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One person's vole is another's vandal

It hasn't been a good spring so far for Rick Griffiths' garden. Griffiths lives at the seniors' housing complex on College Drive, near Yukon College, run by Yukon Housing Corporation.

It hasn’t been a good spring so far for Rick Griffiths’ garden.

Griffiths lives at the seniors’ housing complex on College Drive, near Yukon College, run by Yukon Housing Corporation. “We’ve been very lucky in this place,” he said. There’s a community garden with small raised plots; he’s growing cauliflower and radishes in some of his. And the college built a greenhouse on the site. Gardening keeps residents active, he said.

Last spring, they planted a 10-metre row of raspberry bushes, and at least 20 Saskatoon berry trees. The fruit garden stretches along the back of the gardening area.

Residents were looking forward to collecting the rewards this year. But before they got to work this spring, they found there had been another mistress working in the gardens over the winter, one that was intent on making things quite contrary for the gardeners.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever seen that,” said Griffiths, who helped plant the fruit section. Rodents climbed on the top of snowbanks, ate the tops off the raspberry bushes and chewed away the bark on the Saskatoon berry trees.

“They sure do a terrible job,” he said. He didn’t know exactly who the culprits were. But he knew this: they’re a “damn nuisance.”

It only took Scott Gilbert, a biologist at Yukon College, a few moments to determine the creatures responsible for the damages: the northern red-backed vole.

Voles and mice are relatives, both rodents. But voles have smaller ears and shorter tails. And their bodies are chunkier than mice. They stand at between eight and 23 centimetres. In the winter, voles spend their time building tunnels. They don’t climb like deer mice, so homeowners don’t have to worry about them coming inside. They feed on berries and plants.

Red-backed voles breed from June to September, producing an average of six offspring every three weeks. The population can grow quickly: a vole that is born in June could be giving birth by August, said Gilbert.

And while it may be a fun thought experiment to consider a mother and daughter vole giving birth around the same time, voles can cause gardeners grief.

“I guess you can tell when you plant all your plants, and then you wake up in the next morning, and they’re gone,” said Val Loewen, a government biologist, when asked how gardeners can recognize them.

She’s not an active gardener; the year she tried, voles ruined her plants, she said.

Informally, there have been more sightings of voles than usual, said Nancy Campbell, a spokesperson with Environment Yukon. But the government doesn’t have solid numbers to back that up: it just began trapping the rodents this week to determine numbers. Traps will be set out again in September, said Loewen.

The vole population is cyclical, and numbers vary by location, said Thomas Jung, a government biologist. There have been more voles reported in the Kluane area this year, said Gilbert, but the reasons for this increase is unclear.

Right now, there appears to be slightly more in Whitehorse than normal. The most voles reported in the capital’s recent history was in 2005, said Loewen. There were 30 per hectare then; last year, there were eight per hectare.

Foxes prey on voles. If more voles survive this year, foxes will have more food, making it easier for them to grow and reproduce. People may see more foxes close to their homes next year, said Jung. “It’s normal. We live in a wilderness city, right?” he said.

But until then, gardeners will have to live with the aftermath of the voles’ winter work. Any damage that was done during the snowy months can’t be undone.

Griffiths suspects one tree, a mountain ash that cost more than $100, is going to die because voles chewed off its bark.

The gardeners don’t know how to stop the damage, he said. He’s placed mothballs around some of the trees, hoping they will drive away the rodents. If he were a kid again, growing up on the farm in Saskatchewan, perhaps he’d consider shooting the animals. All attempts to protect the plants have just been trial and error, he said. “You can’t go poison all this stuff,” said Griffiths.

Pesticides should be a “last resort,” said Ingrid Wilcox, a Whitehorse resident who ran greenhouses for several years and teaches gardening courses. Pesticides can harm other animals, too. It may be better for gardeners to bury netting six inches (15 cm) down in the ground, and then wrap it around the trees so voles can’t reach the bark as easily.

They are “pests” that are “really hard to get rid of,” she said.

And as Griffiths is learning, it’s also difficult to tell what plants they will attack. They’ve also trying to grow black currants at the garden. So far, the voles have ignored these plants.

“I guess they don’t like the taste,” he said.

Contact Meagan Gillmore at