A porcupine hangs out on the side of a dirt road in Otis on July 9. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Porcupines are fun, unique critters to observe if they find their way to your property. These prickly beasts can be a nuisance, however — not just because they can stick you or your pets with their quills, but also because they will chow down on your garden and structures around your property.

Porcupines are common throughout the state. They tend to be more abundant in areas with prime porcupine habitat like coniferous or mixed forests.

Unlike some other Maine wildlife, porcupines do not hibernate and will remain active throughout the year. They are particularly active during the fall, which is their breeding season. Their movements are decreased in winter and may be hindered by deep snow, but they also may find their way closer to humans as they seek shelter from the cold, denning in abandoned buildings or camps.

Like other mammalian pests, porcupines are attracted to a property in their search for food and shelter. Properties with trees, ornamental plants and gardens may also be attractive to hungry porcupines.

The problem with porcupines

Once they are there, porcupines can wreak significant damage to wood piles and structures, as well as vegetation.

“The damage associated with porcupines is generally a result of their habit of gnawing on trees and wood products, [especially] during the winter when woody plants make up the bulk of the porcupine’s diet,” said Griffin Dill, integrated pest management specialist at the University of Maine. “Porcupines are herbivores and feed on a wide variety of vegetation, which can include landscape plants, fruit trees, and even home gardens.”

Porcupines will also gnaw on wooden tool handles, attracted not only to the wood, but also the salt. Additionally, porcupines can create lots of trouble if they reside in buildings or other structures during the winter months.

“When in buildings or structures, their urine and feces become a very big source of damage,” said Adam Vashon, staff wildlife biologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Augusta. “Because they are herbivores, they consume lots of low quality forage, so naturally, they defecate in great quantity.”

Vashon said that porcupines are not one of the more commonly associated disease vectors, though they can carry rabies or tularemia and their feces can contain viruses, fungi and bacteria.

“When cleaning contaminated areas, proper respiratory protection is a must,” Vashon warned.

The quills probably pose the biggest threat of physical harm. While porcupines are not aggressive animals, they will defensively swat their quilled tails if people or pets get too close.

“Most of us are familiar with the sight of a dog with a face full of quills and, unfortunately, dogs tend to be repeat offenders, not learning from their previous porcupine encounters,” Dill said. “Since porcupines are nocturnal, these encounters tend to happen at night.”

Porcupine quills have microscopic barbs that prevent them from being easily removed. Although the quills can be removed with care, they are not likely to fall out on their own and often require professional medical help.

“It’s important to seek veterinary attention quickly following a pet’s porcupine encounter, as quills can slowly migrate into the body, causing potentially serious issues,” Dill said.

Preventing and dealing with porcupines

Vashon said that managing the structures on your property would be the best strategy to keep porcupines from getting too close. Old equipment, lumber piles, rubble of any sort can serve as escape or denning cover for porcupines and should be removed.

However, Dill said that preventing porcupines from entering your property may not be possible despite your best efforts.

“Like with other wildlife species, especially those that are adept climbers, completely excluding them from an entire property is generally not feasible, partially due to cost and effectiveness of exclusion options,” Dill explained.

However, there are steps that can be taken to prevent property damage, such as fencing around gardens, orchards, and ornamentals can help protect vulnerable plants.

“Wrap a strip of 24 to 30 [inch] aluminum flashing around the trunks of individual trees to prevent porcupine access,” Dill said. “Keep dogs leashed or within fenced areas when outside to minimize the chance of a porcupine encounter.”

Vashon said that for persistent porcupines, electrified fencing would be a good option.

If porcupines become a consistent nuisance or are causing extensive damage, measures like trapping or shooting may be necessary. Dill said to be sure to check with the warden service about dealing with a nuisance animal and obey all state and local regulations.

“I recommend checking with Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife rules and regulations that regulate the take of porcupines,” Vashon added. “Porcupines can be live-trapped and translocated, or euthanized when they are involved in conflicts, although that should be considered the last option.”

Watch more: