Ewww! Rats in the garden

At first it was just an odd three inch hole in our front lawn.  We filled it up with rocks and wondered what would make such a hole.  We have had critters get into our metal chicken feed bins if the lids weren’t secured.  And we’ve spied raccoons, opossum and foxes in our garden over the years. So, when somebody was getting into the feed, we figured it was most likely raccoons.  And I made sure the tops of the metal feed buckets were securely attached. And made sure the coop was secure from predators. Then, two weeks ago, something started eating my tomatoes – in the food cages!  These were bites. Not just pecks from say, a bird. Super frustrating. I had put up the cages, in my front yard even, all with the expectation of keeping my tomatoes. And then I found small tunnels under the hardware mesh of the chicken run.  So, somebody was getting into the run but not eating the chickens or the eggs. Hmmm. I then looked around the front yard food cage and saw digging underneath the metal base. A hole in the lawn, bites out of my tomatoes, digging under the food cages.  So, sadly, this all seems to add up to rats. So much grosser than my typical nemesis, squirrels. And so much less cute than say, raccoons.

Of course I discovered most of this right before we were going out of town on a family trip. So I suppose this post is emphasizing the urban aspects of my nascent homestead. What does one do when faced with rats?  Well, I learned that chicken feed and straw and bedding-type materials attract rats. So does putting food in an open top compost bin so the chickens can help with the composting. So does growing food without underground barriers.  Arg!!

First steps.  I’ve got to cut them out from the free buffet.  No more food going into the compost bins. I could build or buy an enclosed compost bin but I like my compost bins and most of the enclosed ones I’ve seen are made of plastic – which rats can chew through. And happily our town collects and composts food waste.  

Next up, better protecting the chicken run.  The reason we didn’t dig our hardware mesh down into the soil when we first built it was because of all of the small pebbles in our clay soil.  Digging in it is a real bear. It took months of weekend work to dig the holes for the fence posts. Instead we flared the hardware mesh out from the base of the run for about 1½ feet.  I had read that this would prevent digging predators from digging because they would start digging near the base of the run and not continue to follow the mesh. Turns out this didn’t deter the rats.  Another alternative we considered and discarded when building the coop and run was lining the base with hardware mesh. In the end we went with the flare approach because it was easier to maneuver around the structural posts and would require less hardware mesh overall.  Time to reconsider that approach.

We did have some extra hardware mesh.  Enough to cover most of the base of the run.  So, I spent most of Saturday disassembling the covered growing bed I had built in there, removing all of the bedding straw, and the food and water containers.  Then I laid hardware mesh along about ⅔ of the run. I ran the hardware mesh up along the inside of the run. Then I screwed strips of scrap wood (1x2s mostly) I had lying around the yard to the bottom border around the base of the run and sandwiched between that the upturned hardware mesh.  So I am hoping that if the rats dig under the flared hardware mesh, when they get to the run, they will just keep digging and hit hardware mesh as they try to get in. Or if they hit the base of the run where I’ve sandwiched the inside mesh to the boards, the rats will hit the hardware mesh upturned and then be stopped by the strips of wood.  I have done this along most of the run. I will need to finish when I get back from our trip. I am hopeful this stymies them enough while I am away.

Then how to protect the food I am growing in the food cages?  I think I will need to come up with a more sustainable solution for next year, but this weekend I had run out of time to do anything too dramatic. My best quick deterrent was dropping little cedar oil scented packets near the plants in the cages.  My fingers are crossed that once I get home there will be less damage to my growing food and no evidence of the scoundrels getting into the run.

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