CO-Horts Blog

Thursday, May 4, 2023

Rabbits, voles, and gophers...OH MY!

Posted by: Todd Hagenbuch, CSU Extension, Routt County

Classic rabbit 'trimming'
of smaller branches

While many of you reading this blog have been watching the daffodils and crocuses bloom for a few weeks, those of us in the higher elevations are just seeing the ground as it becomes uncovered by rapidly melting snow. As the snow recedes, what’s becoming evident is that, at least in Routt County, several types of varmints had a hay-day under the snow and treated our yards as an all-you-can-eat buffet. I’ve gotten many calls in the past two weeks with folks wondering what creature has caused the damage they’re seeing in their yards, pastures, and hay meadows. I also find that people often blame the wrong critter, or have had multiple species wreaking havoc.

Vole damage at the bottom,
rabbit damage above

The first thing we’ve seen as the snow levels dropped is that rabbits dined on several things, especially fruit trees. Lots of folks talked this winter about the number of jackrabbits in the area this year, and mentioned the damage they were seeing to local haystacks. We see now that they were taking advantage of town plants, too, with branches being trimmed and trunks being scalped at varying levels according to the snow level when they came by. I’ve seen several crabapple and apple trees that look to be a total loss due to the rabbit damage they’ve sustained.

As the snow pulled away from the bases of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous perennials, vole damage has come into full view. Have you seen girdling around the bottom of trees, along the soil line? Vole damage. Gnawing marks on the stems of small bushes? Vole damage. Perennial plants that had unexplained chewing at the base? Yep, probably voles!  

Vole damage on lilacs
I had the pleasure of visiting a home that had vole damage on their lilacs and also their fruit trees (see
photos). They still had some small piles of snow near the trees which looked like Swiss cheese, with holes into and out, right in-line with the classic vole ‘runways’ that appeared around the lawn. In fact, as we sat and were looking at the bushes, the little beasties popped their heads out and ran from pile to pile! Little tufts of grass where they’ve disturbed the surface and small holes are other telltale signs that voles enjoyed the warmth and protection of a blanket of snow while feasting on our plants.
Vole damage on apple

The other varmint that had a regular rager under the snow was the pocket gopher. While they live under the soil and dine on roots, the soil they dig out for their subterranean feasts was neatly packed away in tunnels under the snow in long, curing, snake-like piles that are called eskers. People expect to kick at the eskers and find holes or tunnels underneath, but what they don’t realize is that the hole the pocket gopher actually took the soil from is near one end or the other of the esker.

Vole runways in a pasture
Wondering what critter has been decimating your garden? If the explanations here don’t help, check out CSU Fact Sheet 6.521, Burrowing Animals: Determining species by burrows and damage. If you do know which one is to blame and want to know what you can do about it, check out Fact Sheet 6.507 Managing Voles in Colorado, or Fact Sheet 6.515 Managing Pocket Gophers. And don’t forget this next fall to prepare your plants for more damage by protecting them before it snows, too, because these little buggers are looking forward to eating at your place again next winter.
Pocket gopher eskers
in a pasture; courtesy of
Millie Delaney

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