You might have heard of mole control, but not vole control. Why is that? Well, the latter gets little recognition. While you may not know the difference between moles and voles, even those who are not landscaping enthusiasts have heard of moles. But most people go their whole lives without ever so much as hearing about voles, let alone controlling them. To make matters more confusing, these pests are sometimes referred to as meadow mice or field mice. But when you identify the damage they cause in lawn and garden alike, you'll quickly learn that this is no small problem.
What Is a Vole?
Relatives of hamsters and lemmings, voles are 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 construct well-defined, visible tunnels, or "runways" at or near the surface, about two inches wide. Vole 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 voles. Rabbits don’t have anything over this pesky rodent. Moles differ from voles in that they feast on grubs and earthworms.
Vole Hole Identification: 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. After all, you may never come face to face with these furtive, furry foes.
Moles produce two types of runways in your yard. One runway runs just beneath the surface. These are feeding tunnels and appear as raised ridges running across your lawn. The second type of runway runs deeper and enables the moles to unite the feeding tunnels in 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 leave no mounds at all behind.
Perhaps you have made a positive identification of the culprit: you've got voles. Or perhaps you do not have voles on your landscape, but you wish to find out how to keep it that way. Prevention sure beats battling lawn and garden pests after they've already arrived. By taking preventive measures, you can stick to purely natural pest control, which is beneficial both to your health and to the health of the environment. Natural pest control can also save you money since you won't have to go out and buy pest control products. There will be more to say about natural pest control against voles in a moment. But first, find out exactly what kind of damage voles do to your lawn, garden, and landscaping plants.
Voles can burrow into the root systems of landscaping shrubs and trees, causing young specimens to experience dieback or to begin to lean. 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.
Natural Pest Control Measures Against Voles
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): preventing pest problems through foresight, rather than waiting for damage to occur and then killing pests as an afterthought.
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 a guard (for example, a wire mesh). While voles typically feast on roots, they may gnaw on the area just above soil level of trees and shrubs.
But what if it's too late for preventive integrated pest management measures? If your landscaping is already being damaged by voles, you need to consider vole eradication. Voles can be removed humanely from a yard by using Havahart live traps, exterminated by using mouse traps or poisons, frustrated by garden fencing, or driven away with vole repellents. Voles can do significant damage to your landscape, so the need for eradication should be taken seriously. In implementing do-it-yourself eradication tactics against voles your choices are:
- Exterminating the voles that are damaging your landscaping.
- Repelling the voles or keeping voles away from plants with fences.
- Live removal of voles from your yard.
Supplies for Do-It-Yourself Extermination: Poison Baits, Mouse Traps
If you select extermination, you must then decide between poison baits (rodenticides) and traps. Dig into the runway in your garden, and place the item in the tunnels. Zinc phosphide-based products such as ZP Rodent Bait are commonly used home rodenticides for vole control. But the two best-known brand names in the poison bait industry, d-CON, and Rodex, are Warfarin-based. Warfarin is a blood anticoagulant, causing internal bleeding and hemorrhaging leading to death.
Poison baits are potentially hazardous to other wildlife, children, and pets. If you place the poison bait directly into burrow openings, the hazard is reduced. Another tactic the DIY types should consider to make poison baits less hazardous is to place them in bait containers.
Trapping Voles With Mouse Traps
Mouse snap traps can be used to trap voles. Situate the trap perpendicular to the vole runway, aligning the trap's trigger with the very 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.
Like poisons, these traps can be dangerous for other wildlife, children, and pets. To minimize the risk, place the traps under boxes.
The key to success in trapping is determining where the voles on your landscape are most likely to be passing by; that's where you want to locate the trap. The widest vole runways are indicative of heavy traffic. Another good indicator is if a runway is heavily soiled with vole urine and feces. Use these same indicators for ideal placement of your poison baits.
You want to just drive them away, or at least keep them at arm's length? Then the pest control products for you to consider are vole repellents and rodent-proof garden fencing.
Thiram-based vole repellents such as Shotgun Deer, Bobcat urine, and Rabbit Repellent may be effective against these pests, but they need to be reapplied frequently since they dissipate with rain. The need for repeated applications raises another problem: meadow mice become accustomed to the smell, reducing the effectiveness of the vole repellent. Keep in mind as well that thiram should not be used on garden plants. Because of the latter restriction, use predator urines instead as the vole repellent of choice. Predator odors are most displeasing to voles. Fox and coyote urines can often be bought at trapper supply houses.
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 such fencing products at least a few inches (but a couple of feet is preferable, to be on the safe side) beneath the ground surface.
Additionally, voles dislike crossing sharp gravel. When planting perennials or bulbs, add a gritty substance, like perlite or sharp gravel, in the bottom of the hole and up the sides at planting time to protect the roots and bulbs. Companion planting garlic in the beds also helps repel voles, as they dislike the scent.
Fumigants and ultrasonic repellers, however, are not effective against voles. The network of tunnels made by the vole is just too extensive for certain pest control products to be of much use.
Removing Live Voles: Havahart Wire Traps
Besides fences, a humane option is the live removal of voles. You can trap voles and remove them from your landscape, using a small live-trap, such as is put out by the Havahart Company. The problem with these Havahart wire traps, though, is that you still have to get rid of the live vole after you’ve trapped it. In some states, animal relocation is even prohibited. So if you don't want to exterminate voles, and if you don't want to repel them, you may have to just live with them.
"What's the big deal, after all?" some may ask. "How can it hurt your landscaping to have some little mouse-like pests running around?" To be sure, for those who love wildlife more than landscaping plants, voles probably are not that big a deal. Indeed, deer pose a much greater threat to landscaping than do voles; yet many die-hard wildlife-lovers are perfectly content to provide Bambi with snacks. Different strokes for different folks!