When I first moved to Costa Rica, I was in awe of the biodiversity. I spent the time learning about every animal in the jungle, and the names of all the local birdlife.
However, A tropical organic farm is just one large salad bar to these animals!
Now, all of that energy I spent learning about all these fantastic animals, is now turning into stress, as I figure out how to keep them away! After three years of solving the problems of seed varieties, fungus, soil dynamics, bugs, and diseases, when we finally get things growing well, every living thing in the forest comes to eat it! Here, we talk about the pesky creatures that visit the farm to cause havoc!
A friend of mine, Terri Zacanti, who also operates a small farm has tried many different strategies to keep wild animals at bay. The technique of fringe planting involves growing food around the outside of your farm, in the hope that pesky animals will eat this, and not venture further into your crop. However, Terri found that the animals completely disregarded this food-belt, and wandered right into the center of the farm anyway. As she also pointed out, there was more food available, therefore more animals came.
In permaculture design, this becomes even more challenging because of the presence of ‘wild zones’. These zones are created with the intention of attracting beneficial animals, bugs, and birds. However, this also attracts very undesirable and relentless pests, intent on raiding our entire crop.
So what can be done?
In more traditional monocultures, the solution is simple. Pesticides for small pests, and population control (aka hunting) for larger animals. However, it is not only illegal to hunt in Costa Rica, but such a solution would go against the ethos of a permaculture arm.
So the question still remains, what can we do to both encourage wild animals to participate in the permaculture setup, whilst being able to enjoy the fruits of our labor?
Potential solutions to Animal and Bird problems
Cats: A great option to keep small furry rats and mice away from your crop. Even if they don’t actively catch them, their urine and scent can be enough to keep them away.
Dogs: A large dog is a great asset on a farm – but it requires training to not destroy small seedlings and garden beds. Currently, on the farm, we have a boxer who we will train to scare off jungle mammals such as deer, coyotes, and peccary.
Electric fence: These can be effective in keeping away large mammals. However, they will inevitably be breached. This sort of solution takes a lot of effort and trial-and-error.
Nets: A permaculture expert who was with us from Australian explained that tropical permaculture benefits from the use of nets over fruiting trees, to keep out our avian annoyances. So far, I have been unable to locate any in Costa Rica.
Overproduction: Our first two corn plantations were decimated by raccoons, rats, and bluejays. For our third attempts, we decided to plant more corn than we needed (10,000m2), hoping they wouldn’t eat it all. It may backfire, as more food may just attract more predators. We will see!
Scarecrows: We recently made our first scarecrow! However, at this stage, it doesn’t seem to work. We are going to try putting sunglasses on both sides of the face, to stop birds sneaking up on it!
Stone-throwing: For the more persistent pack animals such as coatis and raccoons, we try to be more proactive with our protective measures. We make loud noises and chase them away. We can shoot slingshots (not to injure, just to scare), to ensure they understand that they are not welcome on the farm!
Traps: We have some live traps for capturing smaller mice and rats, but they haven’t proved to be very effective.
Walls: For some of our areas, we have made walls out of tin that protect our garden beds from rats and iguanas. However, inevitably, animals will find a way under or over the structure.
Some crazy ideas that just might work!
As they say, “Desperation is the mother of invention”. This couldn’t be truer of predator proofing a farm. You have a lot of spare time to create devious strategies to keep the animal friends at bay. Here are some I have been contemplating recently:
Fake predators: We may end up getting some fake owls or birds of prey, and we can see if that keeps the bluejays away.
Falconry: We think it would be incredible to have a resident falcon, who would pluck rats from the corn field, or scare blue jays from the mulberry bushes. This is a resource and time-intensive task however, so maybe not ideal for the farm.
Pee Party: Yes, you read correctly. And yes, it is the best idea ever. One of the volunteers at our farm told us that some animals (such as coyotes), do not like the smell of human urine, and will respect boundaries based off the scent. So I have had the brilliant idea of luring a group of friends to the farm with the promise of free beer, however, we have one caveat. You must pee in strategically located areas to help mark our territory. Not sure if it will work, however, even if it fails, it sounds like fun, and I am sure the party will be fun!
Snake and Tarantula Habitats: Snakes eat rats, mice, lizards, and other pests. Tarantulas would help control insect populations. However, we have had a hard time keeping them on the farm. I have been capturing Tarantulas from other areas and bringing them here, but they never seem to stay.
One idea I have had is to create a large enough habitat for snakes to live. If we chose a Banyan tree, then it may also create room for bats to live, which would help keep mosquitoes away. An additional benefit of having bats on site is that their guano is an incredible fertilizer, high in nitrogen.
Ultrasonic Frequency Devices: We have also heard of ultrasonic devices that are meant to discourage pests. There are many companies working on such products, however, there is no concrete proof they work as advertised. See here.
Below is a list of jungle animals that are a nuisance to tropical farms.
What they eat: Veggies and most greens.
These guys are little rodents, similar in size to rabbits, but with smaller ears. They tend to travel in pairs or solo and will attack most veggies and leafy greens. They are particularly frustrating as they will destroy stuff that they do not eat, and just leave it to rot.
Solution: We believe that the best way to keep them off the farm is by scaring them with a larger predator, like a dog.
What they eat: Bees
Army ants won’t bother humans or eat your crop. They can actually be very helpful with regards to any insect problems you may be facing. However, they will also destroy a beehive if they get the chance, whether it be in the woods or your beehive on the farm.
Solution: after we lost a hive to these ants, we built a water moat around the base of the hive, which seems to have worked well!
What they eat: Corn, mulberries.
These birds are beautiful, noisy, and can be quite a nuisance. They are intelligent and rather fearless. I can attest to this fact, as a have been attacked whilst eating my lunch in Montezuma! Here on the farm, they attack the corn before we are able to harvest it, and pluck mulberries like they’re going out of fashion! We have a small mulberry orchard, that attracts countless blue jays.
Solution: We gain so much knowledge from our visitors – someone suggested we use ‘red mylar flash tape’ to scare off birds, as they think the flashes are a fire. Some locals have another solution, they use cassette or VHS tape in place of the mylar tape.
What they eat: Fish, Chicken
The Boa Constrictor is a magnificent creature and can be an ally if they only go for the rats. Unfortunately, these snakes are incredibly powerful swimmers and will eat your Tilapia fish. They are also able to break into your chicken coop and will take a chicken if they can. Although not poisonous, they can grow large enough to make off with cats, dogs, and baby goats/sheep.
Solution: The best way to deal with them is to catch and release them far away, preferably in a nature reserve!
What they eat: Chickens
Here in Costa Rica, we have 6 varieties of wild cats, all residing in the Montezuma area. They range in size, from small house cat size to 200-pound jaguars (although these large ones are much rarer). The types that cause the most trouble are the jaguarundi and the ocelot. Feral house cats can also pose a risk, they will break into your house at night and cause havoc.
Solution: Keep your chickens locked away safely, especially at night!
What they eat: Eggs, anything in your garden bed.
The Coatimundi, known locally as the pizote, is almost certainly the most pesky animal to visit the farm. They are incredibly cute (related to the raccoon), but will go after your chicken’s eggs during the night. They are also incredibly thorough if they get into your garden bed. They will ransack the entire place, in search of grubs and roots. They will also eat all of your carefully placed earthworms. The males will usually be by themselves, but they can come with 20-30 females, as a family group, which can cause unimaginable amounts of chaos.
Solution: A big dog will scare them off, even in numbers. However be careful as they can be ferocious if cornered, and have sharp claws.
What they eat: Chicken, Cats, Small dogs, Baby Goats/Sheep.
Those who live in North America will be familiar with Coyotes. These large wild dogs are extremely smart. They are carnivorous and will kill your chickens during the night. During the day they will hunt cats or dogs. A Coyote once tried to make off with a baby goat from our farm, however, was interrupted by one of our farmworkers. When I was living in California, a Coyote attacked my Australian Shepherd. He luckily escaped but was left needing over 60 stitches. During the day, Coyotes are known to lure out dogs by sending a female on heat in on her own. They hunt in packs, which is very dangerous for domesticated pets. The local Coyote population was decimated by two dog-borne diseases, canine distemper, and ericulosis, so luckily we don’t have to deal with them.
Solution: If you kill a coyote, the pack will grow larger. When a pack loses members, the females get pregnant. So culling them is not an option, as they would come back in more numbers. We are lucky that we do not have many around here, but if they did start to return, we would need to devise a strategy.
What they eat: Vegetables and greens
Bambi, our resident deer, is adorable when in the jungle, but not cute when eating our vegetables. Our ranch is on the border of a massive natural area (800Ha or more), and despite the illegal poaching, plenty of deer still frequent the farm. They eat our sweet potato vines, and young seedlings from other beds.
Solution: We will be training our dog to chase them off the property
What they eat: Chicken.
Foxes are able to climb and are great at exposing weaknesses in your hen-house. Once inside, they can easily kill a dozen of your chickens. They usually take only one, and it seems the killing is mostly a game to them.
Solution: We leave a light on overnight in the coop, which doesn’t bother the Chicken, but will deter the Fox. Even with this solution, we still lose Chicken 2 to 3 times a year. We are also hoping to be able to train our dog to smell the foxes to keep them away.
What they eat: Greens, vegetables.
There are two types of large lizards that live in the jungle near us. There is the green Iguana, which can grow to six feet long, and is vegetarian, and the cnetosaur, which is smaller, and will eat pretty much anything. They are colloquially known as ‘Gallina de Arbol’, or ‘tree chickens’, because they taste like chicken (an idea of what to do with them if you find them attacking your farm!)
Solution: If you decide to take the merciful route, you can build slippery slopes around your garden beds, which makes it difficult for them to get to your vegetables. Dogs will also scare them off.
What they eat: Tilapia fish.
Kingfishers are adept at fishing, as their name would suggest. They can and will kill your Tilapia fish. Although we have not had this trouble on our farm, I have heard of farmers having this issue.
Solution: Cover your pond with a metal mesh, which will keep the Kingfishers away.
What they eat: Corn, fruit animal feed.
Everyone loves monkeys, and so do we. We particularly love the Howler monkey, as it does not cause us any trouble. The same can not be said for the white-faced capuchin monkey. It is common in these parts and is incredibly intelligent. As they possess opposable thumbs, they can get into your boxes of animal feed, and husk corn quickly. They also seem to enjoy taunting us, but eating small bites from fruit, and then throwing the fruit away, in apparent disgust!
Solution: Scare them off with sticks and stones, and hope they don’t start throwing stuff back!
What they eat: All crops!
Peccaries – also known as javelinas – are a small, wild pig. There is a family living close by, but so far, we have not had them come past. If they were to locate our farm however, they would almost certainly uproot everything they could!
Solution: Some farmers around here would shoot and eat them, however to us, this isn’t what we are comfortable doing. We are hoping that if they ever around this way, our dog will chase them off before they tuck into our crops!
What they eat: Veggies and greens.
Jackrabbits are native to Costa Rica, but thankfully they are rare. They must be cunning, as they have figured out how to survive alongside many fearsome predators! They will eat anything in the ground and nibble at leaves. We are thankful that we do not have any on the farm, as we truly do not know how we could stop them without killing them, as they multiply so rapidly.
Solution: I hope they do not find our farm!
What they eat: Chicken and Corn.
These ‘masked bandits’ are cute when babies and can be a lot of fun. However, as they get older, they become very intelligent and will raid your farm without a second thought. They have even been known to kill chickens and smaller house pets.
Solution: For now, we are hoping our antics, and our dog, will be enough to keep them off our property.
Rats and Mice
What they eat: Corn, Peanuts, Animal feed, Sweet Potatoes, Worms.
One of the biggest menaces to any farmer. These small rodents are persistent, hard to eradicate, and multiply like crazy. They get into bags of feed and will gnaw their way through anything. They tend to seek out dryer places in houses, barns, and sheds.
We have tried live traps (which do not work here), baited rat traps and glue traps, which have also not been effective in solving our rodent conundrum. There are some dogs that hunt out rats, but we have been unable to find this ‘rat terrier’ breed in Costa Rica. So for now, we use a special mild and slow-acting poison, that is contained in small grey boxes, in the walls where the rats run. However, since the Rat King does not eat any food unless it has been scrutinized and taste-tested by his workers, this solution is unlikely to fully rid us of the rats (although I suspect this is an impossible goal).
The best control is to have cats around, and to keep them lean and hungry. It’s also good to try to not have too many easy places for them to live in large groups, and to keep food well protected for them so they can’t easily gorge and multiply.
Pest management, in permaculture, is always difficult. Since we wish to live in harmony with nature, but protect our yield, it becomes very complicated. We do not want to shoot at everything that moves, because it goes against the principles we believe in. We are always looking for creative solutions to try, so if you have any advice or tips, please do not hesitate to reach out!