It's time to set sights on pesky groundhogs Unchecked, they can wipe out crops

OUTDOORS

January 31, 1993|By LONNY WEAVER

To some people, Tuesday's Groundhog Day will indicate if winter will be lingering on, but to me and thousands of admittedly off-centered individuals of similar interests, it is a day of thanksgiving.

I am a hopeless, shameless groundhog hunter addicted to long-range shots from shady, midsummer hilltops and ultra-accurate bolt action and single-shot rifles firing tiny .17 or .22-caliber cartridges that I methodically loaded myself.

Luckily for me and you, Carroll County is neck-deep in groundhogs. They thrive on the rolling landscape divided by fence rows and wood lots. They are primarily vegetarian and regard most farm and garden crops as their private dinner plates.

Chucks adapt very well to people and have no qualms about living under an occupied house, barn or other outbuilding. They are prolific breeders and exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, to evict non-violently.

The damage an uncontrolled population of groundhogs can inflict on croplands is beyond the belief of anyone who never has experienced it firsthand. I well remember a soybean field within sight of Westminster.

Adjoining a flat, valley-like field, was a sharp, unfarmable hill that acted as a wall covering some 300 or more yards. From the base of that hill and extending as much as 100 yards out was an area that looked like someone had mowed it over. There wasn't a soybean plant left standing.

At the invitation of the owner, I spent two Saturdays shooting over that field. In all, my rifles accounted for 62 groundhogs from that spot. From time to time that summer I would return for an afternoon or morning shoot and by fall's arrival had taken another 37 from the same spot.

I didn't wipe them out, though. The next year I bagged 59 and over; the next four years I averaged around 50. I haven't gunned it for some time now, but I bet I could go this summer and shoot another 75 or more.

When I'm asked how a person can gain permission to hunt deer or small game on local private lands, I always suggest proving your responsibility by asking to thin a farmer's groundhog population. I find that this is the easiest way to get on to such land. Prove your worth during the spring and summer and you may find yourself sitting on a tree stand this November.

Prime spots to look for chucks include along the edges of crop lands, especially at the edges of wood lots, at the bases of large trees and blow-downs, along hedge rows and fence lines, at the upper portions of sharp drop-offs and under outbuildings. You also will find them smack in the middle of pasture, clover and soybean fields and especially on gentle slopes with main entrances facing south or west, generally.

A den consists of two separate apartments underground, a main entrance that is easily spotted thanks to a mound of fresh dirt and at least two cleverly concealed escape holes.

These emergency holes are pure poison for man and beast. They are dug from the bottom and are essentially invisible until you or a horse, cow or sheep steps into one and breaks a leg. A farmer friend of mine stepped into one last year and ended up with badly torn ligaments and a cast from his ankle to his thigh.

Toward the end of February, groundhogs will be actively breeding after winter hibernation. By late April the year's litter will born. The average litter size is four, and by late June or early July these youngsters will be setting up housekeeping on their own.

They will live on the average of five years, unless they cross paths with me, you, a farm dog, a fox or maybe a coyote. They are savage fighters and can more than stand their ground against four-legged enemies.

Also, be aware that Carroll County has had verified cases of rabies-infected groundhogs over the past few years.

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