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A Thief in the Woods at Night

Posted: January 16, 2009

Many forest owners know what it's like to lose trees to theft. This article is about finding one thief still at work on your trees - the porcupine - and what you can do about it.

Many forest owners already know what it's like to lose trees to theft. Usually we come across the evidence long after the fact and can do little about it other than make a report to local or state police. Too often nothing is ever done about it. This article is about finding one thief still at work and what you can do about it.

The porcupine is North America's 2nd largest rodent and can do an amazing amount of damage in both coniferous and deciduous forests. Many of us have seen porcupines, if only their remains along roadsides. Few get to see them active; mostly we just see the results of their activities. Porcupines are easy to recognize. They have dark brown fur, covered with as many as 30,000 thick barbed quills! The tip of each quill has microscopic barbs or hooks that drive ever increasingly deeper into the flesh of unlucky predators. Porcupines eat the inner bark of many types of trees and bushes and have large orange teeth and strong jaws, just right for their rough, fibrous diet. They also munch on foliage, twigs, fruits, nuts, berries, and flowers. They even gnaw on deer and elk antlers to get calcium. Porcupines can do a lot of damage in forested stands as their munching can girdle trees and ultimately kill them. They are mostly nocturnal but will forage in the day, and under the right conditions can live between 10 and 20 years

Porcupines love wood piles left around log landings and gas wells. These piles of stumps, logs, limbs and dirt are considered excellent den sites, making the "porkers" hard to find or remove from fortified dens. Keep this in mind when negotiating contracts for gas well drilling or logging on your property. Plan to minimize or eliminate these potential future homes to prevent extensive damage to your trees. These sites are especially favored during winter when the cold weather isn't as appealing as hanging in the trees throughout the day. Because of their slow methodical movement at night, they don't venture far from chosen den sites.

In the mid-1990s, the Pennsylvania Game Commission, working with Penn State's School of Forest Resources, undertook a research project to reintroduce fisher to our forests. Fishers are the second largest North American member of the weasel family and are one of the few natural enemies of porcupine. The successful reintroduction of the extirpated fisher could help reduce some "porker" damage.

There are a few things you can do to control porcupine damage. If only a few trees are targeted, sheet metal sleeves placed around the trunks prevent porcupines from climbing. The sheet metal should fully enclose the tree base and extend up the tree about 20-30 inches. To avoid causing further damage to the tree, be sure to remove this metal guard as soon as the animal has moved on. It is possible to live trap and remove porcupines. Be sure to use large size live traps to accommodate their large body size. Apples are good bait. Put apple wedges inside and outside the trap to lure them into the trap. If you catch one, move it at least 10 miles away to frustrate its return. While trapping seems very humane, you may well be passing your problem on to another forest owner who will have to deal with the new resident. The last resort is to destroy the animal to prevent tree and crop damage.

Many forest owners grow trees as a "nest egg" for their future; perhaps, to finance their retirement, to build a "dream home" later in life or as a legacy to their children. We know many forest owners produce and conserve wildlife habitat. Having a renewable resource growing on your own land can be a good feeling as it is increasing in value over time. Those with timber stands and those who work to manage timber already know it takes time to grow forest value.

Porcupine damage can be extensive. To resolve the problem takes time and effort. Consider "porkers" part of your forest environment. Tolerate some damage, but when it exceeds your tolerance, know there are things you can do to stop the theft of your forest's future value.

The Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship Program provides publications on a variety of topics related to woodland management for private landowners. For a list of free publications, call 1-800-235-WISE (toll-free), send e-mail to rnrext@psu.edu , or write to: Forest Stewardship Program, Forest Resources Extension, The Pennsylvania State University, 320 Forest Resources Building, University Park, PA 16802. The Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry and USDA Forest Service, in partnership with the Penn State's Forest Resources Extension, sponsor the Forest Stewardship Program in Pennsylvania.

Written by: Denny Nebgen, dennybob@windstream.net

Contact Information

Allyson Brownlee Muth, Ed.D.
  • Forest Stewardship Program Associate
Phone: 814-865-3208