Dr. Patty Skinkis, Associate Professor and Viticulture Extension Specialist, OSU
I received a number of reports of vole damage in vineyards throughout the Willamette Valley this season. Evidence of their presence became visible in August with feeding damage to trunks (Figure 1) and within the canopy, including damage to shoots and rachises of grape clusters (Figure 2). Voles eat vegetation and typically feed on roots or the base of trunks. Voles do not typically cause issues until a population peak and/or environmental conditions allow for habitation. They may reach epidemic-level populations every ten to 12 years, but these population surges are not predictable and last for one year (Gunn et al. 2011). The Willamette Valley’s last reported vineyard infestation occurred in 2005, and some vineyards lost vines due to the damage.
Preventing and eradicating voles. Our best suggestions to growers who have been observing vole presence in vineyards has been to encourage eradication. Trapping or baiting voles may not be practical on large acreage or advised with certain farming certifications. For example, zinc phosphide is not allowed in organic production. However, soil tillage or mowing may provide some level of prevention and control. Research in field crops show that tilling the soil is the most effective method of reducing vole populations (Jacob 2003), by disturbing their burrows and causing movement to other vegetated areas. Voles avoid bare ground, so tillage can prevent habitation altogether. In the Jacob (2003) study, they found voles disappeared altogether after disking to a depth of 19 inches. Mowing vegetation was found less effective than tillage, as the mulch from mowing allowed sufficient cover for the voles and did not encourage movement away from the cropped areas. Avoiding mulch layers or vegetation growth under-vine will prevent voles from inhabiting the areas near grapevine trunks and feeding on roots and trunks when food sources are limited.
Scouting for damage. Voles tend to feed on vine roots and at the base of trunks. Look for feeding damage at and just below the soil surface. Since the feeding typically occurs through the phloem and vascular cambium, the cell layers that lie between the phloem to the exterior and xylem to the interior, the vascular system is compromised. As a result, affected vines may turn color abruptly (yellow or red, Figure 3), as they have limited ability to move photosynthates (sugars) and mineral nutrients through the vines to the roots once the phloem and cambium are damaged. Roots are actively acquiring carbohydrates and mineral nutrients from the canopy during late season in preparation for the next year. Having this connection severed is a major issue.
Can anything be done to repair damaged vines? Vines with girdled trunks and root damage may not survive if the damage is done to the circumference of the vine. This is due to the lack of vascular cambium to grow new phloem tissue and “heal” the wound. The best thing to do at this time is flag vines with damage now and check back later in winter during pruning and early spring. If damage was only apparent in the canopy (rachises, berries, and shoots), vines may be able to be pruned to healthy tissue in winter. However, also be sure to flag these vines for follow-up.
Because voles do not hibernate, high populations this winter may pose a threat to vines if they continue feeding in areas where they were observed this season. It will be important to remove vegetation by way of tilling soil or removing mulch layers or vegetation under-vine to avoid any further damage.
Gunn D, Hirnyck R, Shewmaker G, Takatori S, and Ellis L. 2011. Meadow voles and pocket gophers: Management in lawns, gardens, and cropland. University of Idaho, PNW 627.
Jacob J. 2003. Short-term effects of farming practices on populations of common voles. Ag Ecosyst Environ 95:321-325.