I’ve seen the damage that voles (field mice) can do in a yard or garden; including vanishing bulbs, gnawed bark, crippled roots, nibbled stems, and pathways in the lawn. But it wasn’t until I got a cat that I got a good look at a vole itself!
Don’t worry, animal-lovers, this little guy lived to nibble another day. But after being batted around by my cat in the yard, he didn’t seem to mind catching his breath for a minute in my gloved hand.
My yard didn’t show any damage, so I decided to “live and let live” as long as the vole kept the same attitude. However, not every vole is willing to make that agreement, and an overpopulation of the critters can wreak havoc on yards and gardens.
Here are some tips on how to control voles in your yard.
Voles, a.k.a. field or meadow mice, are little brownish grayish rodents with tiny ears, small eyes, and a short tail. Like other rodents, voles have four toes on their front paws and five on the rear. Unlike their house mouse cousins, voles tend to stay outdoors and low to the ground.
The best way to identify a vole problem is by their runways. Voles make little paths through the lawn caused by trampling and eating grass. You can see these little aboveground highways by parting the grass, and a severe problem might even be visible from above. As further evidence, you might see small brown droppings on the runway, along with openings to their burrows – holes about 1½” in diameter where voles make their underground nests.
Voles are active year-round and are prolific little critters, having up to ten litters per year with a handful of babies each. Populations are often cyclical, swelling and shrinking every 4-5 years or so.
In addition to munching on plants, voles can cause considerable damage by gnawing the bark off trees and shrubs, girdling the trunks or roots and eventually killing the plant. Their irregular, patchy gnaw-marks can be seen near ground or snow level, particularly during the winter. They also can wreak havoc on bulbs, garden vegetables, and root crops.
How to Control Voles and Vole Damage
To manage a vole infestation, you should first modify your garden to protect your plants, then if necessary take steps to reduce the vole population. Here are some tips:
Vole Habitat Management
- Tidy Up: Voles hide and nest in vegetation and lawn debris. To make your lawn less inviting to voles, keep your yard tidy, weeded, and mowed. Avoid planting dense groundcovers.
- Wrap Trees: If bark damage from voles is a problem, surround the lower trunks of trees and large shrubs with a loose cylinder of 1/4” wire mesh buried a few inches into the ground and reaching above the snow line.
- Fencing: Protect vegetable and flower gardens from voles with 1/4″ or smaller mesh fencing, buried a foot deep to prevent burrowing.
- Line Raised Beds: Line raised beds with mesh before adding soil, to keep burrowing critters at bay. You can also plant bulbs in mesh cages.
- Underground Barriers: Voles will avoid burrowing through coarse soil. Surround beds or individual plants with a trench of sharp gravel or a product like VoleBloc.
- Create Buffer Zones: Since voles tend to avoid open spaces, incorporate a plowed or graveled buffer strip at least 4’ wide (preferably 15’ or more) around vegetable gardens and orchards.
- Keep Mulch Back: Avoid piling mulch directly against the trunks of trees and shrubs to reduce temptation for vole burrowing and munching. Ideally, leave a 3’ diameter cleared space around trees.
- Encourage Predators: Cats, foxes, hawks, and owls love to eat voles. Predators probably won’t eliminate the vole population, but natural predation can help keep it under control.
- Till Garden: Plowing or tilling reduces cover vegetation that harbors rodents including voles.
Vole Pest Control
- Trapping: You can use either humane live traps or mouse traps to catch voles. The best time to trap voles is in the fall. Place live traps directly in the vole runway; place mouse traps perpendicular to the runway with the trigger in the vole’s path. Bait the traps with diced apples or peanut butter mixed with oatmeal. Avoid mouse traps if you have children or pets in your yard!
- Poison: While rodent poisons and baits are effective in killing voles, I wouldn’t recommend putting any kind of poison outdoors if you can help it, to keep from endangering other animals. If you do resort to poison, use tamper-proof bait containers and/or insert the bait directly into vole burrows to reduce exposure to ground birds and pets. Some baits must be applied by a licensed pest control professional.
- Fumigants: Vole burrows are shallow with many openings, rendering fumigating poisons pretty ineffective.
- Repellents: Critter repellents, such as sprays and ultrasonic devices, have only limited success with voles. Predator urine (such as fox urine) can work for a while, but any repellent needs to be frequently changed and reapplied.
- Voles (Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management)
- Voles (Meadow Mice) (University of California Davis)
- Identify Vole Damage (Victor Pest Control)
- Voles (Cornell Cooperative Extension)
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