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Lions and Tigers and Bears - Oh My!

Landscapes, Spring

Lawn damaged by voles (meadow mice)Well, maybe not lions and tigers and bears, but voles, moles and gophers, at least. But, sometimes there is more than meets the eye. Spring continues to reveal more of the hidden life in your yard and landscape as the snow recedes. Take, for example, the photo at the left - look closely and you'll see the snowmold we talked about in our last post, but also a bunch of runways through the grass. This is the work of voles (a.k.a. meadow mice). During the rest of the year, you'll probably have no clue they're around, but spring uncovers their activity as they ventured out for food.

What you see in the photo is not the work of just 1 or 2 hungry little rodents, but most likely dozens of hungry little rodents. In order for you to see evidence this easily, most experts estimate the population is 300 - 1,000 voles/acre. In the Twin Cities, the average home lot is around 1/5 - 1/4 acre (4 - 5 homes/acre). You also probably won't notice the runways unless you have some long grass left over the winter.

No need to get alarmed, though - the creatures are quite harmless and don't disturb much else in your landscape. They are vegetarians - eating seeds, grass and tree bark. There are only a couple of things to do, at this point - repair the damage and work to reduce the impact next year.

It's still quite early for any vigorous raking, but a light raking won't hurt your lawn. Be sure to do it only when the ground and grass are dry. If the damage is extensive, you'll want to overseed the area with some grass seed to help fill in the bare spots. Healthy lawns should recover fairly quickly as the weather warms up.

To keep the damage to a minimum in following years, there are a couple of approachs - make the  environment less desirable so they move elsewhere, or take steps to directly reduce the vole population. Integrated pest management (IPM) focuses on restoring a natural balance to an environment, which reduces the impact of all kinds of pests and brings more lasting results. How do we apply IPM to this situation? Well, reducing the amount of cover they have to hide in is part of the solution. Don't leave your grass too long at the end of the season. Keep mowing as long as the grass is growing. You won't need to mow as often, but still keep mowing.

Thick layers of mulch, especially around tree trunks give the voles cover and access to food - they eat grasses, seeds and tree bark. Piling mulch up around trees in the too common volcano shape isn't good for the trees anyway. Low growing and spreading shrubs, like creeping junipers, also provide protection for the little critters. This doesn't mean you can't use them in your landscape, but be sure to clean out under them in the fall to reduce the amount of food.

Trying to reduce the vole population without involving your neighbors is a rather poor approach. Even if your neighbors join in your fight against the voles, you're still outnumbered. Remember, you're probably looking at hundreds of voles wandering around the neighborhood. Hawks and owls are always on the lookout for a good meal and voles are a nice snack. Reducing the camouflage and food sources for the voles will force them to venture out a little further, making them easier targets for the hawks and owls.

I still haven't talked about moles and gophers and how to tell which is tearing up your yard, but I will shed some light on that another time. If you just can't wait to find out, give me a call and we can schedule a visit to evaluate the damage and develop a management plan just for you.

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