Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Voles in the Garden

Before moving to Prince Edward Island I had zero experience with voles.  So I was rather shocked this past spring when I discovered that a large majority of the trees and shrubs I had planted the previous season were attacked by these creatures.  While most of the trees went on to make a full recovery I realized I needed to know more about these animals so that further plantings wouldn't be ruined.

When dealing with a pest the best idea, I think, is to learn more about the animal itself.  While we had a good idea who was to blame for the destruction in our yard it wasn't until late spring that we got a good look at the culprit.  This little guy was actually hiding out in our basement.

And he was surprisingly easy to catch.  Not very bright it seems and rather slow so I was able to slip a yogurt container over his head with relative ease.  A look at him from the side reveals a very short tail, a somewhat pointed face and rather large back feet.  A distinctly brown coat with perhaps some lighter fur on his chest and belly.

I used these markers to cross check the Macphail Woods info sheet on mice and voles.  There are a number of different types of rodents on this island and I wasn't sure which one we were dealing with so this fact sheet was extremely helpful.  Although I can't be certain I think this specimen is a common vole.  They live in colonies in grassy areas (the remnants of which we found after the snow melted) and strip bark off trees in winter for food (which we also discovered) and they are the perfect prey for a number of animals such as coyotes, foxes and owls.

It might not sound like a lot of information but it explained a lot.  The bulk of the damage was in the meadow area and next to the hedgerow.  Obviously the voles were living in these grassy areas and any trees or shrubs planted in those areas were more likely to get damaged.

The meadow provides the perfect habitat for voles
Letting the meadow grow up has provided just the right habitat for these critters and in a way, we've created our own problem.  The question was what would we do to fix the problem?

I researched a bit on the internet and this paper from the Ontario Government was extremely helpful laying out the various solutions to dealing with voles.  The first suggestion of repellants or poisons really didn't suit me.  I want a garden that works with nature, not against it, so poisons are out of the question.  I've tried deer repellants in the past and they are expensive, a lot of work and of little value.  Anything you put on a plant will wash off easily and it is difficult at best in winter for us to reach some of our trees so keeping up with repellants would be back breaking.

A second suggestion is to provide an alternative food source to tree bark.  Not a bad idea really but somehow the idea of feeding the vole population their favourite foods so they'll leave my trees alone just seems slightly kooky.  How much would I have to spend on sunflower seed to keep the critters away?  and how often would I have to spread seed?  it also seems a bit cruel, luring them to the surface to eat seeds would make easy pickings for our feral cats.

I think the obvious solution is to mow down the meadow.  With no grassy areas to live in and no grass seeds to feast off of the vole population will simply die down.  But wasn't that the purpose of the meadow to start with?  The lawn was so sterile, nothing lived there, no insects, no animals.  Just a vast emptiness.  Despite the fact that the meadow has brought a pest with it I can see how it's bringing life back to this area.  Voles are natures creatures too, and we need to figure out a natural way to live with them.

In fact, when I think about the natural cycle I realize that predators are something that is missing.  That is until this fall when we've suddenly noticed an influx of red furry critters making themselves at home.

Mouse catcher in the lower garden
While I've been thinking about what to do with the voles nature stepped in and has begun solving the problem for me.

Although I would like to trust the foxes to guard my trees I think a back up form of protection is advisable.  Ultimately we decided to use tree guards this year.  Essentially these are plastic tubes that fit around the tree's trunk.  The plastic keeps the voles away from the bark so they can't nibble.  We searched round town and found these plastic white twirly guards for sale.  They were easy to place around different sized trunks and allow light and air in.

We attempted to bury them slightly in the soil so the voles could not scoot up from the bottom and feast.  In addition we tried a different type of guard, we bought black plastic plumbing tubes.

These were quite stiff and difficult to maneuver but I liked how they covered multiple stems with one pipe.  We could also cut them to whatever height we wanted since the tubes came in lengths 10 feet long.  That was handy to bury the bottom of the pipe and make sure it still was high enough to reach a high snow line.

Now we just have to wait for spring and see who fared better, the trees or the voles?


  1. Hi Marguerite, Last year we seemed overrun with voles. They ate the bulbs in my front garden and destroyed some of my roses with their tunnels. I hope that the plastic guards work on the trees and that the foxes bring a balance back to the vole population.

  2. I hoe the trees win. I can't say I have ever saw a vole, although I have certainly heard about them. I have a rabbit that lives at KG, and loves to rip lower branches off, very annoying.

  3. Jennifer, that was one thing I forgot to mention. I made wire baskets for all my lily bulbs this year for fear the voles would get them all. I also planted tulips in the front garden but since the voles don't seem to be invading that part of the garden I have my fingers crossed they will be okay.

    Deborah - my next worry is that the rabbits will move in. I know they're in the neighbourhood but thus far I haven't seen any on our property. From what I've heard they are far more destructive.

  4. Hello Marguerite girl !
    The first time we saw voles was actually in our small courtyard garden in the Netherlands ..and it was rather sad .. for some reason .. probably they were curious or trying to get a drink .. in our little pond .. they croaked in the water .. and not just one (well yes, one at a time) about 3 or 4 of them did the deed !
    I know they can be very destructive but I am with you about not using poison .. tree guards and some natural cycle of nature application ? with the fox, and owls and water ever else may feed on them .. the meadow is disappearing in so many places it is a wonderful thing to have one on your property !!

  5. We have something tunnelling and digging in our yard and assume they're voles (or maybe moles?). The area is all cut grass and generally around wet areas. We have foxes and coyotes around but they're not doing a very good job!

  6. Goodness, I wish our voles were so easy to catch! I wonder if he was disoriented being in your basement.

    We came to the same conclusion when we researched how to deal with our vole populations. It's frustrating that controlling voles means abandoning our habitat building efforts in our meadow, but we have the disadvantage that our ground predators can't reach them since we put up the deer fence. Instead, encouraging aerial predators, and stripping the meadow, seemed less harmful than baits, poisons, and herbicides. We hope that once our trees are better established that we can gradually bring back some of the meadow plants, but vole control the first few years are critical if our trees are to survive. I hope all of our fruit trees win, and that the voles move on. I wish we had foxes though!

  7. They really are little buggers and so destructive in winter. I really smiled when I saw your cute little captive. Just think how many more are out there. It is a frightening thought for all your trees. At the farm, they wrap all the young trees. And that is a big job with thousands of new saplings every year. Out smarting the voles is a full time job.

  8. natrual preditors and guards are a good way to go I hope they help, I was thinking re the feeding voles so they leave your trees alone could just increase the population, I found rabbit damage last week but have only just posted about it, we have golden eagles on the moor at the back of me, I understand they take rabbits as part of their diet, they and the big gulls are the rabbits only preditor as rabbits are not a native of the islands so neither are their preditors like foxes, so much to watch out for, good luck Marguerite, Frances

  9. The battle between nature and our built environment is always interesting to me, as are the opinions. My upstate NY house is constantly attacked by porcupines chewing the porch posts....which are now permanently encircled in thing gauge wires around the bottom three feet. While I do 'get it' and want to live within nature, I can't help but think that so many of our pest animals, such as the deer, voles and squirrels are actually much more numerous than they would be if we did not inhabit the Earth. Its the predators from mountain lion to coyote that needs to be let back in to the circle, not an extra helping of voles. And you have to ask yourself... are we really going to do that?

  10. Joy - well your water story gives credence to my idea that these critters may not be terribly smart. That would have been rather nasty to find poor things. I agree, empty lots and fields are few and far between these days. I'm sure there are some who would rather we do something with that area but I rather enjoy seeing the weeds and grasses going about their business.

    Liz - There were voles here the first winter when the whole property was being cut so I guess they don't ever completely go away. I have found though that they seem to stick to the lower meadow now as opposed to the lawn area. Likely more cover there. Maybe Rosie is keeping the foxes away?

    Clare - in all honesty there are mice in the walls of this house. I know because it drives the cat mad. He can hear them through the drywall but can't get at them. So I'm not sure if the vole we caught lived primarily outdoors or indoors. Good idea to let the trees get established for a few years, I think once they start to mature the bark isn't such a delicacy to the mice.

  11. Donna - good point, for every mouse we see there are likely 20 more out there. I know the cats catch them on a daily basis without too much trouble it would seem so their numbers are probably much higher than I even imagine.

    Frances - you're right. Feeding them would increase the population and then the young would likely go after the trees anyway so I just don't see that idea making much sense. Golden eagles! how impressive, that would be something to see. I would love to see hawks or eagles around here but I think we are lacking in vantage points for them as it is quite rare to see in our area.

    Jess - I agree, the animals that reproduce quickly and would normally act as food for predators are becoming out of control due to loss of predators. We have really created an oddball situation and as you say most people refuse to believe we can live with predators in our midst. Even I must admit the foxes make me wary as I worry about the safety of my feral kitties. Attitudes and ideas must change and new solutions found as I see this is a growing problem with population expansion.

  12. I've had two trees and a big shrub taken down by voles who ate their roots. Fortunately, the dog in my picture is an excellent hunter who routinely kills them and leaves them in the grass. I just wish she'd gotten to the ones who caused so damage before they munched on my garden. I think your idea of bark protection is a much better alternative than the others. Plus, the local fox population will thank you.

  13. Welcome to the life of a vole patroller! We have them here too and I have lost so many plants to their root gnawing and bark shredding. I do the same thing you do, with the plastic protective sleeves, and I also rely on wildlife to control them (in our case bobcats and hawks). You'll find their populations swell and ebb in different years . . . some years there are so many you will despair, and other years they aren't so noticeable or damaging. I'm impressed with all the research you did!

  14. I admire your "know your enemy" attitude, and I like your tree guards + foxes approach to containemnt, meadows are such a rich and wonderful wildlife environment, I think it would be sad to abandon it if you can find other ways to protect the plants you love.

  15. Tammy - that's something I haven't thought about yet is protecting the roots. I haven't had any issues with root damage that I'm aware of and I hope that doesn't change as I have no idea how to protect against it.

    Laurrie - it was your post this spring that tipped me off to the vole damage. As soon as I saw the damage in your yard my heart fell, I just knew I was in for a world of trouble. Glad to hear there's some rise and fall in the population as my trees could use a year or two to get ahead.

    Janet - I think learning to live with all that nature throws at us is simply the best approach. I would feel like I was fighting my garden all the time otherwise. Although I'll admit I had a fit when they damaged my oak.

  16. For some reason, this post didn't show up on my blogroll, Marguerite; I'm glad I found it today. It looks like you've come up with a good solution to the vole problem; I hope the foxes do the trick! Voles are often a problem here, and especially in our MG garden where I volunteer. There really is no great solution, because so many of them have drawbacks like poison or setting mousetraps--I can just imagine my cats getting caught on one of those! In my own garden, the cats and Sophie, my Golden Retriever, seem to be the best vole patrol.

  17. Rose - blogger did something funny when I tried to publish this post. seems it didn't show up for a number of people. I agree, there is no one perfect solution but I'm hoping the population starts to even out a bit with some predation. our feral cats actually catch voles on a pretty consistent basis but there's so many of them it seems we could use some extra help.

  18. Bravo for your way of dealing with those pesky voles. I have them in my garden too. I have even heard them squeek at me when they burrow under the leaf litter that I leave under the shrubs around our patio. How exciting to have a fox in your garden. They will also take care of feral cats.