The Electric Scarecrow

By Gene Kelly | June 2, 1996
From Missouri Conservationist: Jun 1996

As always, the whole thing starts innocently enough. Lawrence and Mildred live on a small place at the edge of town. Retirement provides the time to care for the lawn, flowers, a bee hive and especially the fruit trees. They have only five fruit trees, but that is enough.

The peach tree is their favorite, and Lawrence makes sure it has all the care it needs. The fate of the Missouri peach crop is always in doubt; a late spring frost can wilt the peach blossoms, or hail can strip the tree of blossoms and leaves. Still, if well cared for, and the weather is cooperative, the peach tree can produce a bumper crop - and this year it does. It's July, and the limbs of the peach tree sag from the weight of the ripening fruit.

Lately a problem has developed. A squirrel has taken an interest in the peaches. At first, Lawrence tolerates the visitor as it helps itself to the ripening fruit, but after several days his attitude changes; Lawrence now views the squirrel as a costly nuisance.

Day after day, the squirrel climbs the peach tree, eats a few peaches and knocks loose a few more. Lawrence, waving his hat, charges the tree and shouts insults; the squirrel jumps from the tree, runs up a hickory tree at the corner of the lawn, scampers out on a low limb and returns a few insults of its own. Finally, Lawrence decides to communicate more directly with this insolent pest.

There is no malice in Lawrence's heart as he eases the 12 gauge shotgun around the corner of the house and aims it in the direction of the peach tree. The squirrel is facing away from him in the center of the tree. The distance to the tree is 35 yards, and the shotgun is loaded with bird shot. At that distance, Lawrence reasons, the bird shot will not harm the squirrel, but a few pellets flattening out against its fat rump will carry a stern message. At the sound of the gun, the squirrel jumps out the opposite side of the peach tree - as planned - and scampers across the lawn, but this time does not stop at the hickory tree. Instead, it runs to the edge of the lawn, races part way up a white oak tree, jumps to another tree and disappears into the woods. Message received.

Lawrence walks over to the peach tree. Nectar is oozing from pellet wounds in many of the peaches still on the tree and at least a bushel of peaches had been blasted to the ground. He and Mildred might salvage some of the peaches, but would it be worth it? Worse! Could Mildred explain the presence of shotgun pellets in her peach cobblers, so popular at church bake sales? The shotgun blast brings Mildred out the back door and around the corner of the house. She stands next to Lawrence for a long moment, staring at the gooey remains of the peach crop. Honey bees are starting to gather. "Lawrence," she asks softly, "What happened?"

His mind races back to a scene from The King and I when the King said to Anna, "When you can't think of anything to say, it means you should remain silent." With a firm grasp of that concept, Lawrence turns and walks quietly toward to the house. In the distance, beyond the hickory tree, he hears a squirrel chattering.

Those who deal with nuisance wildlife will not judge Lawrence too harshly. Solutions to nuisance wildlife problems can be challenging and often require a second or third effort. Still, in most cases, a solution is usually available; either we haven't thought of it, or haven't asked the right person for help. Lawrence lost patience and destroyed the very thing he was trying to protect. Lawrence's wildlife nuisance problem had been a squirrel eating the peaches. It could have been a rabbit in the vegetable garden, a raccoon in the sweet corn or a bear in the bee hive. These are aggravating problems which, when viewed in the course of all human events, may not qualify as major crises. Still, no one is pleased with the destruction of their efforts by a free-loader. Lawrence could have saved his peaches with an electric fence. Most nuisance wildlife just need a little jolt to change their mind about eating cultivated flowers, vegetables or fruit. A whack on the nose from an electric fence will adjust the attitude of even the most determined invader. It usually takes only one encounter with an electric fence to discourage most pesky wildlife. The free-loader is interested only in an easy meal and prefers fertilized cultivated plants to nature's wild plants. A jolt from an electric fence may alter the food preference of the intruder, but will not cause it to starve. Building an electric fence is simple, requiring a minimum of tools and experience. Most hardware and farm stores carry the slender posts designed for use in an electric fence. The posts are made of either wood, plastic, fiberglass or steel. Steel posts have the added advantage of a flat triangular piece of metal welded to one end to help hold them firmly in the ground. Regardless of the type of post used, make certain the posts are pushed deep enough into the ground to hold the wires tight.

Spacing of the posts can vary, depending on the distance fenced. Flower beds may require only a post at each corner. For larger areas, like vegetable gardens, the posts can be spaced 10 feet apart. There is no ideal spacing for the posts - whatever works for you is exactly right. Just remember to set them firmly in the ground so they will support tension on the wires. Fasten plastic insulators to each wooden or steel post - one insulator for each strand of wire. Plastic or fiberglass rods do not require insulators because they are poor conductors of electricity. The electrified wire should be suspended off the ground, touching only non-conductive material. If the wire touches anything - even weeds - the fence will not work properly. With the posts in the ground and the insulators in place, string wire through the insulators as shown in the diagram. Space the wires about 6 inches apart with enough tension to keep them from sagging. Use a pair of pliers to cut the wires at desired lengths.

If more than one wire is used, connect them together with a short length of wire, as shown in the diagram. This provides a path for the electricity to reach each wire. String as many wires as you choose but three should be enough to intercept nuisance critters ranging in size from young rabbits to adult raccoons.

Squirrels are more difficult to control. They often gain entry to forbidden places by dropping down from an overhanging tree. In some cases, it may be necessary to remove a tree limb to eliminate their aerial approach.

If the problem is deer, only one wire is necessary. String the wire 2.5 feet off the ground and smear it with peanut butter mixed with a little cooking oil. Next, choose a fence charger that will deliver a loving spoonful of discouragement without creating a crispy critter. Some fence chargers will stop a 1-ton hormone-driven herd bull - but that's not what's needed here. The backyard variety of electric fence requires only minimum voltage to discourage nuisance wildlife.

Fence chargers are available to fit every situation. Some chargers can be plugged into a 110-volt outlet if a source of electricity is nearby. For more remote locations, consider a charger powered by a dry cell 6-volt battery. There is also a charger powered by flashlight batteries that is activated only when something on the ground comes in contact with the fence.

Solar powered chargers that store energy during the day for use at night also are available. Solar chargers are more expensive but require less maintenance because the battery is kept charged by sunlight.

The power source does not have to be massive to discourage nuisance wildlife. Usually the smaller, less expensive charger, will do the job. Finally, the fence charger must be grounded. Simply run a wire from the negative (-) side of the charger to a metal stake (copper, iron or steel) pounded into the ground. The instructions that come with the charger will remind you of this step, or refer to the diagram on the previous page. Once the fence and charger are in place and connected, there comes that haunting question, "Is it working?" You may prefer the "touch and jump" method of testing an electric fence. It's a simple method - just grab the wire and squeeze. If you can hang on, the fence isn't working.

Better to invest in an inexpensive voltage tester that hooks to the wires for a quick reading. A voltage tester is less exciting, but it saves jangled nerves. If buying fencing components sounds too confusing, there is a good alternative. A complete do-it-yourself electric fence kit is available at many pet shops and farm stores. The kit contains all the components needed for constructing an electric fence, including instructions, a fence tester and a small but adequate 110-volt fence charger. The kit is designed to control pets, but is equally effective at keeping wildlife pests out of the garden, flower bed or, in Lawrence's case, the fruit trees.

Those people willing to pay for convenience should consider a prefabricated electric fence that comes complete with wire woven into plastic cords, support posts and easy to understand instructions. The fence charger and tester are sold separately. Prefabricated electric fences come in a variety of heights and lengths, and individual fences can be hooked together to extend coverage.

These fences are handy because they can be installed or removed in a matter of minutes. The advantages are partly offset by cost but, on the other hand, a speedy response to a nuisance wildlife problem can sometimes save money. Squirrels in the fruit trees or coyotes in the watermelons (yes, coyotes eat watermelons) can be discouraged by taking a few minutes to string out a prefabricated electric fence.

Common sense is all that is needed to ensure safe use of the fence and charger. Closely follow the instructions for installation and use of the fence charger. The fence should be identified by installing ELECTRIC FENCE warning signs and verbally warning everyone in the vicinity, especially children, that the fence is in operation.

More specific information concerning electric fence design, materials and addresses of suppliers can be obtained by sending a postcard to Electric Fence, Missouri Department of Conservation, PO Box 180, Jefferson City 65102-0180.


This Issue's Staff

Editor - Kathy Love
Assistant Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Director - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Composition - Kevin Binkley
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Paul Childress
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Staff Writer - Charlotte Overby
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer