Fortunate is the gardener for whom voles are not a plague.
Of all the varmints that can clean out a garden, greenhouse or field in this part of the world, voles are among the most vexatious and hardest to combat.
Depending on where you live and what you grow, deer and woodchucks also might rank high on the list of munching marauders. But for a lot of people, voles are the absolute worst.
“They think our greenhouses have been put up for their benefit,” said Eliot Coleman who, with his wife, Barbara Damrosch, own and operate Four Season Farm on Cape Rosier.
If left unchecked, he said, voles will quickly “mow down” rows of spinach, kale and Swiss chard seedlings in the greenhouses.
“If you have radishes in there, they will take a bite out of the shoulder of each one, and they do the same with turnips and carrots. They’re like hoodlums.”
Coleman said he used to put out traps with various types of fruit in them, but that didn’t work for long. Then he tried baiting the traps with wild strawberry flavored Bubble Yum.
“That was actually incredibly effective, but only for a while,” he said.
Then, after carefully observing voles’ behavior, he had an idea.
“They like to scurry along a wall and go into a small, dark hole,” he said. “So, we started building little wooden boxes with a mouse hole at each end and put two unbaited traps inside, one facing each way. Those have been incredibly successful.”
A couple of years ago, he trapped 214 voles in two months.
Now, instead of building wooden boxes, he buys cheap plastic ammunition boxes and drills a hole in each end.
Eric Sideman, organic crop specialist with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said he has tried Coleman’s innovation, and it really does work.
“Voles aren’t attracted to any bait that I know of as much as they are to your crops,” he said. “But they do love to run through tunnels.”
Voles also can wreak havoc with both ornamental and fruit trees, especially apples, by eating the bark and cambium layer in a circle around the trunk.
“Maintaining a closely mowed orchard floor greatly reduces the chances of vole buildup,” said Alan Eaton, pest management specialist with the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension. “Keeping the orchard floor short exposes the rodents to their numerous predators.”
He said strong tree guards and the judicious use of rodenticides also can help keep voles from girdling trees.
The problem with deer
Deer, too, can cause big headaches for gardeners, orchardists and people who just like having nice plants around their house.
“They will eat almost anything when they’re hungry enough,” Sideman said.
They tend to be particularly ravenous in the spring, so they will go after peas or beans that have just been put out. And, of course, they are quite fond of tree fruit in the late summer and fall.
“But I think they are actually worse on the fruit in the winter,” Sideman said. “They will reach up and eat the buds off the apples and peaches.”
He said a deer deterrent both effective and affordable is electric fencing.
“You need to set it up in the early spring, as soon as you start planting your garden and before the deer learn there’s food in there,” he said.
“We use four strands around all of our fields. One is a few inches off the ground and one is a foot, and those are to keep woodchucks out.”
(More about those critters shortly.)
“Then we have one strand at about 2 feet and one at 4 feet to keep the deer out,” Sideman said.
Some people bait their electric fences, wrapping strips of aluminum foil around a wire and smearing it with peanut butter.
“The foil conducts electricity very well, so once the deer try to lick the peanut butter, they’ll probably never try it again,” Sideman said.
A more expensive, but more permanent solution is a woven wire fence around whatever crops you want to protect from deer. The 6-foot fence that Coleman installed around his farm has dramatically reduced the loss of everything from tulips to apples. He said that, in Maine, a fence taller than 6 feet is rarely needed.
“The deer fence has been the serious solution,” Coleman said.
In addition to raising vegetables and fruit, Four Season Farm has 200 laying hens. At night, they are closed up in a combination henhouse and greenhouse to protect them from raptors. During the day, when they are outside, an electric fence keeps out foxes.
Woodchucks and raccoons
Woodchucks feast on a wide variety of garden plants, and raccoons are particularly fond of ripe grapes, peaches, pears and corn.
Eaton said electric fencing is usually much more effective than non-electric ones, which can be climbed over or burrowed under.
“Frightening devices — such as banging pie plates, shiny reflectors and ultrasonic noise emitters — don’t seem to work well on woodchucks, especially if you have luscious, tender vegetables to offer,” Eaton said.
He noted that some people use gas cartridges, steel traps or guns to rid their gardens of woodchucks.
“We should probably consider lethal controls only as a last resort,” Eaton wrote in a cooperative extension publication. “Woodchucks are an important part of the natural environment and should not be killed indiscriminately. Also, some methods can end up killing other animals.”
Curbing munching marauders
* Several of Alan Eaton’s publications on “nuisance wildlife” can be downloaded from the Gardens and Landscapes section of the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension website at www.extension.unh.edu. The publications offer advice on dealing with varmints including voles, moles, woodchucks and “pesky winter critters.”
* Another source of information is the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry (www.maine.gov/dacf).
* The inexpensive plastic trap that Eliot Coleman uses to catch voles in his tunnel boxes is called The Better Mousetrap. It’s made by Intruder Inc. (intruderinc.com).