Almost every water gardener that I know has raccoons (Procyon lotor) prowling around their water gardens or fish ponds. This includes both rural and urban pond owners. As they say, if you build it, they will come. Coons love water, but chances are they were probably already there, because they are so adaptable and people have created superb habitat for them in so many ways. They love sweet corn, garbage, pet food, compost, bird food, warm chimneys and the list goes on and on.
Raccoons are common over all of North America with the exception of the Rocky Mountains higher elevations and some areas of the arid Southwest. They are more numerous and more widely distributed now than they were in the 1800’s, most likely due to the changes humans have made in the raccoons’ environment.
Recognizing Whether Raccoons Are the Problem
I would like to discuss clues that will help you determine if a client has a problem with raccoons. Since they are nocturnal (active primarily at night), they may not be spotted eating fish or damaging plants, and only the signs left behind will tell you what’s happening. Their footprints (either muddy or still wet in early morning) are sure evidence of raccoons. Of course, the client, or you, must be able to determine if they are coon track. They are distinctive. Please refer to Figure 1.
Raccoons are very destructive when they are foraging for fish. Telltale signs of their activity include tipped over potted plants, or water lily leaves that are torn up and in disarray.
Missing fish could also indicate raccoon predation, but this usually only happens when the pond edge is shallow or sloping or the pond is so small that a raccoon can easily stand in it and catch fish. Remember that a lot of other critters eat fish so this fact alone does not always indicate that raccoons are present.
Preventing Raccoon Damage
The best way to control the damage done by raccoons is to prevent them from getting to your fish. Before even a shovelful of dirt is turned, while the pond is still in the planning stages, is when the best precautions are made. Anybody that has been in this business very long quickly learns that sloping edges on a pond invite wildlife in to explore. Most naturally occurring bodies of water have this type of edge and so wildlife, like raccoons, can easily enter a pond and cause damage. Plan on building the edge of your pond so that it drops immediately to at least one foot in depth. I have seen references say that at least two feet of depth are needed, but I know that one foot will work great. (The one foot depth also is safer for children.) This way, when a coon wants to catch fish in this type of pond, he has to go swimming. I have always said that when a coon is doing a backstroke he cannot catch fish easily.
On many occasions I have seen a properly designed pond with one foot ledges, where a raccoon has entered the pond, swum out through the water lilies about 5 to 7´ and then immediately headed back to shore. It is easy to see the trail through the displaced water lily leaves. This may only happen one or two times during the season. On all occasions there has never been any fish lost, at least, any that we know of. Believe me, if they were snacking on fish they would be back every night.
Garbage cans and dumpsters need to have lids and covers that coons cannot open. Bird feeders and sweet corn patches will also attract them. My experience tells me that once the coons find a food source, they will continually check it out for months even after it has been removed.
Controlling Raccoon Damage
So, you know that you already have raccoons, now what can be done? There several techniques that will work to keep them from doing any damage. Unfortunately, there is usually some kind of disadvantage to each of these beyond the effort involved to create them. Again, prevention is much easier.
Keeping a large dog that has free access to the landscape where the pond is located, at least during the night time, works very well. Great deterrent, but not all people are able or want to do this.
Installing an electric fence will also be very effective. Most of the time one wire only 6 in. off the ground around the pond will work very well. Sometimes two wires may be necessary. Two wires off the ground 6 in. and 12 in. will keep all coons out. The system can be on a timer so that it is on from dusk till dawn. It is wise to install a disconnect switch on the system in case you want to access your pond at night. Electric fencing works but it can be an eyesore. The obvious disadvantage is the wires going around the pond, but I have seen some very effective systems that did not look all that bad.
I have one client that likes to cover his small water garden with 1 x 1 in. welded wire at night. He does not have any upright marginal plants that will interfere with the wire. This is really only practical for smaller ponds.
The last resort for taking care of a raccoon that has decided to make your garden his home, is the technique of box trapping the critters. I am not advocating this technique in the spring of the year when sows would have young back in the den. Always check local regulations concerning trapping before you begin. Use a 12 x 10 x 32 in. single door box trap that is well built. Tomahawk box traps are very good as well as the professional grade of Havahart box traps. Some of the cheaper versions will hold a coon for only a few minutes. They are a very strong animal and traps made with light gauge wire will not hold them. Bait the trap with cheap sardines that are packed in oil, not tomato paste.
Think about “what you are going to do with the coon” if you decide to box trap them. I would encourage you to euthanize the animal instead of translocating it and this is why – in some states you legally cannot release animals in an area that is different from where it was trapped. Nobody else wants your problem. Besides, if you move a box trapped animal it is important to move it 20 to 30 miles. Otherwise, the coon could beat you back home. Any shorter distance and you are simply releasing the animal back into its own home range.
Techniques for Controlling Raccoon Damage That May Work for Awhile
A motion activated water sprinkler (Scarecrow), placing capsicum pepper around the pond, playing an all night radio talk show and/or leaving a light on may work. At least until the raccoons get used to them. I can visualize a raccoon, listening to the radio, eating your fish sprinkled with capsicum pepper and being able to easily see you coming because of the light. Then his sprinkler shower would be over.
A technique that I have not tried yet, but want to, is to cover very hot peppers (like habanero) with peanut butter and place them around the water garden. I suspect that these would be avoided in time and they still will dine on your fish.
So What is the Final Answer?
If a pond is designed and built correctly with steep edges that go immediately down to one foot, then raccoons are not a problem. This is where you can serve your clients the best. Plan it right to begin with.
If bird feeders, garbage or pet food attracted coons initially, then the problem can be corrected within a short time frame by removing the attractions and then box trapping the coons. Of course, using electric fencing or a large dog also works, but these are not always the answer.
Whenever I deal with any wildlife species there are always exceptions to the “rule.” They can be frustrating at times, but the above techniques will work the majority of the time.