CHESHIRE – When local resident Jim Mertz recently returned home from an out-of-state trip, he went to tend to his plot at the Cheshire Community Garden.
Instead of finding his crops flourishing, Mertz saw that his vegetables had been picked over. Mertz was able to catch the culprit — a woodchuck — red-handed in his garden.
Now, he’s looking for help from the Town.
Earlier this month, Mertz went before the Town Council to ask for support in dealing with a woodchuck problem at the Cheshire Community Gardens, located to the rear of Bartlem Park. Mertz said that he has been using the community garden since 2006, but has not had an issue with wildlife until this year.
“I was away for a week … came back, and a baby woodchuck was in the garden,” said Mertz. “He had destroyed my pea patch, he sampled 10 of my broccoli plants, found three of the sweet potato plants, and chewed all of those.”
When Mertz scared the animal away, it ran beneath a nearby shed.
To combat the critter, Mertz and other gardeners have reinforced their plots with approximately $50 to $60 worth of fencing. Gardeners pay approximately $40 for a plot and are responsible for maintaining and protecting the site.
Aside from woodchucks, chipmunks have also become a problem. Mertz said that his red tomato plants, too, were targeted by the animals.
Town ordinances prohibit the trapping of animals on state- and town-owned property. Mertz asked that the council allow an exemption so that the Animal Control Officer can trap the animals humanely, and relocate the pests to another area of town.
“To allow the presence of predators within the community garden is surely not the intent of the current Town ordinance, or the intent of the Town when contracting with gardeners,” Mertz said at the July 9 council meeting.
Council Chairman Rob Oris suggested that the Council Ordinance Review Committee review Mertz’s request. Councilwoman Patti Flynn-Harris, who chairs the committee, said she understands Mertz’s frustration.
“I have a great deal of sympathy because I had woodchuck, groundhog problems for many years, and I had to go and trap them in my garden,” Flynn-Harris said.
Town Attorney Al Smith, however, said that trapping an animal on town-owned property is subject to state regulations. He said that only a licensed operator is authorized to trap such animals.
“Obviously, we’re going to have to comply with any state laws,” Oris said.
Following the meeting, Assistant Town Manager Arnett Talbot said that only licensed nuisance wildlife control operators certified with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection can trap the animals. Relocating animals, however, can result in the spread of diseases, lower survival rates for the animal, or the creature becoming a nuisance at its new location.
“DEEP strongly discourages doing that, the relocating,” explained Talbot.
An alternative is to trap and humanely euthanize the animal, Talbot continued.
“The town does not want to euthanize animals (that are) not a danger,” she said. “Were they a danger to public health or safety, the town would consider that.”
Talbot added that DEEP recommends ways to keep animals out, such as installing fencing that extends underground and curves away from the garden at the top. This prevents from the animal from scaling the fence. The Department also suggests placing poor-smelling products around the garden to deter animals from approaching, or using sounds to scare them away.
“The problem is this is a public park, so we’re somewhat limited in terms of what we can do, especially with sound,” Talbot said.
The best solution, Talbot added, would be to install the fencing suggested by DEEP.
“I understand it’s a difficult situation, I know the gardeners take great pains to grow beautiful gardens, and they actually do pay for a plot,” Talbot said. “The best solution is the fencing. It really is the only viable solution.”