I recently was reading up on population cycles in voles (aka field mice). I am hoping the population is on a downswing, as we are currently working to keep voles out of our winter plant storage areas where we will be overwintering thousands of plants. Last year voles hit us hard - nesting in the storage yards and eating the roots of the plants in the pots and plug flats under the snow during our Very Long Winter. Experiences like this are probably why most vole discussions focus on how to deter or kill voles. But here are four reasons everyone,
especially native plant enthusiasts, should love voles.
1. Voles Improve Soil Quality
Vole Appreation Reason Number One - voles improve your soil. Voles are short-tailed rodents that live on or near the surface of the ground. There are several species, but let’s focus on the meadow vole, since that’s the one that eats my plants! Voles are not mice. Mice have long tails and a tendancy to live in houses. Nor are they moles. Moles live underground and tunnel to eat insects. Voles make a nest in a shallow burrow or under logs or debris. In winter, their nests in the UP are on the surface of the ground under the snow. Snow-melt will reveal soft balls of grass that lined the nests and feeding trenches leading out into surface vegetation. As a kid I used to search for these abandoned nests in the spring, admiring the soft, hollow constructions.
Their life on and just under the ground surface means voles are constantly mulching grass stems and plant leaves into the soil, either on the floor of their feeding paths or in their shallow nests. As they nest and dig for roots, they aerate the soil, leaving behind little fertilizer deposits, too! This disturbance also helps with water absorption. Humans seeking the carpet-lawn look can find the visuals annoying, but disturbance of the ground surface and the recycling of plant nutrients into the soil helps keep soil alive and nutritious for our plants.
2. Voles Eat Insects & Slugs
The second reason to love voles is pest control. Voles are omnivorous, opportunistic feeders and will dine on many insects, including slugs! Last summer was wet and the slugs had a great time at the nursery, coming out at night to eat our plants down to the ground, often damaging the crown so badly the plant did not recover. It’s hard to hate voles when they are allies in keeping the slug population in check.
3. Voles Feed Our Most Interesting Animals & Birds
While they are busy hunting insects, the entire rest if the world is hunting them! Reason three to love voles is that they are the base of the animal food chain. Their rapid reproduction means a steady supply of prey for foxes, martins, snakes, owls, hawks, and many other interesting predators. One study suggests migrating hawks can see ultraviolet light reflecting on vole urine in the spring after snow melt. This helps the hawks select nest sites in areas with the high vole population needed to raise their young. The conclusion is, if we want the interesting predators in our world, we have to tolerate voles.
4. Voles Spread Native Plants
Finally, the best reason for native plant enthusiasts to love voles is that they disperse seeds. Voles stockpile food for the winter, and seeds of native plants are on the menu. Voles gather seeds and move them to winter storage areas, Because of vole activity, these areas are slightly disturbed, aerated, fertilized, and have good water absorption. The storage areas are also free of many insects that might eat the seeds. For a seed that gets dropped, overlooked, or left behind, the voles have created a perfect planting bed. In the spring, the seed will have an ideal place to grow - spreading native plants for next year’s voles, and for us.
Repeat after me: I Love Voles
I will try hard to remember these four things today as I sprinkle cayenne pepper on landscape cloth and ring storage yards with concrete blocks to deflect vole trenches (did you know that 4 pm concrete blocks are significantly heavier than 10 am concrete blocks? 🤔). I will try hard to remember these four things next spring when the snow-melt reveals where my defenses failed and I cross ruined flats off my inventory list. But I have no doubt I will have favorable thoughts about voles as I watch the hawks return next spring, looking for the signs that I have healthy, vole-rich habitat.
Wish our storage areas luck
Most of our plants are in storage now. Our usual snow cover will create the subnivean zone - the area on the surface of the ground under the snow. Temperature and humidity in the subnivean zone are perfect for overwintering plants, and since it stays at about 32 degrees, it is also a perfect place to spend the winter if you are a vole. Landscape cloth and concrete block perimeters will help keep voles traveling on the ground surface under the snow from getting under the flats and discovering them as a food source. Yes, they could climb over, if they thought there was food. But they won't leave the ground surface without a good reason, as tunneling near the surface of the snow puts them at risk of detection by predators. To make the flats less appealing, the leaves are trimmed off and the edges are sprinkled with cyanne pepper. And then we cross all our fingers, and even our toes.
Reasons to Love Voles
I hope you liked these four reasons to think happy thoughts about your voles. Remember to skip the poison bait (it kills the hawks and other predators), plant dense so your planting can tolerate some browse, mix in prairie sage, spotted bee balm, and other “stinky” plants, and above all, love those voles. Even if they spend the winter being complete jerks.
And, Speaking of Winter
In light of the impending holidays, allow me to announce that we now offer electronic gift cards! If you give one of these at the holidays, your gardener can worry less about voles and be ready to plant in the spring. eCards can be purchased on-line and are sent via email to your chosen recipient. You can send them immediately, or you can set the delivery date for your perfect day. There are no fees, no shipping, and they don't expire. The unique gift card number can be used at checkout just like any other form of payment - no more having to keep track of your paper certificates. You can even add a personal message to the email. Customizable to any amount. I'm very excited about how easy these are! If only protecting plants from voles was this easy...
Thanks for giving the gift of native plants