by Marilyn Munzert
Most of us appreciate Mother Nature’s wild critters, but not in our pastures and barns. Yet the feed, water and shelter we provide our equine friends are accommodations some varmints can’t resist. If wild things set up digs in your horse’s space, here’s how to cope.
Some creatures are merely a nuisance, while others pose health and safety concerns that must be addressed. Opossums host equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM), skunks and raccoons can harbor rabies, and all three, along with other creatures as diverse as mice, fox and groundhogs can carry strains of leptospirosis (a deadly bacterial disease). The holes and tunnels they burrow injure horses’ legs and provide shelter for other species, such as snakes, to homestead. Most of these critters consume and contaminate feed.
The barnyard interlopers most of us like least are rats. Less worrisome but almost as annoying are pesky mice. Attracted by easy meals, shelter and water, they nibble holes in blankets, gnaw tunnels in walls and give us heart palpitations when they launch their furry bodies from grain sacks as we unsuspectingly scoop out feed.
While barn cats are a traditional control, they usually can’t handle huge, established rodent populations. Most people trap or poison mice and rats, but these ploys have definite pros and cons.
Poison seems neat and tidy. Its’ obvious drawback: Poison also kills unintended targets, such as dogs, cats and birds that consume it directly or via a poisoned mouse or rat. Plus, it’s far less humane than the swift death dealt by a snap trap.
Remember, rat poisons are deadly to other species, even humans. If you do choose this route, call in the big guns: a professional exterminator who knows how to safely handle and place the deadly stuff. If you must do the job yourself, put poisons in secure bait stations, such as 18 inch long, 2-to 3- inch diameter pipes or under 18-inch boards nailed at an angle to the wall. Rats are suspicious feeders. They may nibble enough poisoned bait to make themselves sick, then refuse bait altogether. Nonpoisoned bait should be offered for at least five days in many locations along walls, on beams, in tack-room cabinets and other high rodent activity areas, before lacing it with poison. Carefully follow all bait directions and precautions. Remove cats and dogs from the premises. To dispose of dead rodents, put on rubber gloves and place the corpses in seal-tight bags before placing in a trash can.
The trick to evicting opossums, skunks and raccoons is removing the perks that often attract them. If your home is in proximity to your barn, you’ll have to varmint-proof your yard, patio and garage too. When you do, midnight marauders generally move to friendlier digs.
Don’t feed opossums, skunks or raccoons, intentionally or otherwise. Store all grain and supplements in secure, lidded containers. If rats aren’t a problem, plastic will do; otherwise steel trash cans or food-grade 55-gallon drums work well. Weight, wire, bungee cord or clamp lids down tight and, if necessary, secure cans to a support. Don’t leave kibble in a bowl for the barn cats or Fido, and clean up leftover grain from around your horse’s feeder.
If you live on the premises, store household garbage in tightly lidded, tip-proof containers. Mist them with ammonia solution as an extra precaution or toss ammonia-soaked tags or mothballs in the trash. Scour and store the barbecue grill after each use. Situate compost heaps, poultry shelters and bird feeding stations far from the barn. Don’t let windfall fruit rot under trees.
Besides food, opossums, skunks and raccoons are attracted to barns and nearby yards and structures when seeking shelter. Junk piles — lumber, brush, etc. — provide ready-made burrows and hideyholes for numerous little beasties. Plug spaces and existing burrows under barn and outbuilding foundations, making sure no critters are at home when you do. If in doubt, shove a mechanic’s droplight or a portable radio under there, cranked up loud for a day or two to drive inhabitants from their den.
Groundhogs (also known as woodchucks or whistle pigs) can earn a place on most horse keepers list because of the multi-entrance burrows they build in pastures and under building foundations, inviting broken legs, damaged farm machinery and collapsed concrete floors.
Since groundhogs generally fare well when “transplanted,” live trapping is a viable option. More deadly controls, such as poisons and gas, are best administered by professionals.
Before West Nile Virus made its North American debut, most of us considered farmyard birds merely a nuisance. Now we want them out of our barns. The best way to send them packing: don’t provide them with food and water. Keep grain supplies covered and sweep up spills, even dribbles left after horses have eaten. Fill barnyard puddles and ruts, discard water-holding junk, and keep water levels in water troughs beyond the reach of birds perching on their edges.
Other natural ploys: remove nests from beams and overhangs, build a “cat walk” up to the rafters so barn cats can do their jobs, or use any of the visual and auditory scare devices available from pest control outlets.
Few of us are ambivalent about snakes. Yet only 17 of our 115 North American species are poisonous, and most barn snakes are very efficient mousetraps. If mice are a problem and you are not afraid of snakes, consider letting nonpoisonous barn invaders stay.
To prevent snakes in your barn, keep your mouse population in check and eliminate the sort of lodgings serpents prefer to call home. Haul lumber, brush, rock and junk piles far from your barn, mow surrounding areas, and keep tall weeds and low-slung shrubs pruned away from building foundations.
No matter which of these varmints you must deal with, prevention is worlds better than cure. Appreciate these creatures as they were meant to be – in the wild, far from your pastures and barn.