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Rodents - Friend or Foe?

Rodents - Friend or Foe?
July 24, 2016 08:37AM
We know some people have trouble with rodents in their orchard, but we love the rodents we have here.

We discovered by accident that long grass in parts of the orchard has significant benefits for us. Swamp Rats moved in to the orchard after we converted to organic practices about 16 years ago, as we were having trouble controlling the tussock forming grasses. Swamp Rats connect their colonies by making tunnels through the grass, to minimize detection by owls at night and falcons, goshawks and kites by day. Because we have birds of prey hanging around a lot of the time looking for a Swamp Rat for lunch, we have virtually no losses of fruit from Musk Lorikeets and Rainbow Lorikeets (birds of prey make Lorikeets very nervous!)

So although we try to keep the grass down in parts using poultry, scything, mulching, etc., we always try to maintain some areas of excellent Swamp Rat habitat, to minimize losses caused by fruit eating Lorikeets.

Kalangadoo Orchard
On the “other side” in South Australia
Re: Rodents - Friend or Foe?
July 25, 2016 08:52AM
Integrated story lines like this are so worth sharing. Aldo Leopold (the conservationist) said something about "keeping all the parts" when it comes to ecological management. I'll leave it to others to justify squirrels in the orchard but here's some North American perspective on this theme.

Rains sometimes come when farmers have committed to cutting hay in a field, resulting in spoiled hay for mulching purpose only. Such whole bales go into my orchard in the summer months, thrown here and there, with hopes that field mice will make a nest later that fall. Species Note: Mice are not voles; Mice do not eat apple bark. One of the first joyful sounds of spring are the overhead buzzing of bumblebee queens in flight, newly emerged to seek nesting sites. These bees have a marked preference for abandoned field mice nests. Those bales of hay now become pollinator habitat. Equally important, those mice add to the food resource base that draws the pine marten and fox into the orchard in the winter months. Voles are caught as well, as much of this hunting takes place following runs that go from tree to tree. Savvy growers with full-blown mesh fencing to keep out deer (what we can rightfully call antlered rodents) actually cut out small openings for predators to access orchard hunting grounds. I contribute to this crescendo with a touch of late fall pruning, deliberately throwing branches out in the open which become vole feeding stations beneath snow cover. The point being some voles survive in these woody tangles . . . and that keeps the cycle all coming round again.

I also found the chipmunk picking pie cherries with me recently to be good company . . . but now I'm touching back on that "squirrel thing" others experience far too much of.

Lost Nation Orchard
Zone 4b in New Hampshire
Re: Rodents - Friend or Foe?
August 19, 2016 07:26AM
This discussion is particularly apropos for us this season. When we began the orchard 20 years ago, I indeed was unrivaled as a friend to all critters large and small. The Whinnie the Poo mindset, after years of dilution, has finally vanished. We have a nine foot fence to keep out deer, and mesh guards on all trees for voles. We allow fox and coyote, which are abundant, for some rodent control. After tolerating hare and groundhog damage, we had bear attacks last year, making a real mess of some trees, bush rows and bee hives. This year it is porcupine, and it is serious. Tree by tree, as they ripen, are broken, limbs chewed, and crops hammered. They are destroying a good 3/4 of each crop, often taking a nibble from each apple. Raccoons and red squirrel are doing damage as well, but not as destructive to the trees themselves. I believe there is a place for all in the ecosystem, and often it is more complicated than I understand, but this is where I step in as boss. These sassy ingrates will be trapped or shot...or both, I am pretty mad.

Walden Heights Nursery & Orchard
Zone 3 in Vermont
Re: Rodents - Friend or Foe?
August 19, 2016 11:48AM
Todd Parlo Wrote:
> I believe there is a
> place for all in the ecosystem, and often it is
> more complicated than I understand, but this is
> where I step in as boss. These sassy ingrates will
> be trapped or shot...or both, I am pretty mad.

Yes... Once in a while it is necessary to say "Enough is enough".
We may be willing to share part of a plentiful crop, but when it comes to destruction of what we have built, we become sudently much less patient and tolerant...

Jolicoeur Orchard
Zone 4 in Quebec
Re: Rodents - Friend or Foe?
August 19, 2016 03:35PM
Here in the U.P. we have basically all the same critters that you mention Todd. Myself and my family all enjoy watching the wildlife, but when it comes to my orchard, I'm afraid I will have a "zero tolerance" policy when it comes to crop destruction. I figure there will be enough damage done by insects, and I couldn't deal with even as little as 1/4 of my fruit being lost to animals, especially those capable of outright killing, or severely damaging the trees. I have several mature apple trees in the yard up by my house and I have never had any problems with any animals whatsoever, so I hope that continues, but time will tell if trees that are 300 yards from the house are going to get hit. I have fencing around the entire orchard, but that won't stop bears, raccoons, squirrels or porcupines, only the deer.

I hope you can get the situation under control, I can't even imaging losing 3/4 of my crop to critters, good luck.


Brampton Lake Orchards

Zone 4a Upper Michigan
Re: Rodents - Friend or Foe?
February 07, 2018 02:36AM
Todd, it sounds like you have a lot of critters to contend with! You said that you have mesh guards on all your trees for voles. I am curious if you have found any other vole management strategies that have worked for you? We have 10 acres of apples and hazelnuts, and I would rather not put guards on all the trees, but the voles are doing some serious damage this year. Any helpful tips?

Rachel Ashley
Silvernail Farm & Orchard
Philomath, ORE
Re: Rodents - Friend or Foe?
February 07, 2018 08:20AM
Before I mention any other techniques, I strongly encourage the use of guards. A physical barrier is the only (nearly) foolproof way to prevent damage, at least as high and low as the guard reaches. The other option is capital punishment. One method is to trap. This is labor intensive, especially the constant maintenance, but it will help. I place cans in the orchard (and especially in my nursery beds) containing a baited spring trap. I try to locate them in spots that voles frequent, like litter piles (make it cozy). You need to check them often. This will catch vermin in all seasons and you will eventually bring the numbers down. Another option is to have things cleared enough to help with predation from buteos, owls and mammals. The latter option is tough if you have rich and healthy flora in your orchard (as you should). Others will likely chime in with ideas, but I think you will quickly find that guards are the cheapest (in cost and labor) approach.

Now, I will mention the following, not to be a stinker, but to be helpful to everyone out there with big plans: Plant what you can manage well. I am probably the worst culprit here, especially in my early years of growing. When most of us lay out a plan the upper threshold for planting an orchard is how many plants one can get their hands on, and sometimes it is the size of the plot. What often happens is that the budget runs out before we have really "finished" the orchard. This means fencing, guards, fertilizing, staking, tagging WELL, etc. It also often means realistic scheduling was not drawn up. Have we penciled in borer checks, spraying, pruning, canker removal, harvest, thinning, trapping, weeding, mulching, for each and every plant....and still have time for ENJOYMENT? We are usually left with one of two outcomes, the farmer is completely stressed (along with his family), or the orchard is far less than optimal. I like to dabble in a bit of both myself, so I'll say, be warned.
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