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