Backyard Harvest

By Adam Doerhoff | March 18, 2016
From Missouri Conservationist: Apr 2016

I poured my second cup of coffee and walked out the back door to check on the garden. As I passed through the yard, a rabbit ran out from behind the shed. I continued to the garden and started checking tomatoes for ripeness.

I noticed how many had been damaged by rabbits. I was startled when another rabbit bolted from the zucchini growing behind me. I finished picking vegetables and walked across the field to my small sunflower patch. The plants were doing well except for those near the fence line, where it appeared rabbits had dined. In a few short minutes, four rabbits appeared around me. I walked back to the house and passed several of the seedlings we purchased from the state nursery. Yep — rabbits had dined there, too.

Rabbits 3, Adam 0.

I like that we have a lot of critters on our 7 acres, but I don’t like them causing me fits. A love–hate relationship often exists with wildlife near homes and businesses. We like observing their world as long as they don’t infringe on ours. So what is a person to do? Preventive measures — or various ways of letting an animal know your place is not the place to be — are a good starting point.

Common furbearers are the culprits in most wildlife damage cases around our homes. The Wildlife Code of Missouri describes the conditions by which these animals may be trapped and/or shot at any time of year (see 3 CSR

10-4.130 of the Code for more details). The Wildlife Code gives citizens both the authority and discretion to fix these problems. When we control nuisance wildlife outside the prescribed season, the wildlife captured shall be disposed of only in accordance with the instructions of an agent of the Department. Since the rabbits were damaging my various plantings, the regulation would allow me to trap and/or shoot the animals in July. But I didn’t want to do that.

Live Trapping as a Hunting Method

I’m a rabbit hunter, and I have a couple of rabbit hunting dogs. I’ll just wait until the season opens, I thought. But the way dogs run rabbits, we’d be off our 7 acres in a heartbeat. In addition, there are two adjacent roads and several neighbors. It’s just not realistic to safely or practically hunt rabbits on our property. Then I remembered — a cage-type trap, also known as a live trap, is a permitted hunting method during the season.

During trapping season and with a trapping permit, rabbits may be trapped according to the regulations (Chapter 8 – Trapping) of the Wildlife Code of Missouri. But during the hunting seasons for rabbit, squirrel, and even groundhog, a caget ype trap is permitted at any hour as a hunting method (Chapter 7 – Hunting) when accompanied with a small game hunting permit. Any person under 16 and Missouri residents 65 and older are exempt, as are landowners with 5 or more continuous acres who pursue these animals on that land. The daily limit for rabbits is six, and may include no more than two swamp rabbits.

Using leftover fruit and vegetable scraps as bait, I set some traps near the house that winter and began trapping rabbits. I also strategically placed traps in high-traffic areas, and I caught those rabbits without bait.

Practical and Easy

When using a cage-type trap for rabbits, squirrels, and groundhogs, the trap must be labeled with your full name and address or conservation number, attended to daily, and have an opening 144 square inches or smaller — 12 inches by 12 inches or 10 inches by 14 inches, for example. There is also no limit to the number of traps you may use.

Compared to traditional hunting methods, the use of a live trap is more discrete, which is a bonus on smaller properties. Unlike deer, turkey, and migratory birds, small game can be trapped or hunted with the use of bait. While fruits and vegetables are appealing to rabbits, squirrels are suckers for corn, peanuts, and even peanut butter. And don’t scoff at groundhogs. While they don’t get much attention nowadays, many old-timers attest to the palatability of these vegetarians.

Apples, lettuce, cabbage, or any kind of melon (or just the rinds) are all good bait for groundhogs. If none of those are handy, just snatch a handful of clover or other succulent grasses.

Once set up near your home, traps take little time or skill to tend, which makes trapping a perfect method for busy parents and curious kids. It only takes a few minutes a day to tend to a trap, and this can provide a child with some added anticipation and excitement before or after school. Tending to live traps are some of my earliest hunting memories, and I couldn’t run back to the house fast enough knowing I had caught a rabbit. Likewise, this may also fill a niche for someone who has retired from hunting.

How to Setup

A variety of setups can work. A trap set out in the open will not likely catch animals as easily as one that is placed up against something, such as a house, shed, fence, or other object. If placing it against something isn’t an option, try nestling it in vegetation. If you aren’t having success, try covering the trap with a piece of plywood, an empty feed sack, a square of carpet, or something else. The idea is to make the trap look like an inviting spot. Experiment and have fun with it.

You Caught a Critter — Now What?

What to do with a trapped animal depends on your purpose. If you’re trapping for practice instead of for food or nuisance control, you can simply release it. The Department advises against transporting and releasing a trapped animal to a new location. Highly stressed and unfamiliar with strange surroundings and habitat, a relocated animal can starve to death. If you’re trapping for food and/or pelts, confinement to the cage trap allows you to dispatch the animal without damaging the meat or hide. The most ethical, humane, and practical way to quickly dispatch an animal is to use a small-caliber firearm, such as a .17- or .22-caliber.

Safely discharging a firearm at close proximity to an animal requires a few simple considerations. First, move the live trap to an area with plenty of soil. Do not shoot with the trap set atop concrete, rocks, or other hard surfaces that cannot absorb the projectile. Some municipalities don’t allow for the discharge of firearms within city limits, and you may not have a safe shot opportunity there anyway. If this is the case, go to private property that you either own or have permission to access.

Second, choose soft- or hollow-point ammunition, which will expand and transfer energy upon impact. This will also help slow the projectile’s velocity and stop it. Be sure to put on safety glasses and hearing protection before aiming and firing. The muzzle of the firearm should extend into the trap to prevent the possibility of the projectile making contact with the trap and ricocheting. A rifle will put more distance between you and the muzzle, but a handgun will work as well.

Using a cage trap allowed me to harvest rabbits that I couldn’t safely or practically hunt. The experience was simple and effective. I was able to reduce the number of rabbits on our property to a more appropriate level, provide meat for my family, and all without straying more than 30 yards from the house.

Time to Eat

As with chicken, beef, and pork, there are numerous ways to cook and enjoy squirrel, rabbit, and groundhog. Wild game meats are generally leaner than domestic meats and healthy, but because they’re leaner, they can dry out easily and become tough by overcooking. It’s recommended to  use cooking techniques that either add or retain moisture. For this reason, marinades, sauces, and gravies are good choices. Below are some of my favorite easy recipes.

Italian Squirrel

Quarter your squirrel and marinate generously in Italian dressing overnight to a few days. Add any flavored vinegar to your liking because this will help tenderize the meat. Put everything in a crockpot on low for several hours until it begins to fall off the bone.

Smothered Rabbit

Quarter your rabbit and marinate in buttermilk overnight to a few days. Roll the pieces in self-rising flour that is seasoned to your liking. Brown each piece on both sides in a frying pan with a little oil on low-medium heat. Place in a baking dish and cover with cream-of-mushroom soup. Bake at 325 degrees for 60–75 minutes and enjoy.

Grilled Groundhog

Quarter your groundhog and refrigerate overnight to a few days in your favorite soy, teriyaki, or barbecue-based marinade. Add a little oil to your marinade to help retain moisture when cooking. Season and grill to your liking just as you would with anything else. For steamed instead of grilled, just wrap in aluminum foil before popping on the grill.

Also In This Issue

Grandpa and Grandson Fishing
If you have grandchildren, you may be the perfect mentor to nurture their interest in the outdoors

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Art Director - Cliff White
Associate Editor - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Designer - Marci Porter
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Circulation - Laura Scheuler