Deer can be a major problem in rural and suburban gardens. Many people have given up gardening because the deer were eating more than they were. There are many home remedies for controlling deer: adding unfamiliar scents, placing scare crows, placing radios in the garden, etc. Most of these remedies work to some degree because deer are sensitive to a changed or unfamiliar situation and will avoid it for a few days unless they have had a taste of something especially good in the garden. The problem with all of these remedies is that they depend on you renewing the scent or changing the location of the scare crow or radio. It is just a question of time until the deer become adjusted to the situation and settle down to serious feeding.
When we discuss deer damage, we are talking about some very serious damage to a garden. 100 foot rows of soybeans with the top 1/3 eaten off (like a hedge trimmer) in one evening is just an appetizer for deer who have moved into your garden. They especially enjoy beans, peas, and broccoli, but will even eat tomatoe and potato foliage, squash and sample almost anything you have.
Once deer enter the garden and sample the absolutely tasty domesticated plants they prefer them to the wild varieties. If you can set up your home remedies BEFORE the deer enter your garden and sample the plants then you have a better chance of having your home remedy last longer because they have not been rewarded with a taste. Once they break in and taste what is available it is just a question of time till they move in.
So what is the solution? There is currently only one solution that is 100% effective, that is the 10 to 12 foot high fence (yes deer can jump almost that high!). Since that is not practical for most people we can be thankful that a special designed electric fence only 5 feet high works almost as well.
This fence works as much on deer psychology as electricity. The fence has 5 to 6 strands (6 is better) of electric fence. Each strand starting at the bottom is further away from the protected garden area than the one below it, so the fence slants away from the protected area at a 45 degree angle. So from the deer's eye view (outside looking in - hopefully), they see the upper strand (at 5 feet) first, the strand below it is a little further away, and so on down to the bottom strand that is the farthest away from them. The deer try to go under the top strand. As they move in, they touch one of the lower strands and get hit with a good shock (if you have your electric charger installed correctly -- see below). The interesting aspect of this design is that for some reason the deer do not normally attempt to jump over the fence (even though they can jump about 10 feet) because they can not tell where the fence ends. They apparently feel they will jump into the lower wires on the other side of the fence. Of course not being a deer we can only assume this is the reason.
What we do know is that this design has really worked quite well for people we know and there are ways of putting up this fence that make it easy and relatively cheap to install.
Since most gardeners would rather be gardening than putting in fence posts that have to be replaced in 15 to 20 years. We recommend attaching the fence to trees without hurting the trees. Trees last a lot longer than posts. If you put your fence through a forest surrounding your garden you have very little trimming to do under the fence because the forest shades many of the weeds. This also allows you to include your fruit trees and flowers in the protected area. So the easiest and cheapest fence is one that circles your garden, field, lawn, flowers, and fruit trees while passing just inside your forest.
We'll show some directions below on the details, but the general concept of using trees without injuring them is: where ever you have tension on your electric fence wire put the wire inside an old rubber hose before you put it on the tree (like you do when you train a tree to grow strait with guide wires and rubber hoses.)
The electric fence wire needs to be tight, So you start out attaching to a tree using the rubber hose method and about 100 feet later end with the wire attached to rubber hose on the other tension tree. All trees in between are merely holding the wire in position and can normally be attached with wire directly and no rubber hose (this saves work and hose).
If you have ever see a boxing ring, the ropes on the ring are attached to the poles that are outside the ring of ropes. Your fence is based on the same principle, but the bottom rope is farthest from the pole and the top rope is closest to the pole. This would be the simplest design: four poles one at each corner. As you add more poles you need to keep the tension on the wire so your poles need to begin to form more of a oval or circle than a square to keep the tension on the wires. It really doesn't seem to matter to the deer if the poles are on the inside or the outside of the wires, so if the best trees don't make a circle then you can go done a straight row if you alternate with trees on the inside and outside to keep the tension. Try it you'll see if you don't use an oval, or circle then you must alternative when ever the wires sag.
Attaching the fence to trees is the preferred method because trees last longer than posts and you save the cost and extra work of post installation. Where trees are not available, you can attach the fence to vertical posts (either cedar or metal) using the "boxing ring" method described above.
Pictured below is an alternate method, where the posts are at a 45 degree angle. It is difficult to dig holes to put cedar posts in at angle, but you can drive metal posts in at a 45 degree angle with a sledge hammer. Drive an 8 foot metal post (heavy duty post is preferred) so that the top of the post is about 5 feet (nose high) above the ground.
View below is inside the protected area looking out. Top of the fence faces away from the protected area. Plastic insulators (yellow) are used on these posts. (White Glass insulators last longer.) Use a minimium of 5 wires, 6 wires provides better protection.
The best idea may be to borrow a fence charger from a friend to test out a section of fence and see how you like it before you buy one. Chargers come in 110 volt AC, 12 DC, or 6 volt DC. If your garden is right near your house and you have 110 volt then that is usually cheapest. If your garden and fence is some distance from your house or if you are off the grid, then consider the 12 DC models. If you are off the grid and need the least expensive setup consider a 12 volt DC charger and run it on a good quality car or truck battery. You can add your own solar panel later. While you save for you solar panel you can recharge your 12 volt battery (never charge the battery while the charger is on) with a generator or if you don't have a generator, then switch your car battery with the charger battery when it needs a charge. The alternator in your car does a fine job of charging your 12 volt battery, and saves you the cost of a generator.
If you can afford it there is a commercial 12 DC solar charger that comes as a unit. It may be an option but make sure the newer models can charge a 12 DC car battery because they come with a gel battery and a 12 volt car battery is easy to replace and may come in handy if your car doesn't start in the winter. The is a 6 volt solar charger that is less expensive than the 12 volt solar charger, but the 6 volt battery can only be used for the charger, there are advantages to keeping everything 12 volt.
Batteries should not be drained below 50% charge for best battery life. According to some sources 12.2 volt reading on a battery means it about 50% charged, read the scale on your battery charger (if you have a scale) when you first begin charging to see how discharged it was. People say car batteries last longer if you charge them slowly (trickle charge, or about 2 amps) but that is not always possible.
You need to train your deer to your fence (see your fence charger manual). A little grain just inside the fence or better yet peanut butter (or peanut oil) on the fence wire will let them know what a fence is. Raccoons tend to train themselves because in trying to climb over the fence they usually grab the fence with their hands and get a pretty good shock. Occassionally a raccoon will jump the fence while getting a shock and get in to do some damage. Usually the shock on the way out and peer pressure (from other raccoon who avoid the fence) will keep them out in the future. Remember fence chargers are designed for domesticated animals and should not really hurt the deer or people. What farmer wants to kill his animal for trying to leave? So they should be safe. Any way that is between you and the fence charger company (read your manual - all fence chargers are slightly different). There may be zoning regulations in your area regarding electric fences. You may be required to put warnings on the fence or there may be other restrictions. Consult your local zoning code. Show the local kids your fence so they won't have to test it themselves.
If you want to test your fence to see if it has a good charge, some farmers use a stem of green (moist) grass and hold it so a few inches of stem extends beyond your fingers to where it touches the fence. Grass is a resistor and the longer the stem the less charge gets through to your finger. (the wetter the stem the better the conductor). To test the fence touch the fence with the stem with a few inches between your finger and the fence. Gradually shorten the distance between your finger and the fence until you feel a slight tingle in your finger (especially in your thumb nail). The longer the stem to get the tingle the better the charge. Use the same type of grass stem each time and you can get a good idea of the strength of the charge. A moist stem should give a good tingle at a couple of inches from the fence. You can buy something that measures this if you want.
You must install your fence charger correctly. Read your chargers directions. Grounding is ABSOLUTELY the most important secret to a good charge. Put in as many ground rods as the directions tell you and where they tell you -- it really does make a difference.
Some people find that in really dry conditions when its hard to get a good ground by standing on dry ground, they alternate the fence wires starting with the bottom wire grounded (instead of live) and the next one live. Some people ground every other wire in dry conditions. Others don't. The idea is the alternating wires make sure there is a good ground.
All this talk about grounding brings us to a good point about fences. The fence is putting out a charge 1 time every few seconds (the click you hear is the charge) the rest of the time it is not fully ON (as it looses charge between clicks). In addition, deer and other animals always wear their fur coats and fur is a really good insulator (also works for electricity). This means that some lucky deer may just walk through the fence with no effect at all. That is why you want to get them to test the fence (by putting out grain) so they have a better chance of touching a less insulated part (like the ear, face,) and that is why peanut butter is a one time learning experience (a nose or tongue is well grounded). Raccoons usually touch the fence with their hands and insulation by fur is not a problem unless they go under the fence. If they are getting under the fence make in lower so they will have to go over instead.
The key is, on average, a deer will get zapped when it tries to go through the fence. If it happens a few times, especially before they have too many snacks in your garden, they will learn. If you fail to set your charger up right or let it get shorted by weeds, or let the charger go off, then you are training the deer to try their luck on whether they will get in free or have to pay. You can actually ruin your whole fence investment if you get too sloppy with your fence maintenance. If you need help setting up your fence ask a local farmer or farm store for advice.
What if it is just your luck that a deer in your area will be the first to learn to jump over this fence and all the deer in your area learn to do the same? If this happens just add another strand of wire on top. So far this has not happened in our test. So before you spend all your life savings on a fence, test a small section to prove to yourself that that this design works to your standards in your area with your deer. We do not guarantee results, but it seems to work for us. People we know who use it say it's the best thing they have ever done for their garden, and besides we read it in a book: (book title to be listed here soon).
The deer fence system is based on a 5 to 6 strand electric fence slanted at a 45 degree angle away from the garden. The top of the fence is further away from the garden than the bottom [See Deer Fence System]. This system has worked very well for a number of years (over 20 years) with little need for modification. Occasionally a fallen branch or low charge on the fence battery has lead to an intrusion of deer for a night or two with not too much damage. The deer usually stopped coming back when the fence was repaired or in some cases peanut butter was added to aluminum tabs on the fence to attract the deer to smell the peanut butter and get a shock. This summer the deer have been a very serious problem as they seem to have discovered a method of getting through the fence on a more consistent basis and doing a great deal of damage over a period of about a week to the soy beans, dry beans, and string bean crop. The fence was checked for shorts, the battery was fully charged and the peanut butter application did not stop the assault. To deal with this emergency we did a review of the whole deer fence system.
An electric fence system is a system that works on percentages. Unlike a woven wire fence that provides a complete physical barrier to animals, an electric fence sets up a minimum cost physical barrier and adds a strong element of a physiological barrier in the form of an electric shock. The advantage of the electric system over the pure physical barrier is cost. The cost of building a 10 foot high woven wire fence is prohibitive for most large gardens. The electric fence wire is relatively cheap and easy to install. The power for the electric fence charger is easy to supply with either a 110 volt charger or a 12 volt dc battery at the fence.
The basic strategy of an electric fence is that in most cases an animal will get a shock when it attempts to go through the fence. The important point here is "in most cases". An electric fence system actually works by shocking the animal often enough in its attempt to get through that the animal (in this case the deer) usually gives up and stays out of the garden. To work efficiently an electric fence delivers a charge about once a second or so. It would be unrealistic to try to maintain a constant charge especially on a battery operated system as this would require too much energy. So once every second or so the charger sends out a charge of electricity (about 10,000 volts at very low amperage) to give a shock to anything touching the fence at the time of the charge. Normally an animal will approach the fence, and in the process of checking out the fence by sniffing or moving near it or attempting to move through, it will be in contact with the fence when the charge is released by the charger. Normally. There have been reports of incidents where animals have figured out ways of outsmarting the fence. A friend of mine had a goat that appears to have figured out by trial and error that the click on the charger was when the shock came and according to my friend the goat actually would rush the fence between clicks and get out of his fenced in area and head straight for the gardens and have a feast. As it turns out, rushing the fence (even if you don't know anything about the clicks on the charger) does appear to be a pretty good strategy for getting through an electric fence, especially if you pull your exposed ears down as you run through. The reason this is a good strategy is because fur is not only a good insulater for cold but also a pretty good electrical insulator as well. Ears need to held down because they are not well insulated. The normal reaction of an animal that is not familiar with a fence is to explore the fence before entering or walk through slowly and as a result it will come in contact with the fence while the charge is on the fence and usually with an exposed ear, nose or belly. So after this initial response the animal will be even more nervous on the next attempt and eventually the animal will learn to avoid the fence after a few shocks. Occasionally an electric fence will short out when a line is down, when weeds grow up to short the fence (when the fence is not properly maintained), or when a branch will fall on a line and short it out. With a shorted out fence, an animal testing the fence may get a greatly reduced shock or no shock at all. This leads to repeated attempts to test the fence especially if the animal was rewarded with either an escape (if it is a domesticated animal) or with a free lunch in the case of a deer getting into your garden. Experiments have show that with intermittent rewards it is very difficult to stop an animal from occasional repeated attempts. Intermittent rewards is the same reason that some humans find it difficult to stop gambling .... "this time may be the big one" ... "hey, you never know". For this reason it is very important to keep your fence maintained to prevent these occasionally rewards. This is especially true when the garden season gets going and there is a really nice deer buffet for the lucky deer who happen to get in.
As far as we can tell from our study of our deer population, a number of factors have lead to our deer happening on a technique of getting through the fence. First they have had over 20 years of practice with a number of generations of deer. Deer do have a culture and they do learn from each other. The learn mostly by watching each other. For example, if a deer has just gotten a good shock it will get nervous around the fence and avoid approaching it. If the deer is a doe (most common offenders) it will most likely be in a family group. Our deer group consists of an older (very experienced doe) her 2 yearlings from last year and a fawn from this year. If one of the group has recently gotten a shock from the fence and acts nervous when approaching the fence the whole group may turn away. Generally this works to your advantage, as the odds are that at least one of the group has recently gotten a shock. However, we are discovering over time this could also work against you.
During the winter, once snow is on the ground it is very difficult to maintain an electric fence because it will short out in the snow. So most people turn their fence off in the fall. Occasionally there are still cover crops like clover in the garden that the deer will come in to get and even dig through the snow to get them. We used to tolerate this practice in the past but we will no longer allow this to take place after our new findings. From now all we will mow and till under ALL cover crops before turning off the electric fence for the winter. Here's why.
It appears that during the fall the deer happen to realize by an occasional attempt, that the fence is off. Once they get a delicious reward like a banquet of fresh clover, they decide to make this a daily visit. Each day they walk through the fence by walking between the wires. Over a period of 20 years or more of this, they occasionally get shocked by trying the fence too early in the fall or too late in the spring, so they tend to learn to hedge their bets by keeping their ears tucked down when they go through the fence and they move quickly, trying as much as possible to avoid contact with the wires. In general, from our study of their tracks as they go through the fence, it appears they tend to go through a section of the fence where they duck down just a little, pull their ears down and the fence rides along their back on top of the fur. If conditions are dry and the ground is dry then their feet also do not provide a very good ground. So the winter training of moving swiftly though the uncharged fence, combined with occasional shock has lead to a technique that goes something like this. Move swiftly between the wires just below back height (so you don't get a shock on your belly from a wire beneath) keep your ears back and hope for the best. After training all winter on this technique and developing favorite crossing points along the fence, it appears the odds have moved dramatically in favor of the deer. Let's say the charger puts out a charge every second or second and a half. A very skillful and swift rush of the fence cuts down on the chances that you will get a shock. In addition, ears down and the wire riding your back will cut way down on the risk that you will even feel a significant shock if the charge does hit. Now there is appears to be an even more interesting dimension to this. The cost to benefit ratio. Yes, deer and all animals are experts on cost to benefit ratios. They may not calculate them out but they certainly do get the concept. Here's how it could work. You are the deer. You get through the fence without a shock (your lucky day) you spend the entire night eating the best thing you have ever eaten (deer love Soybeans). There is nothing like 150 feet of the top third of soybeans (most delicate and least bending to get at) to give you a sense of deer satisfaction. This would be like you winning a free "all you can eat" meal of your favorite foods. On the way out you may or may not have to pay something. Maybe in this case it is a mild shock because your ears were down and the soil was dry. Hummm, not a bad deal. I think I will try this again. This leads to an interesting thing with animals. They are experts at acclimating. They adjust to almost anything. Deer will come right up to brush piles while you are using a loud chain saw right near by. If they gradually come to feel comfortable doing this over time. It is very likely that they can also adjust from very slight shocks to moderate shocks if the moderate shocks are only occasional. Especially, if they tend to forget the moderate shock over time and remember the delicious buffet. So, you get the idea. Over time the deer develop an acceptable level of cost to benefit for this situation. In our case, this ratio has changed recently in favor of the deer with their newly discovered: ears down zip through the fence technique.
With this new knowledge we have a new strategy to significantly shift the cost benefit ratio back in our favor. First, by plowing in all cover crops BEFORE the fence is turned off for the winter and cutting all terraces as low a possible to leave as little grass as possible for them in the winter (their traditional practice getting through the fence time). Next we have begun putting vertical wires in the fence to make the fence tighter by getting the vertical wires to hold the horizontal wires together and make them less likely to separate if the deer tries to pass through. The vertical wires are placed about 2 paces (2 long steps) apart. Next we plan to put an extra horizontal wire right were it is now most convenient for the deer to squeeze through the horizontal wires. This will make them either have to try to go over or under their preferred position. If they try to go over, they will have to try to make a small jump over the wire (and risk a shock on the belly) or go under the fence and this will put more pressure on the wire on their back and increase the chance of a shock. In addition, the risk of feeling that they will be caught in the fence will increase and they may have to back out in an aborted attempt to get through a tight place and this will dramatically increase the risk of a shock. In any case, we are now prepared to sacrifice more soybeans this season (we have lots of dry soybeans in storage in 50 gallon drums for emergency seasons like this one) to find exactly what it takes in terms of a fence to keep deer out and give them very little incentive to keep coming back to test the fence. In general, the design is to build a 2 tier system. A fence that has what ever horizontal and vertical wires are necessary to lessen the chances of the deer getting through even if the fence is off and an electric shock to add to the effect. This way if for some reason the fence is off, the deer will still have a difficult time with the fence. Here's a view of stage one of the updated and improved fence with vertical wire connectors at every 2 paces.
Last fall, we were working to devise an improved system for keeping deer out of the garden. After about 25 years of the electric deer fence keeping the deer out of the gardens very nicely, the deer ended up finding a way to get in with very little shock. It seems from our study and observations, that having the electric fence off in the fall was allowing deer to get through the fence and eat our cover crops (clover, rye). In the spring, the deer continued to run through the fence and even when the fence was on they would often get through without a shock. Their new method was to tuck their ears down and jump between the wires of the fence like they learned to do in the fall, using this method they often avoided a shock because only their insulating fur touched the fence. To address this new behavior, we decided to make a fence that would keep the deer out from now on. Our goal was to design and build an electric fence that would not only keep the deer out when it was charged but be able to make it very difficult for the deer to get in even if the electric charge was off or shorted out. The wires on the normal electric deer fence (5 to 8) were all parallel to the ground, and between the fence supports (trees in this case) the wires could be separated if the deer stepped through or jumped between the horizontal wires. To remedy this we started weaving in vertical wires to keep the horizontal wires evenly spaced and to make the wires harder to separate or get through. We also added more horizontial wires in areas where we felt a deer could squeeze through. This is like the sheep fence or box wire fence. The plan was to gradually add a series of vertical wires until we got to a point where the deer found it very hard to get through the fence with the electricity off (like it is in winter). We started this near the end of the summer so the deer would still have something they liked (clover) in the garden so they would try to get through the fence to eat it. We were willing to give up a good clover/rye cover crop to serve as a bait for the deer. The deer were highly motivated to go after the clover and we worked to come up with a fence that started to keep them out even without the fence being charged. Every time we saw tracks where a deer came through the fence, we made closer wire spacing in that area. Since the deer had shown by getting in that the fence needed to have closer spaced wire then we begin upgrading the whole fence to that new tigher spacing gradually, starting with the area they came through first.
This method worked really well because we could test our design improvements right away with highly motivated deer (they love clover) and then test our upgraded fence. By the fall after a number of upgrades we had most of the fence up to a point where the deer were still occassionally getting through BUT they were paying a real price. Very often if the deer got through they would get caught on a wire and have to struggle to pull the wire free from the fence. That takes a fair amount of struggle and the deer DO NOT like feeling restrained. We could tell they didn't like that because (after the snow fell and tracking was good) we could see some deer would get in by breaking through a wire and eat some and then walk on the inside of the fence for long distances trying to find a better way out of the fence. They were evidently afraid of crossing the fence for fear of getting caught again. This went on for a while and then the clover ran out and the deer went off to feed else where.
Based on this, we are now planning our strategy for the spring. The deer have started moving around the fence again, after some warm periods of weather. They have mainly stayed out side the fence. For the past few weeks, I can see there were tracks all around the fence on the outside but not on the inside until today. A deer get through the fence but had to pull down a wire getting in. I consider that a good sign. The tracks showed the deer spent a long time looking for a way out. There was nothing the deer gained from being inside the garden this early, so the experience was not a positive one for the deer.
This is exactly the stage were we wanted to be at by this time of the year. From now on the deer will begin to occassionally test the fence to see how hard it is to get through and more importantly to see if they can get anything good to eat when they were in the garden. There is not really much to reward the deer if they get into the gardens this time of year but in the spring some clover will begin to grow back. It is therefore very important that we use this time very carefully before the clover starts to grow.
The plan is to increase the cost for the deer to get into the garden DRAMATICALLY from now till spring. This will setup a situation where the deer will pay a dear price for getting into the garden to find nothing good to eat AND then the deer will have to pay the same price to get out.
We will pack the snow under the fence to make sure that no wires are touching the snow. This is to make sure that the snow doesn't short out the fence (shorted out fence would only give the deer a weak shock). Once the snow is not touching the fence then the fence will be turned on. This will mean that any deer that tries to break through the fence will very likely get a shock and may even have to struggle to pull a fence wire or two off its supports. This will not be a pleasant experience for the deer. Deer, like most animals, learn from their experiences and strongly associated bad experiences with specific places so the deer will probably not try getting out the same way the came in. This means that the deer will not stay long in the garden and will be forced to walk the fence nerviously looking for another way out. When when the deer finally rushs the fence it will hopefully, once again, get a shock as it leaves.
The interesting thing about animals like deer is that they can actually communicate experiences (especially bad experiences) to other deer. Let's see how that works. Imagine the deer that just got shocked going in and out of the garden in the example we just mentioned, is walking along the outside of the fence with the other deer it hangs out with. (The female deer all hang out together and it is the "Doe's" that cause all the trouble in our gardens.) As soon as the deer that had the bad experience with the fence gets near one of the places where it got shocked in the fence, the deer will begin to act nervous and get figity. The other deer will notice this and will often get jumpy themselves and leave that area. The bad experience of the fence will be transfered to the other deer. The other deer are not sure why but some parts of the fence now gives them a bad feeling now because of the experience of one of the deer who had the bad experience with the fence.
I have had a number of shocks from working around an electric fence and the shock scares you more than hurts. Electric fences have very very low amperge and are designed not to do damage to animals. Take it from me, I have survived a number of shocks over the years and lived to tell the tale.
Some deer will still have to try the fence for themselves to experience it first hand. In any group of animals there are always some who will persist much longer than others before they learn their lesson, but this strategy looks like it will succeed if the fence is kept on all the time from now until spring. To do this we will need to upgrade our fence charging system to a new level of reliablity. Formerly we had to pick up and change the 12 volt battery once every week or 2. This lead to times that the fence was not up to its highest charge. In our new upgrade we will install a small solar panel to keep the battery charged to run the 12 volt DC fence charger. This panel will keep the battery at a better state of charge without us having to go pick up the fence battery and charge it. In addition, if the fence shorts out and drains the battery faster than normal then the solar panel will keep adding charge to the battery to keep the fence up to a good charge. This will increase the likelyhood that the deer will still face a shock when they leave the garden even if they took down a wire getting in. If we can impliment this setup and keep the fence charged until spring then the deer will move on to other feeding options when they would normally be trying to get into the gardens. Spring is an abundant time for deer and there is lots of goodies to eat all over the place without any need to get into the gardens. This plan should allow us to reestablish our relationship with the local deer. The garden is our territory, what is outside the garden is yours. If you feed outside the garden then you will not get shocked.
The deer problem is a good example of how you can deal with problems incrementally if you have a strategy. The over all strategy here was to upgrade the fence to what ever level we needed to keep the deer out. We were able to work on this strategy over time and test our designs before the garden season started. This meant we did not have to panic about the deer situation and disrupt our normal seasonal activities. Strategy is the key to dealing with problems without getting too emotionally involved in them. Over time, you begin to realize that you will find a solution even if you don't have a clear view of what that solution is when you first face the problem.
Upgrading our method of charging the fence charger battery, presented some other opportunities. A 10 watt solar panel would probably cover the fence charger in the summer, but in the late fall and early spring (when the sun is often shinning less), it might have been a little tight. It is important to look at any new project in the context of all of your systems. In deciding what size panel to get we needed to look at what we needed the panel to do. We needed the panel to keep the fence charged from early spring to late fall. In the winter normally the deer do not hang around the garden area as much and the fence would be difficult to change without disconnecting wires the touched the snow. So in winter the solar panel was not needed for the fence changer. If we bought a 20 watt panel instead of the smaller 10 we would have the future option of setting up a water pump that could pump about 50 gallons of water every few days in the winter. In addition, in the summer if we added a pair of battery charger cables to the panel we could charge another battery with the solar panel while it was keeping the fence charged. We decided to make the unit portable so it could be used to provide a charged 12 volt battery at other locations if we needed. So we ended up getting a 20 watt panel (and cheap charge controller) and set up a system that could keep the electric fence charged, serve as a test prototype of a solar water pumping system in winter, provide a option to charge another battery up near the gardens (if needed) while it was keeping the fence charged and also be portable if it was needed in another location. This setup design could serve a lot of uses for us.
Raccoons in the garden can be a real problem in some areas. They have been known to damage various crops (ie: eating heads of cabbage, tearing up plants, etc), but they are famous for the attention they give to corn (both sweet and dry corn). They have an uncanny sense of when sweet corn is ready and usually arrive to feast the night before you decide to pick your corn. This has led to a very uneasy relationship between gardeners and raccoons.
Fortunately raccoons are very intelligent animals and they learn from their mistakes. If you set up a really effective and consistant control, they will learn to respect it and go their own way.
Never deal with raccoons directly or be taken in by their cuteness. They are wild animals and you need to keep your distance. Raccoons are often involved as carriers (along with skunks and foxes) in rabies epidemics and need to be strictly avoided if rabies is in your area.
Raccoons are animals that move low to the ground and are covered with a dense fur that will insulate them well from electric fences. They can easily go under an electric fence wire and have a good chance of not getting a shock due to their dense fur coat. Their ears are not as well insulated but they still have a good chance of going under an electric fence wire without a shock. To keep raccoons out of your garden using an electric fence you need to make sure they don't try to go under your fence but instead get them to try to travel over it. They have bare hands (very like ours except for the thumb) and they have very little fur on their stomach area. The trick is to get them to try and go over your fence by making it low to the ground (keep the bottom wire only a few inches from the ground) and keep the top wire low enough to invite a trip over the top.
Many people use a one or two strand electric fence to keep racoons out. They work pretty good but we recommend a 3 strand fence (see above) because it seems to stop them better the 1st time they try. A one or two strand fence may keep the raccoons out but it may take a couple of times for them to learn their lesson, and raccoons can do a lot of damage in only one time in the garden. Occassionally a raccoon will get through even the 3 stand fence, but they should get a good shock getting out again. If you let your fence short out or let the battery get too low then you are just inviting the raccoons to try your fence more often. This is not good for them and its not good for you. Keep your fence well maintained and charged or take it down.
The low 3 stand fence invites the raccoon to climb over the fence. Since Raccoons are very likely to grab the fence with their front paws they make excellent contact with the fence and their back feet (being bare - ie: no fur) make a good ground connection. Presto ... a one time learning experience! (hopefully). Because raccoons are intelligent animals it does not take too many attempts to convince them this is not really where they want to go. For those who think this is cruel, we have 2 remarks. First, if you have and maintain an electric fence you will occassionally get a shock yourself, so you are not making them experience anything you have not experienced yourself. Second, it is much more humaine a control measure than the second most poplular measure ... shooting them. So we think the best way to view this is that you are communicating to the raccoons in a way that they can readily understand that your garden is not part of the forest and their food supply. After they accept the message you can once again be good neighbors. Sure beats the alternatives of no corn or .... no coons.
In general, the racoon fence (being low to the ground) is harder to maintain than other electric fences because you need to keep the low strand from grounding out with the growth of weeds under it. Keep it cut with a "weed eater". Many people find it less work to weed eat right down to the bare ground (scalping). We found it benificial to leave any moss that grows under the fence because it tends to prevent weeds from coming back to short the fence and makes a nice ground cover. Because the raccoon fence takes more time to maintain, we recommend that you plan your garden so that corn and any other crops raccoons are fond of in your area are grown in one section of the garden. You can then keep a deer fence around the whole garden and limit your raccoon fence to only the crop area that raccoons like best. This saves work. Also, in general raccoons wait until corn gets pretty big (ie: ears start to form) before they do much damage, so you don't have to connect your raccoon fence until just before it's needed. (See photo of fence corner - above: Note switch to turn fence on and off from main fence.)
At the about the same time we developed problems with the deer fence we had an incident with the raccoons that lead us to decide to improve our raccoon fence design. Our 3 strand raccoon fence has worked well for a number of years but this year we ran into a problem. Just before the corn, cornmeal corn in our case: [See Corn Breeding Program], was getting to the milk stage (ready to eat as a sweet corn), we connected our coon fence. It seems that the deer in their travels through the garden at night may have knocked down a corn stalk on top of the raccoon fence and shorted out the whole raccoon fence for that night. Unfortunately, raccoons walked right into the garden and had a feast that night and apparently paid little in terms of a shock for their adventure. They returned and before they finally learned their lesson we lost over 75 ears of corn. This lead to a decision to add a 4th wire on top of the 3 of the raccoon fence that is high enough above the 3 live wires to keep any corn stalks from shorting out the 3 wires below. This 4 wire is not a live wire (it is actually grounded to serve as an extra ground), so it can hold up any corn stalks knocked down by either the deer, wind, or raccoon in a frenzied feeding and prevent the 3 live wires from shorting out. This should cut down on the raccoon damage. In addition, the 3 strand wire is more reliable than the standard 2 strands of wire (or in some cases, 1 strand of wire) usually recommended for raccoons because the 3 strands are more likely to make raccoon try to climb the fence to get in and they are then less likely than the 2 strand system to jump into the garden when they are shocked. So this new 4 strand system looks like it should provide much better protection for the corn crop from coons.
As we stated earlier, August was a month when a cascade of situations lead to a revision of all three of our systems for defending the gardens from animals. A cascade of events is like a set of dominos where one domino falls and knocks over another and that knocks over another. In this case the deer by knocking the corn stalk on the raccoon fence may have started off events that unleashed a number of cascades. The deer entered the garden at night a corn stalk was knocked on the fence and apparently the raccoons followed them and walked right in with the corn stalk shorting out the raccoon fence. Once the raccoons did their damage they left. But sometime around 4:30 or 5 am when the sky starts to lighten before sunrise the Blue Jays apparently discovered a very interesting situation. From their view on high they found a scramble of corn stalks and a lot of half eaten fully exposed corn ears, just waiting to be sampled. Now as you know corn comes fully enclosed in ears covered with thick husks. This is no accident. Through thousands of years of corn evolution under selection by people corn has come to have a fully enclosed ear (a rare event since none of its relatives, wheat, oats, rice, etc have this enclosed ear). It turns out that one of the main advantages of a fully enclosed ear is that it offers some protection from birds. But this protection can be over come by smart birds and it appears the first step is finding exposed ears. The raccoons left many ears fully exposed and the blue jays spent all early morning practicing how to eat the corn that was exposed and then learning to get at the corn kernels just under the husk by pecking through the husks. Needless to say they had a great time and were busily feeding when we arrived. Since blue jays are smart, like most animals who have survived for hundreds of thousands of years, they were now fully aware that there was a field of wrapped corn available to them from now on for easy pickings. The cascade had begun. Deer knocks over corn on coon fence, coons open corn, blue jays practice opening ears. The feast is on.
Now we were well aware of the propensity of blue jays and crows to "discover" corn and we had taken measures to prevent it in the past. This is a cultural thing with the jays and the crows, like the deer, the local band of birds need to discover this to take advantage of opening corn ear husks and once they start the other blue jays soon learn the trick. The jays in our area had learned this trick in the past, but they are not always fast to pick up on it each new season and they seem to need to be reminded. So we try to make sure they do not get the opportunity to be reminded. Our policy has been to up the cost to benefit ratio BEFORE the blue jays test the corn. We use bird scare tape [See Johnny's Seed Company For Order Information] to keep the blue jays at bay. The tape is unwound ABOVE the crop on high poles because blue jays and crow feel very uncomfortable going under the bright flashing tape as it spirals in the wind flashing red and silver. Song birds are unaffected by the tape as I have seen robins sitting on the poles. The tape is put out just before the crop is at the stage that birds like to try to eat it. It can be used for fruit trees too, but only works for some birds mostly the crow family of birds (crows and jays). It must be removed after the crop is harvested to avoid the birds getting acclimated to the tape. This is the same acclimation process that the deer when through with the fence off in the winter. Animals can get acclimated to almost anything over time (living in cities etc.) and they do have a culture to pass on this knowledge. So be very careful not to wear out your bird tape defense.
For the past number of years we have been using this bird tape defense with very good results. There is another problem we have had with blue jay and crows. Crows and jays, often dig up corn when it is first sprouting and can pull out all the seeds in a row. They learn that the green shoots that first come up have a nice tasty kernel of corn at the end of each stalk, if you pull it up. They can go right down a hundred foot row in a few hours, missing very few sprouts. So, for a number of years we have put the tape up early in the spring when we first planted corn to protect the sprouts and then took we would take it down and then put it up again when the ears were ready for the jays to be interested in later in the summer. Here's were another cascade comes in. Last year, we had a number of overload events in the spring that delayed us taking down the scare tape after the corn was up past the time the seed would be bothered by the jays. As a result we found ourselves in the season when the jays might be interested in testing the ears and we had to leave the tape up. As stated earlier, animals can get acclimated very rapidly to almost anything, and we found to our dismay that the jays gradually began to test the bird tape by sneaking around the edges of the field at first, slightly away from the tape and nothing terrible happened to them. In fact, they found the corn to be quite tasty and came back for more. Other jays could not help but notice that some jays were busy feeding with no apparent bad effects from the dreaded scare tape. More jays began to feed at the edges. First the brave daring ones, later even the timid ones. It was open season on the corn. By the time we figured out what happened the jays were fully convinced that the curse of the bird scare tape was OVER! Free corn for all! We did everything we could to scare them but true to form they acclimated rapidly. They learned to leave when we were there and come back later to see if we were gone. Getting up every day at 4:30 am was too much for us and we ended up loosing about 40% or more of the corn crop.
To deal with this problem this year we decided not to put up the scare tape in the spring but to give the blue jays a chance to forget about it. Remember the default was for the birds to be instinctively afraid of the tape and they need to learn to acclimate to it. Over time they tend to forget. Besides, birds have a short life and many did not return from the migration. To deal with the problem of digging up the corn sprouts in the spring we decided to use a different method. It had been a number of years since any jays in our flocks had actually eaten any corn seed because the scare tape kept them from trying. It was therefore very likely that there were no surviving birds that remembered the technique of pulling up the corn shoots to get the corn grain. We live in a very rural area where we were the only ones growing corn in the range of our blue jay flock. In addition, we had decided earlier that one of the main contributors to the initial habit of pulling up the corn happened when the jays found some spilled corn seed from our planting. They ate the seed, found it pleasant and looked for more. After rain and a few days any remaining spilled corn seed sprouted. The birds evidently found some sprouted seed and liked that just as well. They are the seeds and left the green sprout. All it took was one creative bird to see more sprouts and give a pull and up comes a kernel of corn. Before long all the jays were busy with the new technique. We decided to stop a rediscovery of this method by making sure ABSOLUTELY no kernels of corn were on the surface of the soil to offer an opportunity to rediscover this technique. We had no problems with jays pulling up corn this year even without using the scare tape.
As a result of not using the tape in the spring, the plan was to reintroduce the tape just before the jay corn season. Unfortunately, the coon incident ripping open the corn, set the ball rolling in the wrong direction early. After we discovered the corn ripped open by the coons and exposed to the jays, we immediately removed all traces of opened or even jay damaged corn and set the scare tape up all over the garden, directly over the crop. We added tents to the garden, set up a scare crow, tried to over whelm the jays in hopes of scaring them back to their instinctive fear of the scare tape. In addition, during our experience with raising free range chickens we noticed chickens had an uncanny ability to identify the shape of a hawk even at a great height and give an alarm call that caused all the chickens to hide in the bushs before the hawk came down. We looked this behavior up in books at the library and found that many birds had an instinctive reaction to the shape of a hawk held over their head. Even chicks without mothers hide from the hawk shape and had no reaction to the shape of a song bird. This lead to our latest plan. We made plastic profile of hawks. After looking up hawks we decided to choose a peregrine falcon shape (peregrines prey especially on birds) because it was very distinctive. We got an outline of this shape from a bird book and enlarged it at cut out the shape from large Tupperware type storage boxes. The result was a shape of a silhouette of about a foot and a half wing span. This shape will be hung between the poles holding up the bird scare tape to add to the effect in an effort to overwhelm the jays.
The reason the hawk (falcon) silhouette has a good chance of success is that flocks not only have a culture but they tend to work as a unit. Just like a few brave jays opened up the way for the other birds to overcome the bird scare tape last year, the timid ones can lead to an erosion of confidence. Jays like any animal have a range of individuals, some jays are more daring than others. The brave ones will try and test the edges of the bird scare tape and if they succeed other may follow. This is were the hawk silhouette comes in. In the wind the silhouettes will occasionally swing around and if a few jays are testing the garden one is very likely to suddenly see the silhouette of the dreaded hawk overhead. You have to remember that the hawk represents a very special threat because the natural path of escape for a bird is up to the sky. Imagine looking up (your escape path) and seeing your dreaded enemy. It would be very much like you going swimming and while you are under water and you were getting ready to come to the surface you looked up and saw a shark over head, between you and the surface! Pure terror!!!! It the same way with the jays, one of the birds testing the corn is very likely to be totally incapable of containing itself and freak out. Nothing works better in sending terror into the hearts of blue jays than another blue jay giving an alarm call in a state of complete panic. The entire crew will head for the hills and have no idea what the problem was. In this case the flock mentality works for us because the least brave birds will repeatedly send terror into the whole flock each time they are surprised by the hawk silhouettes. The other birds will continue to react to the alarm calls but may still have no idea what the problem is if they did not see the hawk silhouettes. In the end, hopefully, at some point the birds will avoid the area all together, as I would expect you would avoid swimming in the area where you found a shark swimming over your head. Its a gut reaction and the birds remember it. So, I guess this shows that a little knowledge of the critters that are waiting to enter you garden can go a long way towards keeping your garden safe and avoiding cascades in the future that could threaten your food supply.
Blue Jays view of hawk silhouette from ground level in corn garden. Posts hold up scare tape and hawk silhouettes high above the garden to make it a very threatening place for jays. Over time, some of the bolder jays may begin to sneak in and test the silhouettes if they become too accustomed to the silhouettes being in the same places all the time. Hopefully your crop will be harvested before then.
Counter started April 10, 1998