Sometimes, I think squirrels are cute. Other times, they seem less cute, such as when they are in the attic, or chewing the siding on the house, or eating the fruit ripening on the carefully tended fruit trees in the yard.
One might think that such small animals would be easy to control, but that would be an error; they are wily and hard to discourage.
The squirrels I am referring to are not fox squirrels or flying squirrels (although those are also cute little trouble-makers that are hard to discourage). The squirrels eating fruit in trees in my area are usually the grey squirrels.
What we can’t control
If squirrels are having a “boom year” — high population because of abundant food following a mild winter — they will be much harder to deal with. A gardener might think about using humane traps to catch squirrels and move them to a distant area, but this is a bit like trying to bail a sinking ship with a teaspoon. More squirrels will just flow in from the surrounding neighborhood to take the place of the ones that are removed.
(NOTE: currently in Georgia, squirrels are considered nuisance animals, but the legality of trapping is not clear. You might need a nuisance animal permit.)
Aspects of the yard to consider
Getting rid of ALL the squirrels is not really possible, but there are ways to make the yard less attractive to squirrels, to reduce the numbers of animals eating fruit in your trees.
- Reduce or remove any “cover” on the ground that might hide squirrels from predators like hawks and coyotes. Leafy cover in a yard might include vines, tall grasses, and low shrubs, for example. Small animals cross wide open spaces less often than they cross spaces that have lots of leafy cover to hide under.
- Make sure trees are far enough apart that branches don’t interlace, forming squirrel highways from one tree to the next. Branches of my Asian persimmon tree are at least twelve feet from the nearest next branch. That tree loses very little fruit to small animals, partly (I think) because it is not easy to get to the tree without crossing open spaces on the ground. North Carolina State University Extension suggests 6-8 feet as adequate distance to discourage squirrel jumping.
- Any gardener who is facing a squirrel problem who also puts out birdseed should reconsider the bird feeders. Squirrels and other small animals (chipmunks, rats, mice) thrive on all the seed that falls from feeders. This extra food can support a LOT of small animals, allowing them to have even more babies that will eat even more of your fruit.
- Extension’s Ask an Expert suggests putting an alternate food source (like an ear of corn wired to a fence) at a distance from your fruit trees, to draw squirrels away.
Discouraging animal pests usually requires working from more than one angle all at once. After working to change aspects of the yard to make the whole place less squirrel-friendly, the next step is to work on the trees themselves.
Make the fruit trees unpleasant or hard to climb
If squirrels can’t get up into the trees, they will not be able to eat the fruit. If they manage to get up there in spite of your interventions, it may be possible to make the experience so unpleasant that the fruit won’t be worth the effort.
Ways to interfere with climbing
University of Missouri Extension suggests that wrapping a tree with metal flashing and/or adding a metal baffle below the lowest branches can keep squirrels out of the branches:
… wrap trees with metal sheeting or protect them with squirrel baffles, as you would the pole for a bird feeder. . . Wrap all trees within branch-to-branch jumping distance. Be sure to allow for tree growth when wrapping.Tree squirrels: managing habitat and Controlling damage, by Robert Pierce
Extension’s Ask an Expert site suggests making the metal collar around the tree trunk two feet wide and six feet off the ground.
For baffles, I have not seen any for sale that would really work for most trees. Consider making one either from metal sheeting or from a couple of large aluminum roasting pans.
Use repellents to make the experience unpleasant
Repellents are products that taste bad, or smell bad, or are sticky enough that they are uncomfortable, or that otherwise offend the target animal.
Repellents work best when they are applied early — before the squirrels even know about your fruit trees. However, even if applied late, repellents can help slow the losses when their use is combined with other strategies.
Repellents for the ground versus for trees, fences, and structures
When I’ve had small animal problems, they have mostly been with chipmunks. I have used a hot-pepper based granular application that goes around the outside of the garden, that keeps them out. The one I use is organic-approved. To be honest, it has always worked to keep chipmunks from crossing into my garden, but it is not labeled for use on fruit trees or directly adjacent to other food crops.
I haven’t found any commercial repellents to use on the ground around fruit trees, but the granules I use for chipmunks (which also work for squirrels) might be useful in another part of the yard to keep the squirrels from running through. Just a thought.
Also, there is always experimenting with hot red pepper and black pepper that is liberally spread on the ground around the base of each tree. This would need to be re-applied after a rain, but The Old Farmer’s Almanac suggests that it may be worth a try.
Buy a commercially prepared repellent
The products I’ve seen that are labeled for use on food crops, including fruit, are not organic-approved. They mostly have names that are some version of “hot pepper wax”. I don’t know whether the lack of organic certification is due to the paraffin base that is in many of these, or the chemical that makes the paraffin flowable, or the hot-pepper extract, or any or all of the above.
If you are frustrated enough by squirrels to go without the organic approval, you might try one of the Hot Pepper Wax products, like the one from Bonide.
In general, all the brands of hot wax pepper products seem to be similar, and all have mixed reviews. They work in some situations and not in others.
DIY a batch at home
If you have a lot of powdered hot pepper already in your spice cupboard, making some of your own repellent is an option to try.
You’ll need powdered red pepper (the hotter the better), water and some liquid soap. In a large jug, stir 2 tablespoons of the pepper into a gallon of warm water, then add six drops of liquid soap. Stir well, put the lid on and let it sit overnight. Early the next morning, pour some of the solution into a spray bottle, shake well and spray your plants, fences, or whatever the squirrels are after. At dusk, you can apply a second coat. Continue this for a few days or until the squirrels get the idea. After that, you may only need to spray once a week. The mixture will keep for two to three weeks in the refrigerator.5 ways to keep pests out of fruit trees, by Joan Morris, Mercury News
Hot pepper is a key active ingredient for most of the commercial repellents, which makes this option a reasonable one to try. I can imagine, though, that the powdered pepper might clog a sprayer, which is something to be aware of when choosing your sprayer. Use one that will permit powdered stuff to go through.
The wrap up
As in most wildlife control situations, the key to best success for managing hungry squirrels is to use two or more new strategies at the same time. Mix it up by installing tree wrapping or a baffle, removing leafy cover near the ground, pruning nearby branches from other trees, AND using repellents.
For all my fellow gardeners whose fruit trees are plagued by squirrels, I hope that this information is helpful. Also — thanks to Sally for suggesting the topic!