10/10/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 12/09/2014 05:59 EST

Ontario city using cayenne pepper to deter hungry squirrels

The City of Windsor is at its wit’s end when it comes to keeping squirrels from eating tulip bulbs at one of its most prized parks.

This fall, it’s going to sprinkle cayenne pepper on the ground to keep them from dining on the bulbs at Jackson Park and destroying some of the most picturesque property the city owns.

“Through our investigation, animals, probably just the same as human beings, don’t appreciate pepper in their noses,” said Dave Toothill, the city’s horticultural supervisor. “It deters them from digging down into the soil and grabbing tulip bulbs and having dinner.”

Two years ago, squirrels ate nearly 10,000 tulip bulbs at Jackson Park.

The city typically plants 20,000 bulbs at the park. Squirrels ate almost half of them during the mild 2012 winter, according to the city.

Not much has changed since. The squirrels are still at the park in huge, hungry numbers.

Toothill has used blood meal, which is dried cow’s blood, and up to 8 cm (or three inches) of mushroom compost to keep the squirrels from reaching the buried bulbs.

“Blood meal works alongside mushroom compost. Most animals are repelled by blood,” Toothill said.

“We don’t have the capabilities to cover all our beds in mushroom compost. So, the beds we can’t get to, we’ll try this product,” Toothill said of the cayenne pepper.

He said staff will likely apply the pepper with typical fertilizer or seed spreader. Because it’s not a common deterrent applied in bulk, the city has to buy the cayenne pepper from the grocery store.

'Budget plays a part'

“You can’t go to your little corner store and order 20-kg bags of cayenne pepper. You end up having to buy a lot of smaller bags,” Toothill said. “It usually means your costs are much higher. That’s why it’s an experiment. Budget plays a part in it all.”

If the pepper works, Toothill said it could save the city in the long run and make his department a little more efficient. Applying just cayenne pepper instead of blood meal and then compost later could free up manpower to do other work.

Toothill said he’s researched any negative effect cayenne pepper could have on the squirrels.

"It’s irritating. It’s just a deterrent. They sniff it and don’t come back,” he said.

PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, supports the use of cayenne pepper to keep rats and other small animals at bay.

“Rats and other small animals cannot tolerate the scent or taste of pepper. Make a mixture of salad oil, horseradish, garlic, and plenty of cayenne pepper,” the animal rights group says on its website.

Toothill said he’s not aware of any other Ontario municipality using cayenne pepper to keep squirrels away.

“I’m not even sure if anybody is even having the same issue we’re having. Squirrels are rampant there,” he said of Jackson Park. “We keep trying to battle through.”

The City of Thunder Bay's website recommends using cayenne pepper and other spicy foods.

"Try repellents such as diluted Tabasco sauce, cayenne pepper, bone meal sprinkled on soil and over bulbs or plants, garlic planted near bulbs, moth balls, or ammonia soak rags around the perimeter of the garden," the city's wildlife page reads in part.

Jackson Park is a popular place for wedding parties in Windsor, with brides often having their photos taken in front of the elaborate tulip displays.

Toothill said the city is also planting 24 nut trees around the perimeter of the park this fall. The city planted 12 in the spring. The hope is the squirrels will prefer eating the nuts over the tulip bulbs.

“If we can feed them on the outside, we’re fine,” Toothill said.