Most people have heard of moles but may be unfamiliar with voles. Relatives of hamsters and lemmings, voles are small, mouse-like rodents (also called meadow mice) that live in the wild and can damage trees, lawns, and gardens. Voles eat grasses, herbaceous plants, bulbs, tubers, bark, roots of trees, and seeds. The fastest way to get rid of voles permanently is to remove their food sources and use traps or repellents.
Voles are attracted to yards with a lot of plant debris, easily providing them with food and a hangout spot. Vole infestations are most likely to occur in messier yards. But voles hate the smell of castor oil and capsaicin, the chemical in spicy peppers. A spray made of either will repel these pests. To kill voles fast, use methods similar to mice: a snap trap can kill voles instantly in most cases.
Voles construct well-defined, 2-inch wide crisscrossing tunnels or "runways" at or near the ground's surface. The runways result from the voles eating vegetation, like the roots of grass and perennials, and 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 share many characteristics with moles but are more destructive to plants; meanwhile, moles typically feed on grubs and earthworms and create extensive, deep underground tunnels. Read on to learn ways to get rid of voles from yards.
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How Voles Damage Lawns and Gardens
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.
Voles look like a cross between a mouse and a hamster, with lush fur and small, rounded ears. 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.
What Causes Vole Infestations?
Voles are attracted to yards and gardens with food sources and hiding places. Unlike mice and rats, they do not typically seek shelter inside buildings. Voles appear in more significant numbers in landscaped areas during relatively mild but snowy winters.
You will likely see the 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 tunnels extending several inches below ground.
5 Ways to Get Rid of Voles
If voles are already damaging your landscaping and exclusion and prevention measures have been unsuccessful, you may need to consider vole eradication. Voles can be removed humanely from a yard using live traps or exterminated with mouse traps or bait traps (which use poisons). They can also be deterred by fencing and driven away with vole repellents.
1) Trapping Voles with Mouse Traps
You can use mouse snap traps 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 heavily soiled with vole urine and feces.
2) 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.
Use a live trap designed for small rodents with two openings for best results. 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.
3) Repelling Voles with Chemicals
Thiram-based vole repellents, such as Shotgun Deer, Bobcat urine, and Rabbit Repellent, may be effective against these pests. Still, 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 usually be purchased online or at farm and garden centers.
4) 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.
5) Natural Repellents
To get rid of voles naturally, mix chopped hot peppers with water and earth-friendly dish soap. Put this mixture in a spray bottle and spray the spots where you suspect the voles are. This spray will keep voles away from your plants and will not harm your plants or the environment.
Castor oil is another natural method to remove voles. Castor beans are toxic to animals. Voles dislike the smell and taste of castor oil and will be repelled by it. Mix it with water and spray it around the plants you want to protect from vole damage.
How to Prevent Voles in Your Yard and Garden
A vole pest problem is most likely to arise in yards where voles have abundant 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 worry about voles.
The first rule of integrated pest management is to prevent pest problems through foresight rather than waiting for the damage to occur, which 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 must be careful about applying mulch too close to trees and shrubs. Voles will be encouraged by the presence of a deep layer of mulch. Even in winter, you're not home-free concerning potential vole damage; voles will use snow as cover to perpetrate a sneaky attack on your landscaping. So try to keep snow cleared away from shrubs and young trees.
While voles typically feast on roots, they may gnaw on a tree's or shrub's bark just above the soil line. It can kill the plant if they damage the bark around the trunk or main stems (called girdling). You can also protect young trees by wrapping the lower trunk with wire mesh.
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—moles. Because moles and voles are rarely seen, it makes 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.
If a yard pest is leaving behind dirt mounds, resembling little volcanoes, from soil excavated from deep underground tunnels, 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.