Treat Them to a Good Dose of Lead

January 27, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace.--January fades and Groundhog Day, that annual inanity, looms into view. Groundhogs, though, are nowhere to be seen.

The Pennsylvania specimen known as Punxatawney Phil will probably be up and around for the photographers on February 2. He has his reputation as a weather prophet to uphold. But down below frost level our local groundhogs sleep on. They'll emerge in their own good time, when the sun's a little stronger and there's something fresh and green to eat. This year I may have a surprise for them.

Groundhogs lead admirable lives, in a way. They stay close to home, avoid trouble, and raise their families. But they're also pests. Their grazing can devastate a stand of alfalfa, and their holes can be damaging to machinery and dangerous to livestock. They're highly prolific. A farmer has an obligation, to himself and his neighbors, to keep them under control.

That isn't easy. As a kid I used to hunt them with a .22 rifle, but without much success. To kill a groundhog cleanly with a .22 you have to shoot from close range; longer shots, if they hit, are likely to result in wounded animals, which seems needlessly cruel. And getting within range isn't easy. Groundhogs are wary and, although they don't look it, pretty smart.

I've often driven a piece of farm machinery within a dozen feet of a feeding groundhog, but when the machinery stops, the groundhog disappears. Stalking them to get within range is possible, as is waiting patiently near a hole for a groundhog to appear, but both techniques are too time-consuming to be worthwhile.

Dogs kill a few groundhogs. Some have more aptitude for it than others. Years ago we had a corgi and a greyhound that worked together as a highly effective team, with the corgi distracting the groundhog until the greyhound came flashing up and killed it. But neither dogs nor kids with .22s can really keep the population down.

Groundhog-abatement practices commonly used on farms include arson and asphyxiation, each of which has disadvantages. Plenty of brush fires have been touched off by farmers who've poured gasoline into a groundhog hole and lighted it. Piping automobile exhaust into a den after all the holes but one have been plugged works well, but seems a little . . . insensitive?

There is a better way. One summer a friend lent me a high-powered rifle with a telescopic sight, and with it I liberated several fields from groundhogs. The animals I shot died instantly, and after I shot several in one area the others prudently departed. It worked so well that I made up my mind to buy a similar rifle of my own, but years went by before I got around to it.

This winter, though, I came to the conclusion that the time for action is here. For one thing, groundhog homebuilders have been creating new underground developments all over the farm. And for another, the legislative climate in Washington and Annapolis strongly suggests that anyone who wants to acquire a new firearm had better do it soon.

Before buying the rifle I consulted various experts, including The Sun's Stephen Hunter, who not only knows his firearms but writes about them with great clarity and understanding -- most recently in his fine novel ''Point of Impact.'' After a while I settled on a Winchester .22-250 varmint rifle with a stainless-steel barrel and fiberglass/graphite stock, topped with a 10-power scope.

Along the way to purchasing this piece of rodent-removal equipment, I spent some time in various gun shops in the greater Baltimore area. This proved to be an interesting experience.

Most of the other customers I saw were shopping for handguns. The overwhelming majority consisted of middle-class men, both black and white, aged 60 or more. They seemed to be careful shoppers, asking thoughtful questions and making technical comparisons, rather than impulse buyers. I did not have the sense that I was in the presence of the criminal element our lawmakers say they are seeking to disarm.

On the whole, the buyers appeared to be homeowners interested only in protecting themselves, what with crime on the rise and government more vigorous in prosecuting the law-abiding than the violent. One is supposed to be alarmed about this state of affairs, but in a way it's encouraging.

In the roaring mining town of Bodie, California, in 1880, according to historian Roger D. McGrath, the per-capita burglary and theft rates were about one-thirtieth the rates in most American cities today. The citizens simply wouldn't stand for it. The Bodie Morning News, reporting the rout of two burglars by an armed homeowner, editorialized that ''Our people must be on their guard against this class of gentry, and if possible, when they call, treat them to a good dose of lead.''

Editorial opinion today is much more enlightened; today the paper would no doubt be backing a free-sneakers-for-guns program, or Senator Moynihan's proposed 10,000-percent tax on ammunition. My guess is that thieves and burglars applaud these innovations. No doubt the groundhogs do too.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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