Columnist Frank Newell is on temporary leave. Until he returns, we will reprint submissions from our archives. The following is reprinted from May 2011.
Around 400 years ago, give or take a decade or two, when the first settlers came across the Roanoke River from the Virginia side into what is now Warren County, they discovered a land of extremely fertile soil and a goodly population of wild animals. The land was so rich that no fertilizer was needed to plant and grow their crops.
With the exception of two, all of the species of wild animals that were there back then are still there today, those being the red wolf and the nutria. The red wolf came really close to becoming extinct, but just in the nick of time, the U.S. government initiated a captive breeding program that has been highly successful and has brought them back. The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in Dare County here in North Carolina was the site of the first release of full-blooded red wolves from captive breeding into the wild, and now there are approximately 100 of them roaming wild and free and reproducing in this state.
Contrary to what some people believe, there are no red wolves in the Lake Gaston area or any other area of Warren County ... yet. What some hunters and other outdoor residents have mistaken for red wolves are actually rare (one in 10,000) red coyotes. However, 200 or 300 years ago, red wolves were living here in Warren County. An old poster in the Warren County Courthouse offered a bounty on red wolf ears in the 1700s.
One animal that was not here when the first settlers arrived was the nutria, but they are here now. A little over 100 years ago, a group of men from Louisiana went into a jungle of South America and live trapped a number of nutria. They brought them back to Louisiana and put them in pens with a plan to raise nutria to sell for fur and meat. A hurricane ravaged the area and damaged the pens, which allowed the nutria to escape.
The swamps of Louisiana are similar enough to the swamps of South American jungles for nutria to live and thrive in them. In a little over 100 years, those nutria have proliferated and spread all the way to Virginia and Maryland, being confined mainly to coastal swamps; however, I have trapped nutria in an area as close as Franklin County, and I know that a few currently inhabit Lake Gaston and a few other areas in Warren County, having seen one’s tracks on a sand bar in a creek in the Ridgeway community. I have hand-raised a nutria that was an orphan only a few days old on an educational permit, and I am convinced that nutria are probably the most intelligent wild animal I have ever worked with.
Although nutria do cause considerable damage in some coastal areas, I don’t believe Lake Gaston residents need to have much concern for them. Unlike beavers, nutria do not gnaw on trees or build dams across streams and creeks. They do dig tunnels and burrows into stream banks, but so far, their numbers here are small, and damage has been insignificant. Nutria do not eat fish. They are strictly vegetarian. Their meat is tender and somewhat tasty, but the hungrier you are, the better it tastes.
There are two species of wild animals that cause some degree of concern, not only to Lake Gaston residents, but to citizens countywide. They are skunks and groundhogs. Some non-locals call groundhogs “woodchucks,” and folks in the mountains refer to them as “whistle pigs.” In all my boyhood years growing up, working, hunting, fishing and trapping in just about the entire county, and being located close to the Roanoke River, not once did I see or hear of a groundhog or skunk on this side of the river; however, they both were quite plentiful just across the river on the Virginia side. Then, when Kerr Dam was constructed at Bugg’s Island, creating Kerr Lake, all of a sudden, skunks and groundhogs began showing up in this area. I don’t really know how, but I am thoroughly convinced that the construction of Kerr Lake caused it.
Skunks are bad news if you encounter one and don’t know what to do, or even more importantly, what not to do. A skunk is not afraid of anything, including people. That’s because it has a terrible and highly effective defense mechanism. Even bears and wolves cut a wide circle when they see a skunk. If you happen upon a skunk, and it could be in your own back or front yard, and it begins to stomp its front feet, turns its back on you and raises its tail straight up, you are too close, and you have only a few seconds to get out of there. It can shoot its terrible greenish spray up to 20 feet, and that stuff will stay on you for a long time. Tomato juice is somewhat effective in helping to get it off. Some skunks carry rabies; so if one is overly aggressive toward you, take no chances.
Groundhogs damage gardens and can tunnel under the foundations of houses. They are not protected by law and can be shot or trapped. Their underground burrows almost always have a front and a back entrance which are good places to set traps. I can tell if a groundhog is in its burrow, or if it’s not in, simply by looking at the entrance hole.
—Continued next week.—