Of Mice and Moose

Credit: Barbara Rayment

Everything is extreme for northern gardeners, even the pests. We have mice and voles at one end of the spectrum and moose and bears at the other.

The first time I realized I had a vole problem I was cleaning up the nursery stock in the spring and discovered that the foliage was staying behind when I moved the pots – it was sheared off just above the soil level by something that had left miniature-beaver tooth marks on the stems. I blamed mice at first, but a bit of research revealed that it was their rodent relatives, voles, that were doing the damage.

I learned that mice usually take the blame for vole damage, but are actually fairly well behaved, although they do try to move into houses and outbuildings in the fall. Voles can be distinguished from mice by their stubby little tails and smaller ears and eyes; field mice are definitely cuter. Voles leave distinctive grooved patterns on the stems they chew, sometimes removing just the bark girdling shrubs and young trees and killing even mature apple trees. They are oddly specific in their tastes. They went through my garden one winter, under cover of snow, obliterating some rose and dianthus cultivars, while ignoring neighbouring and very similar (but not identical) cultivars.

In lawns, vole damage is easy to identify. The voles leave a network of tunnels along the surface of the lawn, like a small-scale extensive airport runway system, which becomes visible as the snow melts off. In my garden, with no lawn to play on, they build little houses out of the clumped Siberian iris leaves, which actually saves me the trouble of cutting off much of the dead foliage in the spring. I suppose if I cleaned them up in the fall instead I could remove that potential shelter and help control the population. Any tall standing grass and similar dense plant material provides good winter habitat and is an invitation to a population explosion.

There are a number of options for controlling rodents. I won’t use poisons around the nursery, for fear of harming my dog or wildlife, and I have never caught anything in those little snap traps but my own fingers, however the problem was solved when Miss Josephine Lightfoot came to stay. Josie (a.k.a. “the white weasel cat”) came in the winter as a temporary foster from the SPCA, half-starved and weak, and supposedly staying only long enough to get healthy and adoptable. Three years later, she has the vole population firmly under control, despite the multi-belled collar she wears in the spring and summer to protect the birds.

Our other animal pests are a bit out of the cat’s league, unfortunately. The moose and bears are the dog’s department, and most of the time he is quite successful. Somewhere in his ancestry there are big-game hunters, because he knows exactly how to handle bears – although I nearly had a heart attack the first time I looked out the window and saw him herding a bear that was in the yard. As it turned out, he knew what he was doing: the bear left peaceably and it hasn’t been back. I am a slower learner, but we have also had fewer bears around since I started locking up the garbage and bags of bone meal and removed the last of the long-suffering apple trees that attracted them. I never got the fruit anyway – the bears always ripped the trees apart for the fruit about a week before I was ready to pick it. Now I just grow ornamental crabapples, which have small fruit the bears don’t bother with, but which birds love in mid-winter. The new sterile cultivar ‘Spring Snow’ is also proving to do very well up here and is a mass of white blooms in the spring, with no fruit to attract bears or leave a mess.

The one year bears didn’t rip the apple tree apart, moose did and they are becoming more of a problem every year. Normal wild moose are fine; the dog has no problem moving them off the property and the few nibbles they take on the way through can be written off as pruning. For the past few years, however, a resident cow moose and her calf have visited. She seems like a very nice moose, but she has become far too accustomed to people and dogs and she refuses to be chased off. Worse, she will charge any creature who gets too close to the calf, as the dog and I learned one morning (me in my pajamas) as we went to chase her out of the rose bed.

Her tastes are getting more cosmopolitan every year, too. Willow and dogwood have always been fair game, of course – those are natural moose browse and don’t suffer much by being cut back. I could live with that, and with the tips of the roses being munched off. Two years ago, she got into the collection of mountain ash trees and ripped whole branches down to get at the berries and buds on the tips. That was upsetting, but at least she didn’t get into my beloved maples.

Last winter the maples fell victim as well, including my prized ‘Northwood’ red maple, and now it’s war. The weapon of choice will be a backpack sprayer and the ammunition a selection of the anti-browse sprays now on the market. It’s an opportunity to trial some of these products, most of which were developed for use against deer, but are also supposed to work for moose. They make the twigs unpalatable, so the browser takes only one nibble and then moves on looking for tastier selections. Simply shooting the moose (in season and with a licence, of course) wouldn’t really be a solution, as a local wildlife expert points out – another moose would simply move into this niche. Far better to train the one I have to leave my plants alone and stick to the willows in the ditch. There ought to be room enough for all of us up here and strategy rather than firepower should prevail in the long run. We’ll see if I am this philosophical about it if she rips the other half of my poor maple apart this winter.

The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated (turn to page 6 for our zone chart): Acer rubrum ‘Northwood’ (maple) – zone 3 • Malus ’Spring Snow’ (crabapple) – zone 3 • Sorbus (mountain ash) – zone 3

Barbara Rayment operates Birch Creek Nursery, in Prince George, where she grows and experiments with a wide variety of hardy plants.