Amazing Vole Gardens

If you’re going to plant a garden, it’s a good idea to dig around and till the soil a bit first. Here’s a meadow vole doing just that, affectionately imaged by the US Forestry Service, and better than I could ever manage with a dog leashed to my arm:

Meadow Vole Coming Up for Air

Meadow voles are the true unintentional gardeners. They find a patch of fine soil, they dig down, build tunnels, snuggle in and keep warm, drag all kinds of plants in to store for the winter, nibble on them, spit out the sharp bits, and, being rodents and not too attentive to detail, forget stuff and drop things, and the result is much like this:

Vole Garden at Season’s End

Most of the vascular plant species of the grasslands are found in gardens like this. Without the voles sorting and concentrating plants, many pockets of deep soil would support a diminished number of species.

I once had a colony of voles that felled my spring wheat, laid the stalks evenly like timber in a log loading yard, then came back in the night and took it all underground. Where the voles haven’t settled and then wandered down to the riparian areas and dragged things back and packed them into their holes, it looks like this instead:

Anything But a Vole Garden

Only a few species brave these dry, shallow soils on their own.

But that’s not the whole story. Let’s look at the location of this vole garden, because that’s part of the story, too. First, downhill, we find a riparian area:

Riparian Area in the Grass

Various vole gardens lie in and above the area of light grass in the upper left of the photograph.

I suspect that the voles are well-enough established that they can feed adequately off of the lush gardens of flowers surrounding their dens, but that they are using these stream beds as gene banks and delicatessens. My evidence? Ah, this, for one:


Growing wild on a high grassland slope without water, that isn’t mint’s first choice. I think there’s a vole out there with a sweet tooth who dragged mint from the riparian area on a happy day, and now it has established itself — although not long enough to go to seed just yet.

And, of course, if voles are altering landscapes, fertilizing soil, moving plants around and pushing the limits of where they will or will not establish, it’s not likely that they will go unnoticed for long. And indeed, they aren’t:

Coyote Trail Slipping Down to the Riparian Zone from the Vole Garden

A well-beaten path!

And this guy, too:

Hawk Checking Out the Vole City at Dusk (And Sizing Up the Photographer)

Hey, you never know.

Now take a look at what humans can manage when they look at a grassland slope and consciously and with all good intentions try to duplicate it:

Two Species, One Planned

Because nobody thought of the voles, there’s nothing here but a desert. The deer don’t even eat this stuff.

Voles are moving the water around in intriguing ways. The story doesn’t end here, though. Tomorrow, the equally amazing story of the marmots, who further extend the net the voles have initiated. Stay tuned.


Categories: Industry

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