Mice, Rats, and Squirrels
When you live on a farm, you cannot afford the luxury of being squeamish. Mice, rats, and squirrels, especially where you grow organic hazelnuts, are part of life. If you’ve grown up in the city and missed the pleasure of encounters with these creatures, you might tend to think tolerantly of them in the abstract. However, after they’ve disturbed your sleep and gnawed on your new shoes, you are drafted into a life-long conflict. The animals are doing what they do instinctively: eating, nesting, storing nuts. You, on the other hand, have become determined that it will not happen in your house.
Children’s literature and animated movies have distorted the picture that suburban dwellers have of rodents, and these media have also done a great disservice to cats.
We’ve all seen the drawing of the arch in the baseboard that allows the mice to roam the house after everyone else has gone to bed, running amok in the kitchen and carefully bypassing the sleeping cat. Mice can talk to Cinderella and create a ball gown for her, and a rat can dream of owning his own restaurant in a film.
In real life, they are a nuisance as is anything else that comes uninvited into your home: spiders, carpenter ants, rats, squirrels, burglars, the undead.
It is very difficult to keep a country home free of mice, especially if it is old and set on a log foundation as Trufflebert Farm’s kitchen, front bedroom, and common room are. The problem is ongoing and never ending.
For years before we purchased the old farm house, mice had been making themselves at home in the walls, eating the rubber insulation on the electrical wires, storing nuts there, and venturing in for a nesting opportunity in a shoe or for a nibble of flannel sheet to line that nest. In earlier times there might even have been a cupboard full of midnight snacks.
When we moved in, we tried to curtail some of the access. We remodeled the kitchen and installed cupboards that had bottoms and backs that made them self-contained units. We didn’t do it intentionally, but the result was boxes that closed tightly and could not be entered if they were shut.
We also did our best to cover any outside vents with screening to keep the critters out, but they dug under the openings and got in anyway, much to our dismay.
Lacking a cat, we bought traps. These had to be baited and, unfortunately, cleaned if something was caught. Those became Eric’s jobs at night and in the morning when he was a teenager, and to punish us, he’d loudly announce to guests at bedtime, “Anyone feel like cheese or peanut butter, maybe rolled into a small ball?” when we’d specifically asked him not to scare our visitors by telling them that we had mice.
In the thirty years that we’ve lived on and off at the farm, we’ve learned a lot about mice. We noticed that they run along baseboards, never across rooms unless frightened. We’d be watching a television program and see one scurry along the wall, under a door and into a room. It didn’t need a hole in the baseboard to return to its home because, we found, it could squeeze into any place that its tiny skull and collapsible shoulders could maneuver.
We found out that they are nocturnal and, if you are a light sleeper, you can hear scurrying when they become bold and enter your bedroom. A metal doorstop being moved slightly indicates that a mouse is running the perimeter in search of something to eat or shred.
Also, a mouse is attracted to warmth, so it is reasonable that you will find one in the wall near the wood stove, under the floor where the dryer vent is located, behind a stove, or near a heater vent.
In addition, precautions must be taken when you are away for a long period of time. Everything must be wrapped in plastic when you leave for the winter. Even that does not prevent them from gnawing their way into the package. A drawer is not a safe place either unless it is part of an antique chest which includes a metal sheet under the bottom that keeps a mouse from entering through the very tiny space between the
bottom drawer and the back. That feature taught us that the war with mice is a long-standing one.
I put food, such as flour and sugar, in the kitchen cupboards into hard plastic containers, just in case, and I cover the mattresses with old sheets because I don’t want to think that mice have been frolicking on the surface where I will sleep.
Also, mouse droppings look amazingly like lavender seeds, so it was not immediately obvious to me that one had made a bed in my new brown loafers that I had not yet worn but had been stupid enough to
leave on the floor of the closet. Closer inspection indicated either tear drops on the inner soles or remnants of mousie urine stains, making me understand the practicality of Cinderella’s glass slippers.
At least I didn’t go to church as my neighbor did in a dress with a twirly hem that had been chewed by mice, thinking that people were admiring me because of how lovely I looked in my tea length gown.
One time we returned in the spring to find that the buttons on the remote control unit had been gnawed, some completely off. Perhaps we’d been handling too many salty snacks or maybe plastic had become the new cheese.
Ted confessed to me when I told him that I was writing this article that he’s removed dead mice on at least six occasions as we reentered the house after a long vacation and not told me about them.
Although they say that no one has invented a better mouse trap, they have, and it’s called D-Con. We started leaving boxes of the tiny turquoise beads in the kitchen and bedrooms when we left for the winter.
The advantage was that there would be no bodies and no odor to greet us when we returned because the product caused the eater to dehydrate and go outside looking for water. Little did we care that it caused massive internal hemorrhaging. We didn’t have to think about our pets consuming contaminated carrion because we didn’t have any pets, and we didn’t have to deal with the odor of any long-dead corpses when we got back, so it never occurred to us that a hawk or coyote or bobcat or a neighbor’s dog might be harmed by ingesting the stiffened remains left outside. We can only hope, in retrospect, that they are probably too smart to be fooled by a dried up mouse anyway.
In a drawer we’d occasionally find a mouse which had not had the decency to drag itself outside to die; however, these were as dry and odorless as jerky, and once as I was reading on the couch a mouse stopped in the middle of the room so dazed that I knew that it had feasted on the poison. I went on reading, waiting for someone else to come home and deal with it.
What the directions on the box do not tell you is that before the mouse has gorged itself and gone outside, it has excitedly hoarded a pile of beads for later consumption between your mattress and box springs or in a rolled up rug.
So, when I had finished thoroughly cleaning the room where my infant grandson would stay for the first time, moving all of the furniture and polishing the floor, I was ready to unroll the rugs and place them. As I did, out popped a fountain of turquoise beads bouncing across the room like scattered BB’s, landing in the grooves in the wood floor and rolling under the bed.
Now I was horrified. How could anyone create a product that was so appealingly colored that a crawling infant might want to pop one into his mouth? That was six years ago and they have only just threatened to take D-Con off the market.
That necessitated a new form of control. So, we hired an exterminator who places traps in and under the house and checks them four times a year, even when we’re not around. The bait is contained in boxes and cannot find its way into the house.
We also have working cats, now, which live in the barn. They have so effectively eliminated the mice and gophers outside that we no longer have to mount an organic great gopher hunt at the end of January by tamping down the end of the tunnels and lighting sulfur fires at the entrances to asphyxiate the beasts.
We are resigned that we will never be free of mice, no matter how hard we try. At the beginning of our last visit, I washed a load of dust covers, without thinking to look inside the washing machine. As I was loading the dryer, I noticed black fuzz on the wet sheets. Further investigation revealed a dead mouse at the bottom of the washer. At least this time I didn’t have to wait for Ted to return to take care of the well-washed rodent. I got a paper towel, lifted it out by the tail, and deposited it in the trash barrel outside.
There is nothing funny, however, about rats.
I only have one personal and up close experience. My other stories are second hand.
One involves a neighbor who found one in his kitchen. He was so surprised as he opened the cupboard and a rat jumped out that he grabbed an iron frying pan and beat the creature to death. Then, the problem shifted to one of clean up. Lots and lots of blood. I never asked for the details.
The other one was strange. In the upstairs bedrooms, the floors are wood and there are some knotholes in the planks. One of those knots was eaten away, leaving a hole two inches in diameter. Whether it was done by a rat or a squirrel we’ll never know for sure.
But on one occasion I saw a rat. As soon as I walked into the kitchen after a long time away, my keen sense of smell told me that something in the room was dead and decaying. I looked in the cupboard under the burners and found nothing. The next day I moved the refrigerator out so I could see under it, and, indeed, there was a mess there, but no rat. I had triangulated the origin of the odor, and I knew that I was in the correct corner of the kitchen, but I still wasn’t successful in locating the rat until I began to clean the hood over the stove top and looked up. There he was, nose pressed to the screen covering the fan vent. He was long-dead.
I pride myself in always being able to find the best person for the job, and, in this case, it wasn’t me. I told Ted that I was going to take a shower and when I returned I wanted the rat to be gone.
And it was. He only told me later that it had been there so long that it had turned to mush, and he had to clean it from the vent. Again, a detail that we all could have lived happily not knowing.
Squirrels, on the other hand, seem cute. They have those beautiful fluffy tails, and they can leap in graceful bounds. Beatrix Potter wrote lovingly about them. Even a commercial in the 2013 Super Bowl had them making snarky remarks that people found funny. However, when you live on a hazelnut farm, they are the bane of your existence.
When the crop is ripe, they converge on the farm with the other animals that love free nuts: deer, bears, dogs, birds. They rush to collect as many hazelnuts as they can before we can harvest them. Squirrels store them in the walls of the house. They bury them in the ground where they later sprout into tree-lings. They “squirrel” them away.
When one of our neighbors built his new house, he found in the place where he intended to create a basement, underground squirrel storage rooms segregated into types of nuts: English walnuts, black walnuts, and, of course, hazelnuts.
The ones that they store in the walls, they prefer to count and roll when we are trying to sleep. It is like having a bedroom in a pinball palace. Pounding on the wall and threatening them with death does not faze them.
We’ve even had them enter the house on occasion. Once when Eric was napping on the couch, he awoke to a noise and found a squirrel scampering around the living room.
One even gnawed his way through the laundry room wall beside the dryer. He woke me, although I did not know what had awakened me at the time, and then he ran over my foot and back to this hole as I made my way into the bathroom. Of course, I had to disinfect my foot before I could return to bed.
Early on as inexperienced farmers we did several incredibly stupid things.
The first one I decided alone.
When we have the nuts cracked out at the dryer, we have no need for the shells. Then, I read how people burn them in their wood stoves and use them to line driveways or as mulch in flowerbeds. So, I brought back a huge, free load of organic shells and started to fill the flowerbeds before I realized how many actual nuts were left in the debris. Talk about setting out a buffet for squirrels!
The next poor decision was made by all of us who are partners in the farm. After our first major harvest, someone decided that if we lined the walls of one of the rooms in the barn with wire mesh to keep out the birds and squirrels, we could create a storage room by hanging orange sacks full of nuts from the rafters so that rodents could not reach them.
It took hours of work to complete, and the result was that squirrels can run along the rafters after they’ve found a way to get in. Then, they call their friends, decide upon a time, and chew through the sacks to reach the nuts. Simple squirrel logic. Ditto mice!
Fortunately, squirrels are easy to kill, and people like to shoot them for sport. So, we let people come onto the property and do just that. Ted and Eric like to help.
When we still had the wooden deck around the swimming pool, we knew that squirrels were living under it and keeping nuts there. One day Ted wounded one that ran under the decking with what he said the military calls a “sucking chest wound.” I can still hear that tiny creature gasping loudly for breath in my nightmares. I did what I had learned to do before in similar unpleasant situations. I left to take a shower while something humane was done by someone better suited for the job.
When that wood was removed to install a concrete deck, hundreds of squirrel skeletons were found alongside thousands of nuts and empty shells.
Mice, rats, and squirrels are three reasons why people who are city bred should not buy an historic farm and plan to grow organic hazelnuts.
However, there are many more wonderful reasons why they should.