We have lots of these burrowing furry fellows here at Langdon, and in the past week the two of them have had me thinking and keeping me busy in the garden. I’m really fond of both animals (they’re tucked cosily in my imagination with childhood memories of Peter Rabbit and Wind in the Willows), and it gives me deep satisfaction to know that we provide a habitat for them here. However, as in all generally happy house-share arrangements, there’s always someone who nicks your food or messes up your stuff, and rabbits and moles can be rather a pain as housemates go. When we first moved in a few folks suggested that they needed to be ‘dealt with’ – the rabbits needed to be shot and the moles gassed in their tunnels (yes really – apparently this is a thing you can pay to have done!). But I never exterminated my housemates for their irritating habits, and I’m not about to start taking on the wildlife that way either. So, I’ve been learning how to get along with them, and in this post I’ll share two practical, planet-friendly approaches to two classic pesty problems: mole hills and rabbits nibbling away young tree bark.
Moles: My soil improvement and supply team
This is not a ‘solution’ to moles, more of an ’embracing’ really – an idea for how to look on the bright side and make the most of the benefits they bring.
That’s because moles are very hard working subterranean soil improvers – like earthworms I suppose, but on a larger scale. They aerate the soil and fertilise it. I have even read that the tunnels improve drainage and hence reduce flooding.
Below ground they do all this great work improving the soil, and then they deposit piles of the lovely crumbly stuff above ground – helpful! I have read lots of people saying that this is great quality topsoil for putting on beds and so I intend to gather it up and have a go using it on my veg beds, mixed with some of my own compost (can’t let moles get all the glory).
Last week though I had a brainwave, which led to a very happy satisfying morning of mole-appreciation. For the past two years I’ve been working on developing this bumpy-clumpy- slopey grassy area at the back of our house, where the moles like to tunnel, into a wildflower meadow. I’ve looked into how to do this quite a bit, and have taken the recommended steps (cutting/collecting grass in autumn and spring, sowing the grass-suppressing yellow rattle flower to give other wildflowers more growing room), and have had some limited, but promising results so far. But with the very thick grass that grows here, it’s tough for seeds to get a look in. So a while ago I decided (at Gail our gardener’s suggestion) to try planting plugs in 2021 instead of sowing seeds. But what to do with the bags of wildflower seed I’d already bought?
As I pondered this dilemma and looked out across the back, my eyes landed on the molehills. A-ha! I’ll sow the seed in the molehills! The seeds will be sure to get good contact with the soil, and the hill will suppress that patch of grass, at least enough to give the wildflower seeds a head start. A quick internet search reassured me that this was indeed a good idea and others recommended it. So off I went with seeds and my rake. There were well over a hundred hills so I easily sowed all the seed I had. Really hope I can see some positive results next spring!
Plastic-free rabbit protection for trees
So what about the rabbits? What have they been up to? Well, they are just super cute and I love to watch them chasing each other around the garden. But, last week I noticed that the bark of three walnut trees that Brian gave me as a birthday present last year had all been gnawed on by rabbits. I was gutted, knowing that bark damage can be really bad for trees, especially if it’s very severe or goes all the way around. The risk is that it can expose and permanently damage the thin layer called ‘cambium’, protected by the bark, that carries water and nutrients from the roots through the tree. I’ve taken some advice based on this picture (below) and because the damage doesn’t go all the way around, hopefully the undamaged cambium will continue the work and keep the trees alive. BUT, I did go out and buy tree guards for them straightaway. Walnuts are apparently not very tasty for rabbits, but in the cold of the winter, especially if there’s snow, they’ll eat anything they can get their teeth into.
I wasn’t angry at the rabbits though – why shouldn’t they eat the tree bark if they’re hungry and it’s right there in front of them? But I was angry with myself, because we did have tree guards on them but I’d taken them off in a fit of hatred for the plastic guards we were using. I dislike them because they can so easily degrade with sun exposure and then splinter and crack into tiny, irretrievable micro-plastic fragments, polluting the soil. They should have a biohazard warning on them – or just be consigned to obsolescence.
But clearly I needed to make it clear to my rabbit friends that these young trees were not for eating, so what’s the alternative to the hated plastic rabbit guard? Well, for all our more recently-planted trees we’ve used plastic-free tree guards . The tubes are made of moulded fibre (similar to the thick moulded cardboard that a lot of fragile items are packaged in nowadays instead of polystyrene), which has a biodegradable additive which keeps it waterproof. They come with a sustainably sourced eucalyptus cane which holds it all together. The tube should last for several years and so won’t need replacing until the tree no longer needs it – at that point the cane can be reused and the tube composted – gotta love that!
And for the small whips that we got from the council, or for hedges, there are the smaller cardboard tubes with a bamboo cane that you can see in the pictures below.
I buy these from our local plant nursery and garden shop Edibleculture, specialists in plastic-free and eco-friendly gardening. The larger tree guard with cane is £4 and the smaller one is £1. Definitely worth it for a completely reusable/recyclable, sustainably-sourced way of politely telling the rabbits that our young trees are out of bounds.