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Spring Cleanup Time is Here!

Lucky me, I get help with this.....


This time of year many of us are presented with
cleanup challenges. It often means removing deer
bodies. Sad and disgusting. Many of us have help,
although our dogs often bring the bodies home
piece by piece making the process painfully long.
Sofie, our chocolate lab, brought me an entire
desiccated fawn.








This time of year many of us are also presented with a lawn that looks like this -

This is the work of the vole.  We have seven kinds in Washington, one adapted for each type of habitat and its vegetation. Voles are challenged by predators and weather. They persist by prolific reproduction. Here in the country, voles will always be with us.

The key for winter survival and reproduction is the quality of the subnivean space. The zone in and underneath the snow pack is the subnivean space or subnivean zone. It provides an environment for many small animals that remain active during the winter. In years when the ground does not seriously freeze and the snow warms and refreezes a bottom crust above the ground surface there is a nice cozy space for subnivean critters like the vole, the deer mouse and the grouse.  They have shelter from cold and predators. In those years when the ground does not freeze solid and the snow is at least six inches deep, the space can maintain at about 32 degrees much of the winter regardless of the ambient air temperature. (Remember, every year is different.)

Voles eat grass. They stockpile some ahead of time and munch their way across the surface of your lawn during the winter. The tunnels came be an amazing web. I find many melon-sized perfectly round grass nests each spring tucked in under a shrub.  They are beautifully soft and perfectly clean. They are really beautiful, almost felted.

People get upset with those surface tunnels. The most effective way to prevent the totally short-term damage to the appearance of your lawn is to stomp down the subnivean space early in the winter or run your car, snowmobile or ATV across your lawn repeatedly to crush the zone.

I don’t stomp down my lawn. I have those helpful Labrador retrievers working the problem come spring. They spend hours digging out mice and voles, and bring me a couple each day.


Note the vole has a short tail, the mouse has a long tail.

Actually, I am not thrilled with the help I get from those two because, as much as I prefer a lawn without surface tunnels, our fascinating resident predators need to eat.  (The labs get store-bought kibble so this is only entertainment for them. It is not nice.) Voles are a major food source for hawks, owls, weasels, bobcats, coyotes and the like. In fact, owls can hear them move under the snow and use their feet to punch through the snow to grab them. Coyotes leap and punch down into the snow to snag rodents.  And as we know from the Hollywood movie, Never Cry Wolf, wolves eat a lot of rodents.

Critters like the vole are prolific but very short-lived, maybe only three to six months. They have a 21-day gestation period, litters range from one to eleven babies, and they are up and moving quickly after birth. A captive Vermont study subject produced 17 litters in one year. A vole can produce young at one month of age.

Some species are monogamous. Females are dominant. Males fight, usually at peak mating times. Some species are promiscuous and the males don’t help raise the young. Generally, the more monogamous have longer repeating DNA sequences and more of the identical bonding hormones found in people. The males and females have different and varying numbers of chromosomes, which is pretty weird in any species. Yet within a species they all outwardly look the same.

Voles eat the cambium layer of trees and shrubs: they girdle fruit and ornamental trees during the winter. This major problem can be avoided by keeping vegetation and deep mulches away from the tree trunk and wrapping the base of the tree with paper, plastic or even a flexible metal wrapping in the fall. I wrap it up at least 12 inches or more.  Before your tree starts growing again this spring take the wrap off - too tight and you will kill the cambium yourself in time or give rot and bugs a place to hide and mount an attack on your tree. (Forget poison and traps - poison is unsafe and you can’t keep up anyway.)

Preventing vole girdling is harder to do with shrub and small subshrubs because of the multi-trunks and low branching. Some years if you hike the sage and bitterbrush steppe you will see lots of girdling near the ground and up a ways in the branches of the bushes. Voles kill many branches or even the entire shrubs thereby reducing deer browse the following winter.  If you have extensive girdling, prune out the damaged branches this spring: it reduces broken limbs that may split the trunk.

Almost everyone thrills at the sight of our wildlife both humble and charismatic. The price we pay to keep everyone fed is to have enough food at the bottom of the pyramid.  Our lowly vole is perfect predator fodder. So prevent tree damage and relax about your lawn, it will come back. Feed the big guys.

 Good luck with those other body parts. You are on your own there. 

PS: Voles are not moles. Moles eat worms (and insects). We don’y have enough worms to keep a mole alive. Worms eat organic matter and we are darn short of organic matter in the Methow. We are missing some of the bottom of the food pyramid here.


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Have a comment? >>

Glad to see Jane contributing again. I love her garden and country living articles. Articles about animals- dogs, cats, chickens and mules- are ok by me. She captures a Methow perspective that I appreciate.

Anne Eckmann


Jane, Have you named all of them yet?

Dennis O'Callaghan


Jane, you forgot Ravens in your list of critters that eat voles and mice. We see them while skiing on the Community Trail adjacent to tilled fields. They are listening then start digging in the dirt for the little critters they can hear. Very interesting to watch. Carl

Carl and Roxie Miller