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Voles – Shrews – More about the Truth in controlling them in the Garden

Several weeks ago one of the garden beds with my most lush planting of fall lettuce was invaded by voles and/or shrews.  What tipped me off was  — I noticed several of the plants wilting for no apparent reason.  When I pushed my fingers into the soil I immediately discovered one of their tunnels.  They weren’t surfacing in the bed, but rather just tunneling through and undermining the lettuce. Activity slowed for a few days after I filled in their shallow tunnels.  Finally they started up again and surfaced at the end of the bed.

It’s easier to trap them when they surface because then you know where they’re the most active and can set a trap at the opening — which I did — and have caught a couple already.

They’ve become active on the edges of the bed and yesterday after collapsing a shallow tunnel several feet long — I found where the tunnel descended into the earth.  I pulled the dirt back until the opening was clear and set a trap there. I feel sure I’ll catch a few in the next day or so.

My winter beds with new plantings of various lettuces and greens are purposefully mulched just enough to keep the soil from drying out around the new seedlings, but thin enough to allow me to see at a glance any new holes that have been opened up by voles or shrews in the beds.

Generally speaking –  once the hoop tunnels are in place during cold weather these rodents come up in these warmer areas when it gets really cold and undermine my plants.  If I trap  now and get the numbers down — voles and shrews won’t be as much of a problem in the dead of winter. Even if I have to set a few traps mid-winter —- it’s nothing compared to what would happen if I didn’t do it now.

My last post about Voles, Moles, Mice and Shrews

In January of this year I wrote a lengthy post on voles, moles, mice and shrews and how to trap them in the garden.  If you’re having problems I hope you’ll review it.  It tells you exactly how to trap  them and gives quite a bit of information that you need to be successful if you’re going to wage war on them.

Keep in mind that “control” is the key word rather than eradicate.

Addressing some Highly Promoted Incorrect Information

I want to address 3 points that are widely promoted as if they were facts written in stone.  If you haven’t had a lot of experience with these rodents you would have a tendency to believe every word.  This is especially true since some of this information is promoted by very well-known gardeners who have lots of credibility.  But even though their gardening information may be right on target — their information about voles is “gut-feeling” at best.

It is only because of what I have experienced in the almost 36 years of dealing with these rodents that I know these things are not factual — but just “thoughts” from  people who “think” they know these statements to be true.

Point # 1

One of the most popular things you’ll see on almost any writing that addresses how to get rid of voles and shrews is the encouragement to clean your garden and borders until there is nothing left but bare soil.  One account even advised readers not to plant bushes in flower borders because they gave cover to voles.  Mulching of course is said to be absolutely taboo if you don’t want voles.

My situation as an example

In the area I live in — both at this residence and where I lived previously — voles, shrews, mice and moles are in every yard.

I never bother trapping in my yard. It’s just not what I want to do with my time.  I don’t even trap in the flower borders unless plantings are being undermined or damaged — which by the way is extremely rare.  (And yes — my flower borders are mulched almost as heavily as my garden.)

Are voles and shrews there when you don’t see evidence?

Even when I don’t see damage by voles and shrews I know they’re in my garden.  By trapping intensively in the fall and into the early winter if necessary, it gets the numbers down to a manageable level.  If any voles or shrews surface in the hoop tunnels during the severe cold I’ll set traps immediately.    But as I said previously— by trapping intensively before the hoop tunnels go up — I save myself a lot of trouble and have little damage.

Does Bare Soil Get Rid of the Voles?

This evening I was talking to a friend who is a conventional gardener.  He does NOT mulch and I’m sure there is not one piece of debris anywhere.  He guesstimated his harvest of potatoes this year would have been about 15 bushels had it not been for voles.  He harvested one bushel. He told me they even ate the stems!

I mulch my potatoes heavily. My potatoes stay in the ground until just before I get ready to cook them.  We eat them every other day or every 3rd day May through October. (I guesstimate my total harvest to be at least 450 to 500 potatoes from only 3 beds about 10 to 15 feet in length.)  Every time I harvest there are always tunnels under the potatoes.  In spite of that I find only about 10% of the potatoes have been eaten on by voles.  (In years of severe drought it might go to 20%.)

Voles love yellow fleshed potatoes better than the others, so another strategy to employ is to plant varieties that they won’t pig-out on.  At this point in time I’ve found that Chieftans (an early red variety) are not bothered much.  I also grow Kennebecs (a late white variety) which voles like better than the Chieftans— but not so much that I can’t live with the damage. (And by the way, both of those varieties are delicious.)

My onions are mulched too, although not as heavily as potatoes.  In previous years at this location I’ve not had trouble with voles eating the onions.  This year they munched on at least 30 onions out of many hundreds of onions.  I didn’t like it — but I can live with that small percentage of damage.

Point # 2

Do voles connect the smell of the bait with death?

One of the best known gardeners in the country (or perhaps the world) says that voles eventually associate the smell of baits with the death of fellow voles. As much respect and admiration as I have for this man’s ability to garden — this statement regarding voles has not been true in either of my gardens for over a period of 35 years of trapping voles.

In the past I’ve used apples.  Peanut butter is easier.  So that’s what I use now.  I continue to use the same traps over and over again.  Sometimes the peanut butter (or the tied on apple) stays in the trap through 3 or 4 catches.  Believe me — voles and shrews are not the least bit intimidated by that.  They take the bait readily!

I literally use each trap until it get’s so worn that it either falls apart or doesn’t snap anymore.  That might be a year or more.  The trap has bait in it 99% of the time.  I’ve caught dozens of voles in the same trap.  One right after the other.

Point # 3

If you don’t mulch in the fall will voles set up somewhere else for the winter?

Another popular educator and teacher has had trouble with voles in her garden.   She has trapped but obviously not intensively because she is still looking for a way to make voles stay away voluntarily. (I personally don’t feel she’s going to find it.)  Reading of the various things she’s tried is entertaining to me more than informative.  Mainly because over the years I’ve tried all those things and have already learned — as she states that she is learning — that I don’t need to bother trying those anymore.

Recently I read of her most recent strategy of not mulching her beds in the fall so that the voles will have time to set up somewhere else for the winter.

It’s been my experience that not mulching will not keep them from setting up in a bed or in it’s general area.  I have two beds out there now that for a number of reasons are in part unmulched.  They currently seem to be the “busiest” areas for vole activity.

I do know that in winter voles tend to congregate together in the same area.  Last year I trapped in January and caught about 50 in the same basic location.  It was an area close to a hoop tunnel and had not been active at all in the fall.  The voles moved in when the weather turned colder.

Should you Trap Now if you Don’t have Winter Crops in your Garden?

Even if you don’t have winter crops in the garden and even if you have “put your garden to bed” already — you will still benefit greatly by trapping now before the ground freezes.  Although these pest breed all year —- the main breeding season is the spring and summer.  If you trap now and during the winter to get the numbers down it will make a BIG difference in the number of voles and shrews that end up in your garden in late spring and summer.

The Most Effective Means of Controlling These Pests

After 35 years of dealing with voles and shrews I can say without hesitating that trapping to kill is THE most effective means of control for these garden pests. If you persist you can win even when battling major infestations.  I know because I’ve done it.

You can search the internet and come up with all kinds of things to try. But the trapping method is the only one that will guarantee your success and do it in a way that still works with nature. (No poisons.)

All you have to do is be willing to make a consistent effort.

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Related Posts:

Voles – Moles – Mice- Shrews – How to Control them in the Garden

Lettuce, Cold Frames and Voles – Don’t read if you’re squeamish.

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Organic Gardening is easy, effective, efficient — and it’s a lot healthier.

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All content including photos is copyrighted by TendingMyGarden.com. All Rights Reserved.

7 comments to Voles – Shrews – More about the Truth in controlling them in the Garden

  • Bonnie C.

    Please, PLEASE, do NOT just arbitrarily lump Shrews in with Mice & Voles. They are not even remotely close in habits. Unlike Mice & Voles, Shrews are 100% CARNIVEROUS – as in they consume ONLY insects AND Mice & Voles!! In fact, the reason why you’ll sometimes come across Shrews utilizing tunnels constructed by Mice &/or Voles is because they are in there searching for prey. With extremely high metabolisms to support, Shrews must eat fairly constantly.

    Launching any sort of campaign to catch, harm, or kill Shrews is frankly the height of ignorance. DO YOUR RESEARCH/HOMEWORK before just going on a garden rampage to get rid of anything & everything small & furry. It’s positively shameful how many people have the same blind unwarranted opinion as you do Theresa. Sigh.

  • Theresa

    Dear Bonnie C.,
    I’m glad you expressed your thoughts because it helped me to know that although someone may have been subscribed to TMG for more than a year and although I gave links to a previous post on voles, moles, mice and shrews — that not everyone reads everything or pays attention to the overall purpose of a post.

    If you felt this way — perhaps others did too and this will give me a chance to offer more information.

    In my January 2013 post http://tendingmygarden.com/voles-moles-mice-shrews-how-to-control-them-in-the-garden/ I noted the differences in all these rodents. Differences in their diets were noted.

    I did not arbitrarily “lump” shrews in with mice and voles. I had a definite purpose and reason for mentioning them together. And that is: they have undermined many plantings from time to time over 35 years. I have the hands on experience to know this is true.

    In past years I’ve done plenty of research on all these creatures and probably have read everything you’ve read. But it’s my 35 years of experience (homework) with them in the garden that let me know — the rest of the story. Articles on the internet do NOT tell it all.

    And even though I am well aware that shrews have different diets than voles, they do undermine plantings, can make their own tunnels, and thus ruin my lettuce and other plants — especially in the winter. I do everything within my power to stop that.

    My “opinion” of shrews is far from “blind” or “unwarranted”. I know what I know.

    Regarding your indication of my going on a garden rampage: —
    Rampage is defined as “rushing around in a violent and uncontrollable manner.” My actions are far from that description.

    I trap with forethought. And in a controlled manner. I usually trap intensively in the fall and early winter unless things get uncontrollable at other times of the year.

    Shrews are not in danger of extinction in my 1 acre of land. I only trap in the garden. They are not even in danger of extinction in the garden for that matter.

    When I write for TMG — I make it a point to be a respectful of other opinions to the best of my ability — no matter whether I agree with them or not.

    Much of the information that I post — you don’t see anywhere else. I continue writing for TMG at the encouragement of the many who have benefited from what I have written.

    I try never to tell others what to do — but rather what my experiences have been in my 35 years of gardening. Readers are perfectly free to choose their own course of action based on their circumstances.

    I hope you too have benefited by some of the information over 15 months that you have been subscribed. If not, and if you find my truthful approach offensive and upsetting — then perhaps it would be best if you unsubscribed.

    Thank you again for commenting. I feel sure it brought out points that needed to be addressed.

    Sincerely,
    Theresa

  • Cynthia

    Thanks, thanks, thanks! I bought some traps yesterday and I think I have voles in the garden area. Just as you describe I will see some turnips or something wilting for no reason and then find a pretty large size tunnel when I stick my fingers into the dirt. But no evidence of a tunnel on top of the soil surface.

    I do know that I have moles because the dogs dig them up in the yard, but I can always see the surface tunnels. Just not in the garden. Of course it may be that the soil in my garden area is a lot softer and deeper than the yard.

    Thanks for all the information!

    Cynthia

  • Cynthia

    If a mole,vole or shrew is in my vegetable garden and killing plants that put food on my table, then he has got to go whether herbivore or carnivore. If he is in my yard then he can live unless the dogs get to him first. I don’t care enough about my yard, grass or flowers to worry about getting rid of the things. But if he is killing my food then he has got to go. Unless they are good to eat? 🙂 I am on a fixed income and I NEED my garden produce

  • Toni Brock

    Theresa,

    I have learned invaluable lessons and methods from you, have found you to be very well researched, very well thought out, and very methodical. And so easy to learn from.

    I too have lost great amounts of produce including fruit trees to gophers and voles! I don’t mind sharing a bit of excess and I do find value in all creatures. However, I have found that they will take and or ruin far more food than I can afford to loose, so I trap often and only around my garden. I don’t bother any of the animals on the rest of the thirteen acres.
    I was getting myself a little confused regarding mulch. I know mulching is so important for the soil life so I have been doing it even though I hear conflicting reports. So, I am very glad for your research regarding this matter. I will go home tonight after work and set some traps. They got almost ALL of my potatoes this year to my dismay.

    Happy day to you Theresa.

    Toni

  • Don Rutherford

    Theresa

    Thank You Thank You Thank You.

    I just read your advice on controlling voles. Several years ago I had a problem and went online where they said to use caster oil to drive them off. Where? to your neighbors lawn. I bought traps and spared my neighbors.

    Thank you again.
    Don.

  • Jack

    Bonnie,

    Are you a gardener??? If so, I’d love to hear how YOU would go about catching all the moles, voles, mice and shrews here in my acre garden (without hurting the shrews since they’re such good little rodents). The actual point of the post is about the necessary control of them, which really comes down to whether or not our produce makes it to the table or freezer. Combine the information here along with the January post, and you won’t find any better..truthful advice..”that works”, no matter how hard you search!

    I own 5+acres, (surrounded by many, many acres of old growth forest) and ALL the pests and critters pretty much have full run of anywhere here…with the exception of IN the house or garden

    We really love all the surrounding wildlife and I do what I can to keep the deer and turkeys at bay (I even plan my garden with what I feel is appropriate for acceptable loss), and my efforts always pay off without having to shoot anything (until hunting season). Coons and all those dirty little rodents (including groundhogs) on the other hand… get no slack!

    A huge part of what my family eats is organic and from the garden. So…with well over 1000 canning jars and three freezers to fill, trapping and/or shooting is a necessary part of managing my little acre of the world :), as I think it would be anywhere in a very rural setting.

    That reply just put me in one of those moods where I could go on and on…so I’ll just stop short and say
    Thank You Theresa!! for putting so much great information out here, for us less experienced gardeners to benefit from.

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