Most people have heard of moles but may be unfamiliar with voles. Relatives of hamsters and lemmings, voles are small, mouse-like rodents that live in the wild and can do a lot of damage to trees, lawns, and gardens. In North America and Australia, they are sometimes referred to as meadow or field mice. Voles share many characteristics with moles but are more destructive to plants; moles typically feed on grubs and earthworms.
Voles construct well-defined, crisscrossing tunnels, or "runways" at or near the surface of the ground, about 2 inches wide. The runways result from the voles eating vegetation, like the roots of grass and perennials, as well as from the constant traffic of numerous little feet beating the same path. And if any lawn and garden pest can literally “beat a path” through the grass due to their sheer numbers, it’s the vole.
Voles can burrow into the root systems of landscaping shrubs and trees, causing young specimens to lean or to experience dieback. These rodent pests will also gnaw on a tree's trunk and at the base of a shrub. In addition, voles damage the roots of perennials such as hosta plants, spring bulbs, and the root crops in the garden, such as potatoes. Mainly, however, voles eat the stems and blades of grass. And the runways they leave behind in the process make for an unsightly lawn.
There are over 100 vole species, and most types measure between 4 and 8 inches long (including the tail) and have brown or gray fur. They weigh only about two ounces but can eat their body weight in a single day. Voles look like a cross between a mouse and a hamster, with lush fur and small, rounded ears.
Four Ways to Get Rid of Voles
If your landscaping is already being damaged by voles and exclusion and prevention measures have been unsuccessful, you may need to consider vole eradication. Voles can be removed humanely from a yard by using live traps, or they can be exterminated with mouse traps or bait traps (which use poisons). They can also be deterred by fencing and driven away with vole repellents.
Trapping Voles with Mouse Traps
Mouse snap traps can be used to kill voles. Place the trap perpendicular to a vole runway, aligning the trap's trigger with the path the vole must take in using the runway. Peanut butter is an excellent bait for trapping voles. The best time to trap is either autumn or late winter.
The key to success in trapping is determining where on your landscape the voles are most likely to use as a thoroughfare; that's where you want to locate the trap. The widest vole runways are indicative of heavy traffic. Another good indicator is a runway that is heavily soiled with vole urine and feces.
Removing Voles with Live Traps
If you prefer not to kill vole pests, you can attempt to trap them in live traps (such as Havahart traps) and move them to an appropriate location. However, relocating pest rodents is restricted or prohibited in many areas, so check with local authorities before using live traps.
For best results, use a live trap designed for small rodents that has two openings. Place the trap directly in the path, and parallel to, a well-defined surface runway (sort of like a bridge on a roadway). Baiting is not always necessary, but you can add peanut butter inside the trap if desired. Check the trap frequently, and relocate any trapped voles to an approved location at least 5 miles from your home.
Repelling Voles with Chemicals
Thiram-based vole repellents, such as Shotgun Deer, Bobcat urine, and Rabbit Repellent may be effective against these pests, but repellants will need to be reapplied frequently because they dissipate with rain. After several applications the voles become accustomed to the smell, reducing the effectiveness of the repellent. Thiram should not be used on garden plants. Predator urines are often preferred as vole repellents as they are the most displeasing to voles. Fox and coyote urines can often be purchased online and at farm and garden centers..
Deterring Voles with Fencing and Gravel
Wire mesh garden fencing (hardware cloth) can be wrapped around the base of a young tree in winter to keep voles from gnawing at its bark. Garden fencing can also be placed around garden plants, to protect their roots against voles. Make sure to bury all fencing at least 6 to 10 inches below the ground surface to prevent voles from burrowing underneath.
Additionally, voles dislike crossing sharp gravel. When planting perennials or bulbs, add a gritty substance, like perlite or sharp gravel, in the bottom and up the sides of the hole at planting time to protect the roots and bulbs. Plant garlic in the bulb and perennial beds to help repel voles, as they dislike the scent.
What Causes Voles?
Voles are attracted to yards and gardens by food sources and places to hide. Unlike mice and rats, they do not typically seek shelter inside of buildings. Voles appear in landscaped areas in greater numbers during relatively mild but snowy winters. You are most likely to see damage when local populations peak, which can occur cyclically every three to five years. A single female vole can produce 15 to 50 young per year. These rodents typically live about 12 months. Voles nest in grassy clumps above ground or in tunnels extending several inches below ground.
How to Prevent Voles in Your Yard and Garden
A vole pest problem is most likely to arise in yards where voles have abundant amounts of vegetation and debris to hide under and build their nests. If you keep your garden weeded, avoid planting dense ground covers (such as creeping junipers), and keep your lawn mowed, you're less likely to have to worry about voles. That's the first rule of integrated pest management (IPM): prevent pest problems through foresight, rather than waiting for damage to occur that requires pest control.
But it's not just vegetation that voles take shelter under. Because vole gnawing will cause damage to trees and shrubs, you have to be particularly careful about applying mulch too close to trees and shrubs. Voles will be emboldened by the presence of a deep layer of mulch. Even in winter, you're not home-free with respect to potential vole damage; voles will use snow as cover to perpetrate a furtive attack on your landscaping. So try to keep snow cleared away from shrubs and young trees. You can also protect young trees by wrapping the lower trunk with wire mesh. While voles typically feast on roots, they may gnaw on a tree's or shrub's bark just above soil line. If they damage the bark all the way around the trunk or main stems (called girdling), it can kill the plant.
Voles vs. Moles
Since voles are not the only animal pests responsible for runways in lawn and garden areas, they are often confused with other pests you'd like to get rid of—namely, moles. Because both moles and voles are rarely seen, it makes more sense to base identification on the signs they leave behind rather than on how the animals look.
While vole presence is indicated by aboveground runways, the travel paths of moles are underground, and there are two types. One type runs just beneath the surface. These are feeding tunnels and appear as raised ridges running across your lawn. The second type of mole runway runs deeper and is used to unite the feeding tunnels into a network. It is the soil excavated from the deep tunnels that homeowners find on their lawns, piled up in mounds that resemble little volcanoes. These mounds are a dead giveaway that your problem is not voles, but moles. Voles do not leave mounds of dirt on the ground's surface.
Do Voles Come Into Houses?
Voles typically live and nest outdoors and do not usually enter homes or other buildings. If you find voles in a garage or other structure, trapping or baiting may be the best eradication method.
What Do Voles Do in Winter?
Voles are cold-hardy animals that are particularly active under snow cover. In snowy climates, often the first signs of a vole problem appear just after the snow melts in spring, revealing the voles' surface tunnels and, in many cases, chewed bark on trees and shrubs near the soil level.
How Do I Get Rid of Vole Runways?
Vole runways are essentially trails of dead grass. You can erase these signs of damage by raking up the dead grass and replanting the bare areas with grass seed. The new grass will fill in, and the trails will vanish within weeks.