Eat This

Who’s Eating Our Orchard?

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Delayed almost a month by an unusually cold and prolonged winter, our friend Gini–an avid arborist– arrived the other day to give us our first lesson in orchard pruning. We were anxious to begin work on the more than 100 young fruit trees we acquired when we bought our farm property. We gathered our shears, pulled on our wool caps and hiked out to the orchard, only to find that Mother Nature had yet another surprise for us: something has been eating the bark off our apple trees.

Numerous trees, barely five years old, showed signs of being noshed on. In some cases, the little trunks had been nearly girdled just above the wire cages that had been placed there by the previous owner to protect them.

Close inspection revealed tiny, faint paw prints around the affected trees–most likely some kind of rodent. Rabbit? Ground hog? Or perhaps something much smaller, such as a vole?

We have lots of voles on our property. About the size of a field mouse, they are active in winter, tunneling through the snow. Walking feed out to the chickens, I would often catch glimpses of them, diving from one tunnel into the next. They must have been awfully hungry to start eating tree bark. In fact, it’s full of nutrients, and rodents are equipped with special enzymes to digest it.

But how could they have reached above the wire cages to chew on the bark? Gini, who’s been farming and gardening in these parts for years, speculated the voles had done their feasting before the snow melted, when the level of snow would have been much higher. Or, it wasn’t voles at all, but a much taller creature.

In any case, we had to count these newly gnawed trees as another demerit against us as newbie orchardists. Last year our peach trees lost entire branches because we had neglected to thin out the peach crop. The weight of the fruit caused the branches to snap before we realized our error. Other trees have simply expired from neglect. And now we have numerous trees that may not survive because of damage from an entirely new and unexpected source.

Removing the bark from trees limits their ability to draw water from the roots upwards and transport energy gathered from the sun down below ground level. The vessels that perform these vital functions–complex tissues called xylem and phloem–are situated in the thin outer layer of a tree’s bark. If the damage completely circles the tree, this essential circulation is cut off and the tree dies.

Some quick research on the internet revealed that bark damage can be repaired by applying grafts of bark from the previous season’s growth. According to an article published by the University of Connecticut, affected areas should also be coated with grafting wax or a water-based asphalt emulsion to prevent them from drying out. Others warn that coating traps moisture that causes decay.

I’ve since noticed that a couple of trees stripped of bark by our goats last summer (what was I thinking grazing them there?) have survived with no help from me. I probably should have applied first aid when the damage occurred. The trees are budding out on their own.

Since there was no evidence of missing bark in the orchard when we bought the property more than a year ago, I’m wondering if this season’s unusually harsh winter–and one of the coldest month’s of March on record–can be blamed for making our local wildlife so desperately hungry. We started with more than 100 fruit trees–plenty of work already. Since we have committed to making our orchard thrive, we now have to think about measures to prevent more damage next winter.

Farming is like Forest Gump’s box of chocolates–you just never know what you’re going to get.

Posted by on March 28, 2014 at 8:05 am, in the category Eat This.
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18 Responses to “Who’s Eating Our Orchard?”

  1. marie b says:

    Rabbits — they have gnawed the bark off almost everything above the snowline this winter. Good thing my roses are all on their own roots.

  2. anne says:

    I don’t remember exactly what part of the country you’re in, but do you have porcupines? This is exactly the kind of thing they like. I don’t think it’s voles, even with the theory about the snow; voles like to burrow and tunnel beneath the snow (watch out for bark-gnawing at the base of those trees! And they will go under the fencing if it’s not too deep). Not sure about rabbits; we have them, but I’ve never seen them eat bark off our orchard trees.
    Good luck with you orchard! There definitely always is something new every year :)

  3. Yep, it was a bad winter for rabbit bark gnawing. Want to compare? However, if it were my apple trees rather than a hedge, I’d be very perturbed.

  4. Ed Bruske says:

    The paw prints I found really didn’t match rabbits. Porcupine is a tantalizing possibility. Are they nocturnal, cause I’ve never seen one during the day. Plus, they would have had to travel a good distance to get to the interior of the orchard where the damage has occurred.

    • marie b says:

      Porcupines don’t generally feed at ground/snow level —-
      This year with or without footprints I have watched rabbits gnaw at virtually everything above snow level here in the Southern Tier of NY — things in pots, saplings, even rhodos! The roses have been chewed to ground level; they are even eating boxwood. Time to cook rabbit stew.

  5. anne says:

    Porcupines are mostly nocturnal. They like to climb trees though, but maybe if there’s a fence around it, or it’s too small of a tree, they won’t. We didn’t even know we had porcupines near us until one morning one of our dogs turned up with quills in his nose…still haven’t actually seen the critters, though.

  6. A mystery story without an ending!

  7. Susan says:

    My vote goes to voles. That snow cover was perfect for them. They just tunnel under the snow, and sit there nomming on the trees the way we’d sit on the sofa under a blanket, eating popcorn. They’re too damn smart for anybody’s good!

  8. commonweeder says:

    Growing fruit is not as easy as it seemed when we planted fruit trees. On the other hand, with practically no care, only occasional bad pruning, our Liberty apple sometimes amazes us. It is a good idea to look for disease resistant varieties like Liberty. We’ll never try plums again – black knot! Horses also eat bark and girdle trees. We know!

  9. Sandra Knauf says:

    I’m sorry to read about this. All that nurturing met with destruction–the farmer’s lament.

    • Ed Bruske says:

      I’m not sure how much nurturing event went on with this orchard, Sandra. I think it’s been neglected for some time. We’re just now starting to focus on it, almost a year after I moved in.

  10. Tibs says:

    Squirrels? Evil things have chewed corners of our wood windows, wires, you name it.

  11. Deer; and they are not eating; they’re scratching the velvet off those new antlers.

  12. Ed Bruske says:

    I think we would see deer tracks in the orchard and there are none. I’m ruling out deer.

  13. mary s says:

    In either case it looks like the cages are too short. In Illinois we make the wire cage at least 3-4′ tall to account for both snow height (making upper bark more accessible) and a critter stetched upward on back paws looking for dinner. I have had woodchucks, rabbits and even possum eat bark in bad winters.

  14. Ed Bruske says:

    I’ve made inquiries locally here in Upstate New York and learned that commercial growers use cages at least three feet tall, as you say. That means cutting off some of the lower branches on these young trees, but it makes perfect sense.

  15. Mischelle says:

    I just yesterday observed a squirrel eating the bark off waist-high branches of my kousa dogwood. Closer inspection showed several spots on the young tree that have been chewed through the cambium layer. This is a new one on me! Apparently the winter has been tough on all Northeastern residents.

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