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How to keep hungry squirrels out of fruit trees

Garden Detective: The Western gray squirrel is native to oak-pine forests in California’s foothills, but it likes backyard fruit trees, too.
Garden Detective: The Western gray squirrel is native to oak-pine forests in California’s foothills, but it likes backyard fruit trees, too.

Experts tackle readers’ garden questions.

Q: They’re furry, cute, cuddly and fun to watch, but gray squirrels can also be very destructive around the house and in the yard. Is there a humane way to keep them away without doing them any harm? We’d like to enjoy a few Golden Delicious apples this summer; last year, the squirrels were very greedy and didn’t leave us a single one!

Bob Sloan, Auburn

Bee garden writer Debbie Arrington: I feel your anguish. The squirrels over-run our fruit trees, too. It’s a continuous battle over our backyard harvest. Squirrel patrol keeps our German shepherd busy!

A dog with full run of the backyard is likely your best non-lethal defense against these invaders. But there are some ways to at least dissuade their fruit thefts.

According to the University of California Integrated Pest Management Pest Notes, four species of tree squirrels – two native, two non-native – inhabit California. Because of where you live, your apple eaters are likely Western gray squirrels, which are native to oak and pine-oak woodlands in the foothills. These squirrels have fluffy gray tales and white chests. In the wild, their diet is mostly acorns, seeds, fungi and other plant material.

(The other gray squirrel in our area is the Eastern gray squirrel, which has a flatter tail and red-brown flecks in its gray coat. It was introduced to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, but has established itself in Sacramento and San Joaquin counties.)

Western gray squirrels are considered game animals by the California Fish and Game Code and can only be controlled under hunting regulations. Before attempting to trap or remove these squirrels, a permit from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is needed along with “satisfactory evidence of actual or immediately threatened damage or destruction” of your property. (Take photos of those half-eaten apples.)

When a permit is issued, it may designate what kind of trap may be used and where a squirrel can be released, such as in a park.

It’s illegal in California to use poison bait (such as rodenticide) to kill any tree squirrels. Also, you may not trap and release a tree squirrel elsewhere without a CDFW permit.

To discourage squirrels (without a permit), make your apples harder for squirrels to access.

“Anything that can be done to make a garden less attractive to squirrels is helpful,” say UC pest experts.

Cut branches away from the roof, fencetop or telephone lines. That can slow the speedy squirrels as they try to jump into the apple tree.

Sacrificing the harvest on one fruit tree may save another. Leave one fruit tree unprotected while using bird netting to protect the fruit on the other. Although the squirrels can chew through plastic netting, it’s less work for them to go to the unprotected tree’s open buffet.

As for repellents, it’s hard to protect the fruit while it’s hanging on the tree with a spray. You could try repellents on the route the squirrels use to access your tree, such as along the top of a fence. Grannick’s Bitter Apple spray, available at PetSmart and other stores, repels squirrels (they don’t like the smell or taste). Cayenne pepper, sprinkled across the squirrels’ likely paths, also works as a deterrent (they hate hot stuff), but remember – red pepper may stain.

For more information on tree squirrels and possible controls, see the UC IPM Pest Notes at ipm.ucanr.edu.

The Bee’s Debbie Arrington is a consulting rosarian and lifelong gardener; darrington@sacbee.com, 916-321-1075, @debarrington.

Garden questions?

Questions are answered by master gardeners at the UC Cooperative Extension services in Sacramento and Placer counties. Send questions to Garden Detective, P.O. Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852. Send email to h&g@sacbee.com. Please put “Garden Detective” in the subject field and include your postal address. To contact UC Extension directly, call:

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