Tips for preventing squirrel damage on a wood deck

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Q: My partner and I bought a condo in a historic garden apartment complex about 18 months ago. Individual-unit owners are responsible for construction and maintenance of the rear decks. When we moved in, it seemed as if our deck was in working order. It had been repainted recently and is less than 10 years old.

However, squirrels seem to be gnawing at the deck. The cap to the top post of the staircase is chewed, and the first two steps have some damage at the edge. Two giant holly trees abut the deck, and I’m sure squirrels live in them. We can’t do anything about the trees (unless we prove that they’re damaging the house), and we can’t attach anything permanent to the back exterior wall aside from the deck itself. There are also constraints on the materials we can use for the decks: treated lumber or composite.

How do we get rid of the squirrels? Do we just need to replace the deck with composite?

HAS: Replacing the deck with a composite material might eliminate the problem, but it would be expensive, and there’s no guarantee the squirrels won’t damage it, too.

The animals aren’t actually eating the deck; they’re gnawing it to wear down their teeth, which grow constantly. Wood is relatively soft and becomes even more so when it absorbs moisture, so if given the choice between wood and composite (usually a mixture of wood fibers and plastic), they’ll probably prefer wood. However, if wood isn’t available, they’ll still need to gnaw, so they’ll find something else.

Trapping them also doesn’t seem like a good option, especially if you’re someone who would find this acceptable only if the animals could be released unharmed. In Virginia, as in many states, it is illegal to trap and move wild animals to a different property. Even licensed trappers cannot transport the animals. Trappers must kill the animals on the property, whereas commercial nuisance animal permit holders can move the animals for “humane dispatch” at another location.

Even if you don’t care whether the squirrels are killed, removing the ones in your yard wouldn’t be a permanent solution. Some will probably remain in the neighborhood, and they will have babies, usually twice a year. As they grow up, they will seek new homes and will probably discover whatever is making your yard a good place for squirrels to hang out.

There may be ways to make your backyard less hospitable to the squirrels. However, two large holly trees are a powerful magnet; the trees provide shelter year-round and food during the winter, provided at least one is a female tree and a male tree is nearby.

If the trees are English holly (Ilex aquifolium), you might be able to make the case that this species is nonnative and invasive and is therefore appropriate for removal and replacement. But this argument won’t work if the trees are American holly (Ilex opaca), which is native to Virginia and most of the East Coast. The leaf shapes and red berries are similar, but the native holly has duller leaves and berries. Holly berries are poisonous to people and pets, but they’re good food for birds — and squirrels, who will eat them off the tree and store them to ensure food during winter and early spring.

So, what can you do? The quickest and least-expensive solution is to make chewing on your deck an experience that squirrels find repellent. There are products for this, such as motion-activated devices that make noise, flash lights or spray water, as well as home recipes, such as concoctions that smell or taste repulsive.

In considering which to try, factor in how unpleasant it would be if you were confronted with the same deterrent. You probably don’t want to hear noisemakers or have water spray you in the face when you walk on the deck, nor do you want to smell mothballs or garlic when you’re looking to sit in the sunshine and enjoy the breeze. But things that target the taste buds are perfect for turning away squirrels.

Try spritzing the exposed wood and nearby painted areas with something rich in capsicum, the fire in red pepper. One recipe — you’ll find many online — consists of two tablespoons of hot sauce, four cups of water and a squirt of hand dishwashing detergent. (The soap helps the mixture stick.) Apply via a squirt bottle or a brush.

You also can buy a taste unearth. You’ll need to reapply the treatment after a heavy rain, but after a time, the squirrels should conclude that there’s something better to chew on. Even if you don’t get out right after a storm, they may stay away, especially if you’ve provided them with a piece of lumber or another gnawing alternative.

If the problem persists, call a pest-control company. Most companies offer free estimates, and experienced eyes may see things you’ve missed that can make your deck less of a target. If even that fails, a composite deck might be the solution — but it’s not the first thing to try.

Have a problem in your home? Send questions to localliving@washpost.com. Put “How To” in the subject line, tell us where you live and try to include a photo.

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