Monday, June 6, 2011

Vole, vole go away!

It’s June, peony, astilbe and rose time, and if we’ve battled off the botrytis and fenced off the deer, we should be filling the house with the lush scent of our favorite David Austins.

But wait, you say, what’s that rolling across your lawn like a tumbleweed on a wind-fueled stroll? Could it really be your five year old Pink Knockout rose? Ah, I’m sorry, but it is, and you, unfortunately, have joined the ranks of those plagued by voles.

Voles are the bane of the gardening season this year, the subject of the many a frantic call, so I thought I’d share my vole spiel.

First, voles are not moles. Moles are the things that make the tunnels under your lawn. They are carnivores (insectivores actually) that are digging through the ground searching out the various proteins (grubs, earthworms) that live there. They ruin the lawn, but they aren’t actually harming any of the other plants in the yard. Because they eat underground they are rarely seen, but if you spot a grey rodent with a long thick snout and webbed front feet with almost no visible ears, you’ve got yourself a mole, and as luck would have it, they are fairly easy repel. They respond well to repellents, and if you get rid off the grubs in your yard the moles will move onto to other, buggier, pastures.

However, if what you spot looks a lot like a mouse with a short tail you’ve got some serious problems. Voles are vegetarians. And they’re piglets, eating the equivalent of their own weight every day all year long. Plus voles are ridiculously promiscuous. A female vole can have babies when she’s about three weeks old and is capable of about 8 litters in a season ­– litters that can be as large as 12 at a time. Do the math and it’s downright depressing, a vole explosion so to speak, and here’s the really bad news – they don’t scare easy.

Now back when we had lots of foxes, the voles were under control. Voles are a fox delicacy. Unfortunately mange has decimated our fox populations. Snakes, owls, possums, hawks, crows and raccoons all think voles are yummy too, but I have yet to find a way to rent any of the above mentioned critters for vole control problems. I tell people a farm cat is a good way to correct the problem, but then there’s the issue of the songbirds who will suffer too.

The tough thing is that voles are not as responsive as moles to repellents and since they’ll eat the grains, seeds, bark, roots, and leaves of almost all plants it’s impossible to limit their food supply. There are lots of creative suggestions. Mousetraps can work when baited with apple slices or birdseed, but you have to be around to reset the traps – one gardener I know caught 60 in a week. There are rumors that hot pepper works, and also chewing gum, but I’ve not seen concrete proof. And there’s also poison that is provided in traps specially created to keep other critters, including our pets and kids, safe, but a whole bunch of my clients have had very limited success with these methods as well. Plus poisons scare me.
I can tell you that it helps to get rid of the moles because the voles will use their tunnels to avoid predators and to get easy access to plant roots. And that if you mulch while it’s still warm out in the fall you will be creating a luxury vole spa, plus you must never, never mulch right up to the base of shrubs and trees as you will guarantee yourself the telltale pencil point chewing of a happy, warm, well-fed vole. But other than that, I have no easy suggestions for vole riddance.

I tell everyone to try a combination approach. Fling some castor oil around, set a few traps, call your local exterminator, drop trident into the holes they make in your beds, shake red pepper flakes among the rose bushes. It can’t hurt. And until we can petition the local towns to reintroduce foxes the way they reintroduced wild turkeys, I’m still looking for the ultimate solution.

Over the years, I’ve done a lot of research, visiting various websites and blogs looking for answers. My favorite listed a variety of techniques, the last of which read, “Shooting is not practical or effective in controlling voles.” I want to meet the author of that site, share our varied vole wars stories, look him or her straight in the eye and ask, “Are you sure about the shooting?”

Paige Patterson insists that the new Pow Wow Echinacea jumped in her car and followed her home and she was powerless to stop it.