Country Living, Country Pests

This is a cautionary tale for those urban folks, growing fruit in their little city blocks, who dream of moving to the country and expanding - all that space! You need to know certain things: nobody warned us. We would have had so much less grief if they had.

There are certain common fruit-loving pests in both urban areas and rural areas, for instance, birds, rats, mice, and insects. These common pests warrant a small mention: there are far more of them in the country than in urban places. And as for the rural pests, these are the three most significant, in order of increasing size.

Number one is for bandicoots. They are cat-sized, very fast and zippy, they are out and about day and night, but mostly night. Rural people are well aware that they need to defend their pets' food dishes; bandicoots just love cat food, dog food, chook food. They also love plant bulbs and roots and a lot of things that live and grow in the soil.

Bandicoots are furry little combination bulldozers and backhoes. They just plow right through or under most fences. They are very prolific in making holes in fences, and protective about them. If you come along and close up their hole, most likely the next day you will find it open again, or another one made next to it.

They industriously dig multiple holes. Certain areas can start to look like a battlefield blasted by grenades and rockets. If they find something that is edible or interesting, they will keep at it, night after night, until they are finally satisfied.

Now, how can a bandicoot cause trouble to fruit trees? Imagine you have a precious little fruit tree in a pot and you are ready to plant it out. You prepare the soil, loosening it up and you dig a good hole for the tree. After placing the tree and settling it in, you finish up with a lovely protective and nutritious layer of compost and mulch. Then you stand back to admire your handiwork and silently wish the little tree good fortune. You have a beautiful picture in your mind of the future tree, laden with delicious fruit. So you go on to other activities.

The next day, you go to see the new tree. Horror of horrors! The mulch and compost are scattered to the four corners, craters everywhere and the little tree is leaning over, all skewed. You really can't blame the bandicoots; that's just what they do when they smell something as wonderful as freshly turned soil and compost.

What can you do to prevent this disaster? Well, you can lay old refrigerator or stove grids over the soil and weight them down with bricks. You could put an old tyre around the tree (be sure to drill some drainage holes in the bottom of the tyre to prevent mosquitos, and remember to remove it before the tree gets too big). Or you could put a fence around the tree, but be sure the mesh size is small, the bottom is well anchored, and most of all, that it is STRONG.

The next size up pest: Possums. A lot of people love possums and actively encourage them to visit the verandah in the evenings by putting out little treats for them, usually fruit. That is, they love them until the possums move into the house walls or ceiling, or sing their battle songs and love songs under the bedroom windows.

So, we are well aware that possums love fruit, but how can this furry little creature harm a fruit tree? Trust me, they can kill mature trees. They do it by assiduously eating off every bit of foliage. Deciduous trees are especially vulnerable in the spring. We lost half a dozen apricot and plum trees, and three mature pistachio trees to possums.

How can you stop the possums? That's the $64,000 question. We tried fencing the trees off, we put metal skirts and broad strips of metal around the trunks, and for a while I tried spraying the trees with a strong fish emulsion solution. That would work for a short while, until light rain washed it off, and the trees needed respraying again. The trees loved the sprays, but eventually they succumbed. Some people have tried to use electric fencing; I never found out if it worked.

There is yet another possible solution, but I haven't tried it and don't know if it really works. The hypothesis is that possums don't like to climb on wobbly things, so if you construct a tall fence that may be tight at the bottom, but the top is fastened loosely so that it flops and wobbles, then perhaps the possums won't attempt to climb over it. I have my doubts: possums are supreme acrobats. I have seen possums trot serenely across big spans on a single telephone cable. Once, I saw a baby possum dangling up-side-down by its tail while it reached for a tidbit, with its mum watching from above. There are some orchards in NZ that have wobbly fences to protect fruit trees. So, if you try this trick, please let me know the result, be it good or bad.

Possums don't have a lot of brainpower, but they do learn. They might ignore a particular tree for years, but suddenly they discover that it is yummy, which probably means the end is nigh for that tree. Short of a complete, covered strong box made of metal mesh, I can't offer any good solution. Sorry.

Lastly, the big guys, Kangaroos. When we bought our block, we asked the neighbours if the kangaroos caused any problems. They said, "Oh, no. We love to see them in our yard, we put out treats for them" (you guessed it, fruit). Later, we realised that the neighbours didn't have any fruit trees. Kangaroos eat most plants. If you find something they don't eat, prize it, multiply it, use it for hedges.

For kangaroos, you need tall, strong fences well-secured at the bottom. You need to inspect them regularly and patch up the inevitable kangaroo-created portholes. The really big ones can leap over very tall fences, but they all prefer to find weak spots in the bottoms of fences. Then they just keep pushing until they break through. They are fairly smart. They recognise gates for what they are. If a gate can be opened by pushing, that's what they will do.

Kangaroos eat tree leaves, twigs and fruit. They pull branches down and often break them. You may read that kangaroos don't reach over their heads, but, they do. They can break most of a moderately-sized apple tree, for instance, and leave just the trunk and a few hefty branches surrounded by broken sticks. They will strip everything from trailing passionfruit branches, leaving just the core. Originally I thought, surely they won't eat mango leaves because they are so pungent, but they do, and they will knock off the green mangos.

This sad story could go on, but you get the picture. This was written, not to put you off moving to rural areas, but to give you a hint of what to expect. Forewarned is forearmed, so the saying goes: You have been forewarned. Good luck!

Pat

Spacer.