Winter Orchard Damage

This winter, we had 1-2 feet of snow, and the cover  lasted for about a month. This was harsh on the orchard – because an army of rabbits thus had a 1-2 foot pedestal and could reach above the existing tree guards. There was significant damage, but the trees will grow back – from below the damage at the very worst. Here is an example, which I covered with chicken wire after the damage was done already:

The rabbits, which for some reason exploded in population this year and kept the crockpots busy – were not the only issue. Subterranean creatures exploded, too. Look at these tracks, which to my guess, are voles or moles:

How could this happen if the ground is supposedly frozen during this colder-than-normal winter? The snow cover made for perfect habitat, by insulating the ground from the -20F temperatures this winter. This is not pleasant, because these critters have killed a few trees, maybe 5% of the orchard of 400 trees. Here is an apple tree that I pulled out after I noticed it was no longer anchored:

One doesn’t even see that the tree is dead – it it literally eaten underground, and pulls right out of the soil. The damage in this case was totally underground, and you notice only when you touch the tree. The description of vole damage described here matches what we see in our orchard.

Some trees were eaten by voles above ground, those which were too branched and difficult to protect effectively with covers:

This picture shows why you need to go 6″ or so below ground with metal mesh if you want good protection from voles. This one is eaten right under where the 1/4″ mesh ends:

One thing I learned – there’s a reason why people keep a close mow on their orchards and lawns. I thought most people go through painstaking care of their lawns just because they are insecure, but this vole episode showed me other reasons. It’s time to get the brushhog mounted on LifeTrac and do some major cleaning.

All in all, I estimate we will lose about 5% of the orchard to this damage, while the rest will grow back. Most of this damage happened on apple trees, as opposed to many of the other fruit we have. The rabbit issue has been stabilized, but the voles are still a danger.  I am still seeing new vole activity. I guess the best solution is clear ground – for various predators like cats, dogs, hawks, owls, coyotes, snakes and shrews. By the way, coyotes rarely visited FeF this year, while last year they were visiting and howling almost nightly. This is the first time we’ve had significant rodent damage to the orchard in our 3 years here.

If anyone in the audience knows about an effective vole solution, we would appreciate any insight.

To end this on a good note, the lemon tree – rooted in water from a cutting this year –  is doing very well indoors. We got it from our postmaster:


  1. George Donnelly

    The authors of “Four Season Harvest” who are in Maine also report voles as their main problem. IIRC they ameliorated it by getting the walls of their greenhouses deeper into the ground. I think they say 6 inches.

  2. Maureen

    Voles! The bane of young trees. It’s the downside of heavy mulch — it gives the rascals a warm toasty home under the snow and and place to hide from predators. Guess you have discovered, too, the problems with exclusion. Some of them, the ones that still have some outer bark may make it. Go out some warm winter afternoon and paint on latex goo over the wounds. A lot of people would say, just let ’em die, but I’ve always had good luck with rescue techniques. I use Doc Farwell’s seal & heal.
    It may have other things in it but it is basically really thick latex paint, kinda like the thick glug that forms on the sides of your paint bucket. As a preventative measure, I wonder what would happen if you blenderized super hot peppers, mixed it in to the latex and painted it on? Would it be a sufficiently unpleasant chewing experience to fend of the furry little monsters?

  3. Abe

    Bottom line here is that you don’t have enough predators to keep these populations in check.

    Cats are excellent at catching voles. I’ve also heard that wood vinegar and other things can be used for protecting things.

    I don’t mow, and I’m very against it, actually. The micro climate in orchards can support important plants and animals. Mowing destroys this environment.

    I have 2 dogs, and we are regularly visited by hawks and kestrels. We have no vole, rat, or rabbit problems. We have ample predators present.

    You can become a predator as well. Voles are edible, though I doubt anyone would want to eat them. You can trap rabbits pretty easily. You can eat them, they are an excellent and efficient source of protein. Cook similar to chicken, though remember the meat can dry out faster that chicken.

    I’ll also heard that some of these animals don’t like the smell of dead members of their species. You might trap a few rabbits, and leave some dead carcasses around to see if it helps.

    Get hunting!

  4. Maureen


    Trapping might not be a bad idea. But how? I mean I don’t want to injure cats, dogs, ducks, etc. How about a regular mouse trap with on a cord, placed under a couple of pallets or something in such a way that the space is too small for any of the critters you want to protect. Pull trap out with a cord. Push it back with a stick. Feed the voles to the chickens. (Almost as yummy as grasshoppers, from chicken POV). What about bait? They are vegetarians. When we have had to run a mouse trapline, the chickens scarfed down the mice.

  5. mimarob

    I read something earlier about monoculture, that a crop field was sensitive to insects and therefore needed to be sprayed with poisons. etc.

    I guess an orchard is kind of monoculture:ish. The rodents are mearly keeping the ecological balance 🙂

    Perhaps something that scares them off or, ahem, ecologically limits there number, could be planted below or mixed with the trees? I know for a fact that at least ordinary mice dislikes juniper pineneedles and also peppermint. At least in concentrated form peppermint burns in their feet and noses, which are very sensitive.

    Juniper needles can be reaped and fermented into a kind of lemonade btw, possible extra vitamin-C in the winter.

  6. Bob

    Found a use for critters on your blog roll:

  7. Abe

    for baiting rodents, peanut butter is irresistible.

    Baiting to avoid larger animals is all about access. Make a smaller trap for smaller animals, or a fence around the trap, so only small animals can enter.

    We’ve had chickens catch mice before, and they love them for sure.

    Do you have a gun? Rabbits are easy to shoot.