Woodchucks are difficult to control; try a rope fence & urine

Woodchucks, also called groundhogs, can damage a garden. A rope fence sprayed with bobcat urine seems to be the best way to keep them away from your plants. Photo courtesy Brett Marshall, Sault College, Bugwood.org

by Connie Oswald Stofko

Maxine Osiewicz of Clarence watched last year as woodchucks decimated her dahlias.

“You could see the woodchucks slapping the stems down and eating all the leaves,” she said.

Woodchucks (also known as groundhogs) can damage trees and shrubs, too.

Woodchucks gnaw or claw woody vegetation, according to a factsheet by Paul  D. Curtis and Kristi L. Sullivan that was produced by Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Wildlife Damage Management Program. Woodchucks also strip bark at the base of trees near their burrow entrance to mark their territories.

The mounds of dirt left from digging those burrows can be a headache for gardeners as well.

The woodchuck population expanded when settlers cleared forests for farms, creating a suitable habitat for them. Today, this highly adaptable mammal commonly inhabits farm fields, suburban neighborhoods and idle lands, according to the Cornell factsheet on woodchucks.

This is similar to how we have created a great habitat for deer in our suburban gardens.

So how do you deal with woodchucks?

“They’re not easy,” said John Farfaglia, extension educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Niagara County.

Most of this article discusses things that don’t work because, well, a lot of the things you would expect to work aren’t effective.

What seems to be the best choice for gardeners is a single-strand rope fence sprayed with bobcat urine. See more in the section on repellents and fencing.

Why trapping & hunting isn’t practical

plants damaged by woodchucks
These plants are dahlias that were decimated last year by woodchucks. There are a few leaves on the top of the plant, but most of the other leaves are gone. Photo courtesy Maxine Osiewicz

While you are allowed to live-trap woodchucks on your own property, there is a catch. You can’t move the woodchucks off your property.

If you live in the city or suburbs, moving a woodchuck from one corner of your yard to another corner isn’t going to solve your problem.

However, you can hire a licensed professional to remove a woodchuck from your property. The DEC has a list of Nuisance Wildlife Control Operators here.

Hunting woodchucks on your small property is prohibited in New York State because you can’t discharge a firearm within 500 feet of a building or park. You can’t use a bow and arrow within 150 feet of a building or park. See all the details here. 

There are other lethal methods, such as using #2 foothold traps or #160 or #220 bodygripping traps placed at the burrow entrance.

However, even if you use lethal methods, the results are generally short-term. In a Pennsylvania study, 1,040 woodchucks were removed from a 600-acre site over four years without significantly affecting the population, according to the Cornell woodchuck factsheet. This was due to several factors, including increased birth rates and movement of animals onto the site from surrounding areas.

Repellants and fences

There aren’t any special repellents for woodchucks, and deer and rabbit repellents don’t work for woodchucks, according to the Cornell Factsheet.

However, the odor of a predator may repel woodchucks. Bobcat urine sprayed on the base of apple trees has been shown to reduce woodchuck gnawing by 98 percent relative to untreated trees.

(I don’t know who stocks bobcat urine locally. If you can’t find bobcat urine, coyote urine might work. No, I don’t know who stocks coyote urine locally, either.)

Bobcat urine used in combination with electric or rope fences reduced damage to cabbage fields in New York. In this study, electric fences alone or electric fences with cloth strips sprayed with bobcat urine were nearly 100 percent effective at reducing woodchuck damage to cabbage.

A single-strand rope fence sprayed with bobcat urine reduced woodchuck damage by 90 percent, according to the Cornell Factsheet, and is a simple, low-cost approach for homeowners.

Fencing by itself can be very effective at reducing woodchuck damage, but precautions must be taken to keep woodchucks from climbing over or digging under fencing. The Cornell Factsheet has details on how to set up effective fencing.

The factsheet also contains information on woodchuck habitat, food habits and general biology that you may find useful.

20 Comments on “Woodchucks are difficult to control; try a rope fence & urine

  1. Mike says, In Vermont we do what we want. Wouldn’t walk a thief 500 feet down the road to take care of the problem. Just call it home defense.

  2. I’ve found that a 22 long or a 20 guage is a very effective woodchuck deterrent. The archery equipment is a lot more of a challenge due to the whistle pigs shy nature.

  3. I have woodchucks periodically. One year it ate my phlox. Caught him red handed. The next year put green stakes around the plant and attached black plastic netting to it. Some of the leaves grew through it and from far you really couldn’t see the netting. It worked!

  4. Susan, another person at a community garden said they had a plot near the burrow with vegetables the woodchuck really likes. That way, the woodchuck doesn’t bother the other plants.

  5. It’s interesting that we do have different reactions and opinions on “nuisance” animals! Hawks are beautiful in flight… not so much hanging out at my bird feeders. I love Great Blue Herons but not visiting my fish pond; I also have a problem with feral cats because of their indiscriminate hunting. I urge anyone who has the need to eliminate mice and rats to not use poison of any kind because it can be life-threatening to owls, hawks, etc.

  6. I may be crazy but I live in South Buffalo and I have a lovely woodchuck living in my yard and he does not destroy my plants (although he did eat an entire sunflower bush once) instead he eats the dandelions, clover and violets in the grass. He also keeps the skunks and bunnies out of my yard (and the bunnies were previously eating everything!). He has his burrow tucked away in the corner of the yard and I’ve planted hostas near it so you can’t really see it’s there except in the spring time, honestly I think if you can find a way to coexist with a woodchuck and give them the native plants that would normally eat they make really great neighbors – I wouldn’t trade my woodchuck in for anything – have a great day!

  7. Meredith, to address your specific point about trapping and moving squirrels, raccoons, etc. The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation has a chart listing all these animals and whether you can “take” these animals. According to the NYS DEC, “”Take” or “taking” means to pursue, shoot, hunt, kill, capture, trap, snare or net wildlife and game; or perform acts that disturb or worry wildlife. Taking an animal is only suggested if other best practices do not help alleviate the problem.” See that chart here.

  8. I appreciate this discussion. It’s something we gardeners have to think about. Are we willing to use lethal methods on nuisance animals? I do it for slugs and some insects. We have had rats, and I used lethal methods then. (That was a health and safety issue that goes beyond rats being a nuisance in my garden.) At what point do we use lethal methods? Can we find other methods of dealing with the critters? Can we just live with them? We each have to think about that.

  9. Animal cruelty on any level bothers me and I’m glad to see I’m not alone! Unfortunately, I believe it is considered illegal in Erie county to trap and move any live animal… squirrels, raccoons, woodchucks, etc. The “Animal Control” people will kill any and all animals they remove. Not a good solution in my mind. You can also get dog hair from many groomers which is said to be a deterrent to some animals.

  10. Carol, if you remove a woodchuck from your property, where are you going to release it? Here is information from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation: “It is illegal for you to move or relocate an animal off your property. You cannot live trap an animal and release it in a park, on State land or anywhere other than on the property where it was captured. If you need a wild animal removed from your property, contact a Nuisance Wildlife Control Operator (NWCO). Relocating an animal can create problems for neighbors, can move diseases like rabies or Lyme, and can cause unnecessary stress to the animal. This task must be handled by a licensed professional.” These are things you can’t do; it’s unclear to me what a licensed professional does with the animals after trapping. My guess is that they would kill the animals as humanely as possible.

    I see that horses were mistreated in order to collect urine to make Premarin. However, companies that sell predator urine online say that the urine is collected through floor drains in pens and cages. The companies maintain that they treat the animals humanely.

  11. Meredith, it’s good to know that filling in the dens repeatedly will discourage woodchucks. Thanks for that tip.

  12. Carol, thanks for tip. Maybe that works because you’re not only blocking their burrow entrances, but you doing it with something that smells like a predator. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Linda, you can actually buy bobcat and coyote urine. I just don’t know who carries it locally. I don’t have a supply, but if you need rabbit droppings, I can help you out!

  14. I would like to know why a licensed professional can remove a woodchuck from my property, but I can’t? What do they do with them? Also, I don’t like the idea of using predator urine, because of such a horrific inhumane way that they collect the urine. It’s kind of like how they collect horse’s urine to make Premarin. It’s heartbreaking to know what these animals go through.

  15. I , and several of my neighbors had the little rascal(s) in our Parkside /North Buffalo neighborhood. The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that one of our neighbors thought they were cute and fed them?. We found the best deterrent was to find their dens and fill them in with rocks, dirt, etc. . You will need to do this more this more than once; I loved the suggestion to use used cat litter! Unfortunately if you call Erie County Animal Control they will be killed.

  16. Years ago a woodchuck made it’s den in the middle of a garden path, with the ‘back door’ under a favorite oak tree. That winter, I saved all Hobbes used kitty litter in a garbage can on the back porch. It froze, no odor. At the first sign of Spring, I dumped all of it down the holes. Woody immediately found a new home elsewhere.

  17. Love your sense of humor, Connie…….you don’t have a collection system set up to collect bobcat or coyote urine?….for shame!

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