A vole is a small rodent related to the mouse. They have a compact, heavy body, short legs, a short-furred tail, small eyes and partially hidden ears. Their long, coarse fur is blackish brown to grayish brown. When fully grown they can measure 5 to 8 inches long, including the tail. Altogether there are approximately 155 species of voles, and have other common names including meadow mice, ground moles, field mice, and meadow voles.
Vole (meadow mouse)
Although voles spend considerable time aboveground where you occasionally can see them scurrying about, they spend most of their time below ground in their burrow system. The clearest signs of their presence are the well-traveled, aboveground runways that connect burrow openings. A protective layer of grass or other ground cover usually hides the runways. The maze of runways leads to multiple burrow openings that are each about 1-1/2 to 2 inches in diameter.
Vole runways connect numerous shallow burrows
Voles often eat succulent root systems and burrow under plants or ground cover until the plant is dead. Bulbs in the ground are another favorite target for voles. Voles readily girdle small trees which can easily kill young plants, and is not healthy for mature trees. However, like other burrowing rodents, they also play beneficial roles including dispersing nutrients throughout the upper soil layers.
Vole damage to plants
To prevent vole damage, you need to manage the population before it reaches high numbers. One way to effectively deter vole populations is to make the habitat less suitable to them. Weeds, heavy mulch, and dense vegetative cover encourage voles by providing food and protection from predators and environmental stresses. If you remove this protection, their numbers will decline.
You can also reduce the area from which voles can invade gardens or landscaped areas by regularly mowing, spraying with herbicides, grazing, or tilling grassy areas along ditch banks, right-of-ways, or field edges adjacent to gardens. If feasible, weed-free strips can serve as buffers around areas requiring protection. The wider the cleared strip, the less apt voles will be to cross and become established in gardens. A minimum width of 15 feet is recommended, but even that can be ineffective when vole numbers are high. A 4-foot-diameter circle around the base of young trees or vines that is free of vegetation or a buffer strip 4 feet or more along a row of trees can reduce problems.
When voles aren't numerous or when the population is concentrated in a small area, trapping can be effective. Use a sufficient number of traps to control the population. For a small garden a dozen traps is probably the minimum number required, but for larger areas, you might need 50 or more. You can use a simple, wooden mouse trap baited with a peanut butter-oatmeal mixture or apple slices, although often you won't need to use bait, because voles will trigger the trap as they pass over it.
When voles are numerous or when damage occurs over large areas, toxic baits can be the quickest and most practical means of control. Take necessary measures to ensure the safety of children, pets, and nontarget animals, and follow all product label instructions carefully.
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By Dan Heims, president of Terra Nova Nurseries
Photographs courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries
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