Bernhard FeistelOf mice and man

We savour the privilege that we are gardening under old fruit trees of substantial age of whom we sometimes don’t even know the name, although we do know the great-granddaughter of the people who planted them. As far as possible we keep old and rotting trunks, which, without bearing fruits any longer, have an amazing structure and “artistic appeal”, even though moving (or sleeping) under them can be a little precarious. However, despite the fact that the survivors are still heavy croppers, we have to re-plant.

The orchard in autumn

The orchardWe have been doing this for some years, thereby breaking up the old traditional orchard grid, by creating waves and circles. For “romantic” reasons some of the circles had been planted with old English varieties, in order to remind us of our days in England. The era of properly gardening in two countries is coming to a close but we thought planting trees in advance before moving back to Germany for good is a reasonable idea, though we have realised that we are vulnerable to unforeseeable events when not being there on a regular basis. (I am only thinking of garden-related incidents in that case.)

Example 1 of a devoured tree. This one had been planted about 7 years ago

Example 1 of a devoured tree. This one had been planted about 7 years ago

Example 2

No roots left

We have known that the area is being regularly visited by deer and had to decide whether to put a large fence around the whole complex or protect each new tree separately. We decided for the latter, whilst starting to plant a surrounding hedge, which is not deer-proof, yet, but nicely establishing itself. So far we thought we were relatively experienced in the several theories and practices of fruit tree planting, yet, just before this winter was about to start we came in for an unpleasant surprise. Whilst checking the progress of the young trees, preparing for some pruning steps or fixing the deer-preventing mesh, we realised that many trees were precariously shaking. When refastening some to their poles it happened that we could pull them out of their soil very easily. Out came telegraph-pole like structures with intact branches and new buds but no roots left.

Arvicola sp European water vole Photo Peter Trimming Geographe.org.uk

Arvicola sp European water vole Photo Peter Trimming Geographe.org.uk

We couldn’t believe our eyes. Each tree we had planted during the last 4 years in an area of 3 acres has been affected. In many cases, only the supporting poles were still holding them. Just like beavers would do above ground, apparently voles** did this nasty job underneath; by first chopping the main root and then all the others. We knew those beasts were in the area but did not expect that they would eat up each new tree in such a devastatingly systematic (Germanic?) way.

There was no choice but to do something about it, and fast.

After speaking to experts we learned that voles in this area have become so unpredictable that it is now everywhere recommended to plant new trees within a metal wire mesh of 10 millimetre diameter. The theory says that the metal will be rotting away after about 5 years, in which time the young tree should be vigorous enough to withstand major attacks. After what I have seen I doubt this a little, not the least since I saw victims quite older than that. In addition I fear that roots could behave as if pot-bound???

Mice Paradise1But time wasn’t on our side and hence we spent Christmas and the frost-free periods before and after (which could change any day) to investigate all (!) trees, and to start planting them again in a metal cage. In the process we realised that the whole area was a mixture between a vole mining area and a large sieve. We could only guess whether the mild winter last year has helped increase the vole population in substantial numbers or whether they have become more nasty or efficient.

The “larder run” with root bits

The “larder run” with root bits

By digging the trees up and increasing the planting hole for the mesh cage we discovered that really each tree has been (literally) undermined. In some cases I found fresh grass bits at a depth of about two feet and thought first these might have come down during the digging process. But a closer look revealed that they have been stored in “larder runs” immediately under the trees, side by side with nicely and freshly chopped roots. The wood was still fresh. This must have been a very recent winter preparation by them and explains why everything happened so relatively suddenly. The picture shows a “larder run” which is about double the size of the “normal run”. The whole abode looked like mice paradise below ground: a paradise network.

“Larder Run”  plus 3 other runs within the former planting hole

“Larder Run” plus 3 other runs within the former planting hole

To make sure to prevent other mice varieties, too, who are said to ring bark fruit trees slightly above ground, we “knitted” a mesh collar on top of it. Then came the usual deer-preventing measures. To sum up, we have spent many days during the recent weeks to wave wire mesh cages and dig holes and do things we thought we had completed years ago. About a dozen trees are still waiting in their contemporary heeled-in- position since, unsurprisingly, frost has struck in the meantime.

A replanted tree in its new mesh-cage

A replanted tree in its new mesh-cage, including an above-ground mesh collar

My backbone isn’t all too happy about this treatment. Don’t say all those garden books that winter is a brilliant time to sit by the fire place and browse seed catalogues or plan border arrangements? It should be a time, however, to think about better strategies to deal with pests in an intelligent and less back-breaking way. To act and think ahead instead of reacting. We are all too happy to share experiences.

A food for thoughts might be the fact that all the new plum varieties have been left alone so far, whereas buddlias and laburnums also suffered badly.

In any case, we hope our old Methuselah-orchard trees continue to bear fruits for many years until the new generation has been established, whenever that might be. Last season, at least, was a bumper crop and mulled apple juice a kind of consolation when coming in; wet, exhausted and frustrated.

And I hope to soon write about our garden in an orchard project in a more relaxed state of mind, and body: I still think it’s fun and worthwhile.

[** Most probably the European water vole, Arvicola amphibius (syn A. terrestris), a rodent known to eat the roots of grasses and also preferred crops and trees, and occasionally present in plague numbers. Their burrows can be up to 70m long. In England it is often referred to as a water rat. More information at Animal Diversity]

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Bernhard Feistel

About Bernhard Feistel

Gardener and academic in rural England and sometimes also in his native Saxony, Germany; special interest in herb, maze and wildflower meadow designing and gardening. Norfolk, UK

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