Your plants and winter animal damage

Be prepared when the short, fuzzy critters such as rabbits and voles come to feed.

Deer can damage your landscape in the winter, but they aren’t the only animals causing trouble. Smaller animals like rabbits and voles can damage small trees, shrubs and possibly the crowns of some perennials. The crown is where the top of the plant meets the roots at slightly below ground level. When the crown of the plant is eaten, the plant dies. Often, it is not the severity of the winter, but a hungry vole eating the good parts that kills your plant.

In the spring, Michigan State University Extension horticulture educators and Master Gardener hotlines will receive calls about some perennials that did not come up. When the gardener had dug into the ground, they could find almost no traces of the perennial. If it died from not being hardy, the roots will still be there, but just not in good condition. If it was a vole’s dinner, it will be mostly missing.

RabbitRabbits damage above-ground parts of woody ornamentals like trees and shrubs. They gnaw bark and snip off the ends of low hanging branches. When putting a fence around a small tree or shrub, keep in mind that a rabbit can reach 18 inches above the snow line to snip and snap. Just like deer, rabbits can stand on their hind legs to give them more reach. Fencing must be chosen so a rabbit cannot squeeze through the openings in the wire. Woven wire farm fencing will allow them to pass through. Small rabbits have been known to get through chain link fence. Chicken wire, sometimes known by its up-town name poultry netting, will keep rabbits out. It is even more effective if more than one layer can be wrapped around for a fence.

It is important that the fencing does not touch or rub on the bark. When the wind blows, a small tree or shrub may sway enough to make contact. Two layers of chicken wire with holes that do not align will also keep out voles.

VoleVoles or meadow mice are rodents with legendary appetites. They are small at 5-7.5 inches in length and typically weigh 1-2 ounces. They can cram themselves through small openings and are adroit at digging under fences sitting on the ground.

If voles are known to be in your area, having a fence imbedded into the soil or tightly staked down can be useful. When voles are the problem, hardware screening or hardware cloth can also be the solution. This is a durable, galvanized, woven-wire mesh with openings about one-quarter of an inch wide. This size opening blocks just about everything, other than insects. Hardware screening needs to be cut with tin snips because of its heavy wire. Hardware screening is much more durable than chicken wire. Both chicken wire and hardware screening can be unrolled and laid flat over perennials or bulbs if you are concerned about digging. Weigh the screen down with a couple of rocks or bricks and remove in March before any growth begins.

Voles also take advantage of mulch piled on tree trunks. They will burrow into the mulch and blissfully chew bark without anyone aware that the tree is being girdled. Before winter, push back any mulch that is against the trunks of trees.

With young trees, it may be possible to use a paper tree wrap on the trunk to deter voles and rabbits. If using a corrugated paper wrap, start at the bottom of the tree and wrap upwards to the first branch, overlapping about half of the wrap below. Tie a couple loops of string at the top. In mid- to late March, remove the wrap so water does not seep in and begin to rot the bark. This is critical for the health of the tree. There are also rigid plastic mesh guards and vinyl tree protection. If these products are not available locally, search online under “tree wraps.”

There are not many good fall days left. Use them to protect your important plants. Once they become lunch, they are lost.

Photo credits: Terry Spivey, USDA Forest Service, (picture of rabbit) and Jason Ahrns, (picture of vole)

For more information, see the related MSU Extension articles:

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