geyser in one of the rows. I had to shut down the water and find the spot where a rodent had chewed a hole in the drip tape.

hole in drip tape, rodent damaged irrigation

Rodents consume and contaminate feed.

rodent damaged feed
Mice ate a hole in a feed sack, causing this feed to be spread around… while they peed in it.

So what can a person do about rodents in the garden and homestead?

Strategies for dealing with rodents

1. Whenever possible eliminate their food.

This probably can’t be fully accomplished, as gardens and homesteads produce food. Still, we can harvest our crops in a timely manner and seek to cut down on excess feed laying out in the open. For instance, I try to feed my poultry more lightly in the evening, so that they clean it up completely before they sleep. Keep feed and edibles in closed containers when possible.

2. Cut down on their cover.

Cutting down weed patches and eliminating piles of debris, where rodents can hide out will help keep their numbers down. This can be a challenge, but it helps.

3. Kill them.

Don’t relocate, if you can help it. Relocating rodents only spreads the problem.  There are a number of ways to eliminate problem rodents.

Traps

This is probably the most common method for dealing with rodents in the garden and homestead. There are MANY kinds of traps. The most well known is wooden Victor mouse trap.

wooden Victor Mouse trap, snap trap, mouse trap
“SANY0039victorPre” by starpause kid is licensed under CC BY 2.

These traps do work and they are economical, but they aren’t ideal for dealing with a lot of mice. They come in a large size for rats, but rats do learn. Eventually the survivors leave them alone. They’re more economical than sticky traps, as they are reusable. There are a good many styles of live trap on the market. Most are good, though one then has to decide whether to release or kill the rodents and if kill, how? Drowning is probably the most common method, though there are other more elaborate methods.

Of all the traps I’ve tried, the best mouse trap I’ve found is the Tin Cat.

Tin alley cat mouse trap, excellent mouse trap
The Tin Cat requires no bait, if place along a wall, and can catch up to 30 mice at a setting! I’ve had mine for about 10 years and it’s still going strong.

Poison

Poison has the advantage of being able to kill a lot of rodents quickly. One just places it in a dark corner and it does its work. The main advantage of poison is that it very efficient. The main disadvantage to it is that it is extremely dangerous for other creatures.

rat poison in can, rat poison in sweet potato patch
I used to use rat poison in the garden to control rodents which ate my sweet potatoes. I’d put it in coffee cans to protect it from water.

Poison works. However, it works on unintended creatures as well. I discontinued it some years ago, after paying a hefty vet bill to save one of our dogs and then discovering that it killed box turtles which roam my garden.

Encourage natural predation

A number of wild animals eat mice: owls, hawks, fox, skunks, weasel, snakes

speckled kingsnake, king snake
Snakes are invaluable for rodent control

Let’s talk about snakes. They are perhaps the best wild animal for rat and mouse control. They’re quiet. They love the same habitat as the rodents themselves and, with a few exceptions, are harmless to humans. Okay! I know! Someone’s going to say that a snake’s going to give them a heart attack! But really, the great majority of snakes are beneficial and, many go unnoticed by their human landlords. Here’s a good article on Snakes in the Garden. I purposefully try not to till my garden with a rototiller more than absolutely necessary, and then I try not to do the whole thing at one time. This is an attempt to help the snake and turtle population. Most importantly… I leave them be when I encounter them.

Dogs

Our livestock guardian dogs catch and eat rats, but there are better breeds for ratting.

terrier, ratter
There are a good many breeds of dog, like the “rat terrier.” which can be effective for rodent control.

Dogs can be a big help, though having one is quite a responsibility. Most of the breeds which are great at ratting, can also be tough on other small (domestic) animals. If you go with a dog, plan on working with it and teaching it. Find someone who is successfully using one, and get some mentoring.

Finally, my favorite…

A cat

farm cat, tabby cat

Cats can be extremely effective for controlling rodents. I’ve heard that some commercial dairies nickname them “biological rodent control units.” Cats do kill and eat rodents but I’m convinced they scare them away more than anything. Without a cat I’m sure we had hundreds maybe thousands of rats and mice. I could see them scurrying in the weeds, near where we kept our feed. One year we lost about 500 lb of sweet potatoes, right out of the garden before we could dig them. But with a cat… we lost almost no sweet potatoes and rarely do I see rodents around our feed.

kitten in coffee can, little kitten
Even the presence of a kitten seems to deter rodents.

I’m convinced that rodents communicate among themselves, as it would be impossible for a single cat. unaided, to control as many rodents as it does.

One rat (or mouse) runs, screaming from our tool shed, exclaiming, “Aye!… It’s a CAT!!!” Word travels, as in the old game of telephone. Soon all local rodents hear that we have CAT(S)… big, blood thirsty, rodent killing cats. and nearly all the rodents migrate… to our neighbor’s place.  I think that’s how it works with a cat.

Advantages of cats

  • They are very effective.
  • Cats are friendly and lovable, with those who love cats.
  • They’re entertaining.

Disadvantages of cats

  • They kill more than rodents.
  • A cat is not cheap if one takes proper care of it.
  • In a truly rural environment cats are fragile. They often don’t last very long.

There’s no one solution that does it all. Everyone need to customize their approach according to their circumstances and needs. Did I miss anything? In the comment area tell us your favorite means of dealing with rodents.

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