by Charlene Burgi
Jack headed to the Bay Area this past Monday and relegated the chore of horse/donkey feeding to me. That is a morning and evening task not to be taken lightly! Especially with the loud trumpet calls of the four donkeys, lest they be forgotten.
It was after 5 o’clock last evening as I slid open the heavy door of the barn that held the hay for the horses. As I walked the narrow space between the mile-high stack of hay and the barn wall, I was met by a furry black-and-white critter making its way toward me. Lagging behind me were Sassy and Misty, our two trusty golden retrievers, who felt the need to protect me from the intruder. Needless to say, this rather large, fluffy skunk turned-tail and took position to defend itself. Sassy caught the spray head-on as she rushed past me, then quickly departed to roll in the mud. Misty couldn't resist checking out the hiding place where the skunk took refuge and also got some residual spray.
Making lemonade: Two smelly dogs, horses that didn't get fed due to the black-and-white guard standing between me and the hay, and the residual odor on my clothes from pups rubbing up against me for comfort: The evening was like biting into sour lemons on so many levels.
The lemonade? The internet sweetened the situation. After locking the "girls" in the garage, I immersed myself in learning about skunks. Not only did I find an amazing recipe to eliminate the stink from the dogs’ coats (see below), but I also gathered a sizable amount of information that might help you better understand skunks in the garden and around the property.
Striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis) are related to the weasel family. I also learned that there is a spotted skunk that lives in California, but this particular barn invader carried his stripes proudly. I learned that skunks can spray up to 10 feet, are nocturnal, and have a nine-week gestation period thereby contributing two to six kits to their population. Breeding season starts around February, and that is when we typically see many road kill in Marin as skunks have terrible eyesight. They live about seven years, and some areas permit you to keep them as pets. But, beware as they can carry rabies. All the more reason to avoid them!
Skunks live in and around depressions that they make. You can also find them under houses, decks, porches, woodpiles, and apparently in hay barns and sheds. They are omnivores, so pet food left outdoors, compost piles, or fallen fruit is a meal! They also eat grubs, insects, rats, mice, moles, and cutworms.
The dilemma with the protein portion of their diet is that many of their choice cuts are found under the lawn. I remember visiting the homes of many customers who would find their sod ripped to shreds every evening. It didn't take long to see the damage was due to skunks or raccoons that delighted in underground delicacies. Unfortunately, the only remedy to eradicate the problem (that I know of) is to soak the sod with an insecticide to eliminate the delicacy.
Skunks in the garden are also a problem if they are helping themselves to your fruits and veggies. One way to protect your crops is to plant a perimeter of prickly-leaf-type plants such as Fritillaria crown imperial–which also contains an odor that skunks dislike–or hairy-leaf plants like squash. Oddly, the prickly sensation on their paws acts as a deterrent. Equally as odd, skunks don't like the smell of ammonia. Setting jars of ammonia around areas where they live or along a path that they travel may chase them off.
And a word of warning if you have chickens: Protect them and their eggs by setting their hen house on concrete. Skunks love their eggs and will partake of a chicken now and then if they so desire.
If you find where they are dwelling, construct a one-way trap door so they can get out of the area but not back in. Make a frame larger than the opening and place the hinge at the top so the door can freely swing open. Use 1/4-inch mesh wire to cover the door frame. When the door closes, the skunk cannot re-enter (unless the door is on a dirt floor at which point the skunk can and will use his stubby but strong legs and paws to dig deeper to gain entrance). I also read about using floodlights and loud radios. These methods may drive away neighbors, but I’m not sure if bright lights deter skunks: The interior of the barn was well-lit (thank goodness) when I walked in last night.
Along with all this information, instead of offering a recipe for my favorite holiday cookies or hot mulled wine, I leave you this recipe for emergencies that was also touted as the best from a trapper friend of mine.
1 pint of 3% hydrogen peroxide
1/3 cup baking soda
1 tablespoon dish soap
Do not mix the peroxide into the baking soda until you are ready to apply it as the chemical reaction will lose its effect. The dog's fur or other material must be dry before application. Sponge the secret recipe onto the victim until the area is saturated. The odor quickly dissipates!