As the snow melted, the vole “highway” became apparent, leading from a side border into the lawn. In the winter, the voles will eat the grass shoots as well as other plant roots.
This is a mole. Note the feet designed for digging and tunneling, the lack of visible eyes and the long and narrow snout used for locating grubs, worms and other soil insects. ANDREW MESSINGER
This great blue heron was patrolling a pond bank when it suddenly stopped, aimed at the ground and came up with a hamster-size vole. The vole went down in one gulp. ANDREW MESSINGER
After heavy snows when the voles are left to forage for weeks, they leave behind trailways that can cover a hundred or more square feet. Notice that the trailways are not actually tunnels but made just at the soil surface. ANDREW MESSINGER
A vole emerged from its den to explore the mousetrap baited with a small piece of apple. About the size of a field mouse, they have smaller eyes and can have darker fur with a shorter tail. ANDREW MESSINGER
This shrew is smaller than a mouse, vole or mole. Its fur is tight and soft, and this animal will walk right past you in the garden. It’s only interested in insects, so no threat to our plants. ANDREW MESSINGER
As the snow melted and lawns and gardens were again revealed, I saw the telltale signs of a vole invasion.
To the experienced, the signs are obvious. To the inexperienced, the signs are, at best, confusing. The damage done by these small rodents can be devastating though, and getting control of the creatures is quite the challenge. After decades of dealing with them, I still have difficulty. But now, at least I understand them.
During the winter if we get an inch or so of snow and it stays cold enough for the snow to hang around for a few days, you may notice the vole trails as pathways (as opposed to tunnels) between the snow and the turf or soil. These small animals, who range in size from a small field mouse to a large hamster, are in our landscape doing their thing(s) all year. They don’t hibernate, and unlike other rodents the voles continue to mate and produce young right through the winter. In her short, yearlong lifetime a single female can produce up to 60 or more surviving pups.
If you have a garden with a long border and look at the snow either just as it’s finished melting or a day or two after a snowfall of only an inch or so, you may notice partial tunnels through the snow that travel into the lawn then back into the garden. In the garden, these pathways seem to connect the plants. These are vole runs. They’re not really tunnels though, just hollowed out runways where the voles travel that aren’t below the soil but visibly through it. Moles, on the other hand, tunned several inches to a foot underground and will tunnel right through your lawn as opposed to the vole, which will only burrow several feet away from the garden.
Voles and moles are also quite distinguishable. Moles have feet that are made to dig, you can’t see their eyes and in most cases you will never see a mole unless a cat or a fox has dug one up. Voles, however, are very easily confused with mice, and in fact, one of the vole’s common names is the meadow mouse. But mice have longer tails, larger eyes and tend to have lighter colored fur.
Mice eat seeds, grains and fruit. Voles eat roots, bulbs, corms, bark and the crowns of many perennials. Shrews (the smallest and gentlest) are insect eaters and are the smallest of the group and rarely seen. Moles primarily eat worms and grubs, not plants.
Back in the garden, the snow has long ago melted. Through the winter, toward the edges of the lawn near the garden and over the garden surface — often just under the leaves or mulch — the vole trails continue. About an inch wide and often passing under garden debris before being obvious again, the trails continue, often indicated by a stop here for a snack at the crown of a heuchera or a nibble of a thick butterfly weed root just below the ground. They’ll also snack on smaller bulbs and even devour small lily bulbs as well as other roots and crowns of perennials. I’ve found them to encircle the root balls of small trees and shrubs like they had been root pruned with a razor blade.
It was time to fight back. One year I lost almost $700 worth of plants due to their feeding, and while I’m the last person who gets joy from killing any living being, it was time to resist. From years of having vole issues, I knew that there were few (if any) baits that work on voles in spite of what the package or label says. On the other hand, voles seem to have a soft spot for apples. I learned this trick from an apple grower as voles seem to have a particular affinity for the bark of apple trees as well as pieces of the fruit.
You need an old-fashioned mouse trap — the small wooden ones with a big red “V” for “Victor,” a bait holder on one side and spring-loaded snapper on the other side. A quarter-inch piece of apple gets forced into the bait holder, the trap is taken to the site, then armed.
Do not arm it until you are at the trap site. The traps are very sensitive, as your fingers will soon learn.
Now, before you go out and set the trap, you need to know where the voles are living. Look for trails or runs that appear to be recently used that end at a hole going into the ground. If you’re lucky, the runs may lead you to the den opening, which is the only spot that the trails and runs actually go underground. Arm the trap and set it there. The traps need to be checked at least daily and reset and rebaited as necessary.
Voles do have natural enemies that include hawks, owls, foxes, snakes, cats and strangely enough, great blue herons. Unfortunately, as we urbanize the Hamptons there are fewer and fewer of all of these predators, except cats.
I found six good spots where I thought I might get lucky so six traps were baited. Each trap got a red flag above it so I could find the trap in the garden. And, of course, while I was filling a bird feeder near the wood pile a vole scurries out from under the wood and through my legs. Yes, that was a good spot for a trap. No, I didn’t catch the vole, but I did catch a mouse.
I returned to each trap the next day and all but two had been sprung, but no catches. The traps were reset and checked several times during the day and again, several had to be reset. The next morning though, my real vole education began. I had caught a vole in a trap set inside an 8-foot diameter circular garden at the head of the driveway. It was a particularly well-traveled little garden and the surface trails were obvious. This little garden is packed with butterfly weed, perennial hibiscus, perennial ageratum, daylilies and a tall garden phlox.
As I went to get the dead vole out of the trap yet another vole came up the hole and about a foot down the trail where we had an encounter. It was a short moment when we looked at each other, then the vole quickly hit the trail and down the hole. I can still walk over there, and if I’m still for a few moments the vole returns apparently feeding on the roots of the plants, and it seems to have a soft spot for the root of the butterfly weed. But, my luck was limited to one catch and either the voles were up to my tricks or found easier and safer sources of nourishment.
Last year I’d transplanted a tall red garden phlox into this garden, and it struggled all summer in a spot where it should have thrived. I found the marker where it had been planted and began to push my fingers into the soil trying to find the crown. No crown, just a 3-inch void where the crown had been snatched, apparently to become a meal. It reminded me of when I had a nursery and voles store and ate the roots of several hundred lupines, leaving the pots empty.
The night before my catch, the dog and I were walking the edges of the long border and she became transfixed on something. There was one of my traps in a new garden area, and in the trap was what appeared to be a dead junco. I was devastated and took the dog away. The next morning I returned to get the bird out of the trap and bury it. No trap, no bird, only the red flag. Another garden mystery? Had another animal found the dead bird and carried it off along with the trap?
A few feet away some movement caught my eye. Something was moving across the leaf litter flapping and flailing. Sure enough, there was the junco, trap caught on its tail feather, fluttering away. I grabbed the bird in my hand to calm it down, pulled back on the snapper and the Junco took off into the air to live another day, and hopefully many more.
But my vole adventures were not yet over. It was warm and sunny, and with the soil moderately damp, it was really easy to pull out the weeds. Too early to venture into the gardens themselves, I walked the edges pulling whatever weeds I could reach. Eventually, I ended up in the Japanese maple area, where some pesky garlic mustard plants had starting growing. A simple reach down into the soil, a grab of the stem and top of the root and the weed is gone. But as my fingers sank into the soil, only about an inch deep and just slightly below the leaf litter I kept of feeling voids, those awful voids that say — voles.
This was a short, red threadleaf maple that had survived for many years but never thrived. The voles had completely encircled the root zone of the small tree eating virtually every root about 10 inches from the trunk. Damn! But now I knew why the maple never thrived and had an explanation for it being stunted. Its root zone had become a fast-food stop for my rodent friends, and it seems they dined here every winter.
So many things learned from these experiences, so many lessons. About voles, about being an observant gardener, about having an inquisitive mind. If you want to read more about this rodent here’s a good link: animaldiversity.org/accounts/Microtus_pennsylvanicus.
I’d like to say that there’s room in my garden for everyone and everything. And there is. Just not voles. Keep growing.
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One fine body…