By Alberte Villeneuve
Alberte Villeneuve-Sinclair is the author of "The Neglected Garden/Le jardin négligé" and "Une prière pour Hélène". Her website is www.albertevilleneuve.ca.
My daughter and son-in-law are dealing with a mess: two gaping holes in their living-room roof. You may have guessed that the perpetrator is a raccoon who wanted to build his home there. We live on the same street, at the eastern edge of Ottawa. It’s countryside. The raccoon has abandoned his project and they are left with a roof to repair.
Being a country girl, I have seen my fair share of critters. I thought you might like to hear a few of the stories that have been committed to memory and are now part of the gardening folklore of this family.
One of the stories deals with a very impertinent groundhog. As you may know, they have no shame. When I lived in Carlsbad Springs, my garden was situated behind the tool shed. Since we only had neighbors on the one side, critters could come and go as they pleased. This particular groundhog had established residence under the tool shed and had planned everything quite conveniently. One exit led to my garden where he could munch and lunch without being seen, the other exit led to the shed steps where the rascal would sun in the afternoon, the last exit led north to the open field, an emergency exit only. Now, any gardener knows how frustrating it is to find your lettuce has been munched, your bean plants have been topped. This monster had to go. There were plenty of dandelion greens in the nearby field ... I would chase it down with a broom but he had every intention of staying and defying me.
I called Natural Resources and asked if they could help. They said they could come over and trap the critter as long as I was sure it wasn’t a skunk. Having grown up on a farm, I assured them I could tell the difference between the two critters. They could trust me!
They set up the cage with tantalizing vegetarian fare which I gladly provided. This groundhog was such a glutton; it didn’t take long to get caught. I paid a fee and they took the squatter away. This latest caper amused my daughter who was then in intermediate school. While I wrote my first novel, she wrote the story of Emma, the groundhog who had planned to fatten up at the gardener’s expense so she could attract a next door male groundhog, already plump and living well. The story won her a first literary prize. She would write two more about animals, one about a squirrel, a second about her pet rabbit and our dog, Nico. A fourth one was an interesting story relating to the “Mer bleue” bog and its legends. She was even published before I was!
Squirrels have been another challenge. We had our first attic visitor while still in Carlsbad, but the biggest challenge would come when we moved to our new home, further east. We ended up with twelve red squirrels in our attic. We figured two families ... As my husband prepared to call the exterminator, I offered to take my “critter cage” out. By then, I had had enough critter experiences to invest in one. It took less than a day to catch the first squirrel. They cannot resist peanut butter! Brian gladly offered to relocate the squirrel in the local forest. When a second squirrel was caught the same day, my husband took over, claiming that was easy. We registered every catch and where the squirrel had been relocated. Twelve of them! We then had to change all the roof vents. The wire mesh barriers had been chewed away on all of them. We chose a sturdier model that had metal slits instead.
Meanwhile, groundhogs continued to be a pest. We would catch and relocate them. But one morning, Brian walked up to the “critter cage”, thinking we had another brown veggie-devouring beastie to deal with. Only this time, it was a skunk and it sprayed him as soon as he got close. What an experience! For some reason, the smell lingered in his mustache and it had to be shaved off. Little Lea didn’t recognize her granddad that morning! I had a surprise of my own when one day, I ran to the garden, brandishing my broom, ready to shoo away another nasty groundhog. But this critter ran down the ditch and hissed at me. It made the hair at the back of my neck bristle! This critter was a fisher!
The next critters were quite astounding! A whole family of beavers! We didn’t notice them at first but found it very strange that the water level in the municipal ditch behind the property was unusually high that spring. All of a sudden, birches and poplars started disappearing, the telltale sign of beaver marks left on the stump. A neighbor’s dog was attacked. More trees disappeared ... I decided it was time to call the Ministry of Natural Resources once more. They sent out a licensed trapper as the beavers had set up a dam across the municipal ditch and would soon cause the local properties to be flooded. It turned out it was a family of five beavers, with the heaviest one weighing 65 pounds. We were grateful for this trapper’s expertise.
Finally, my husband decided to offer the ultimate gift to this gardener: a white link fence. He thought for sure my problems were over. He even put some mesh fencing in the ground, around the garden. But lo and behold, three groundhogs still managed to dig under the mesh.
Cottontails were local visitors too! Fortunately, the fence worked wonders to prevent them for entering the garden and we were very careful to close the gate every time we entered the garden area. My two neighbors were not so lucky. The cottontails munched on their veggies!
My latest visitor has been a doe who chumps down my decorative grasses. I saw her last year, munching on Sarah’s greens at sundown. As I got up from my porch chair, the doe bolted and was gone in a flash.
We don’t have cottontails anymore since a vixen raised a family of kits on the back knoll two years in a row. I saw her this spring. She had obviously been nursing. She looked scraggly, tired and ravenous. Obviously, she had lice; she rolled and scratched and shook her body to fluff up the fur. She then headed for the pine tree area where she unearthed a piece of food: a mole or mouse.
You never know which critter will show up next! My daughter found an owl in her garage one day ... It’s all part of living in the countryside, where I belong. So I’m not complaining too much!
You will notice I haven’t mentioned bugs yet! That would be another story altogether. Next time!
15 May 2009 — Return to cover.