Preventing Vole Damage To Lawn And Landscape

What destructive creature attacks the widest range of plants around the yard and garden? No, it’s not rabbits – they’re destructive, but they don’t bother the lawn. It’s not deer either – they’re annoying to gardeners, but they rarely eat the roots of perennials, seldom chew potato tubers and don’t upset lawngrass. Slugs nibble leaves, but rarely kill anything, so they’re not the worst.

What is this hideous creature that chews potato tubers, gnaws beet roots, disfigures lawns, ruins tulip bulbs, girdles trees to death, strips shrubs of bark, eats perennial roots to death, and the list goes on? It’s the vole. The small field mouse with the short or nearly invisible tail. And they usually go unnoticed until we see their damage.

Voles do much of their damage to yards and gardens in late summer, fall and winter. As garden vegetables mature, they eat into muskmelons, gnaw the upper shoulders of carrots and beets, and when potatoes are dug, a percentage of tubers often have portions eaten. They can totally ruin crops. In late fall and winter, voles gnaw on the bark of trees and shrubs at ground level, exposing the inner white wood, resulting in a girdling that often kills the woody plant. During winter, voles tunnel through the lawn under snow cover, chewing on grass crowns, leaving winding trails visible in spring. 

Vole damage is common, and possibly increasing. They multiply very rapidly, with young females able to reproduce at the age of 3 weeks, which outpaces the in-town natural control by owls, hawks, snakes and cats.

How to control voles? In the fall, mow lawns slightly shorter than the summer height. Trim edges and along fences where longer grass grows. Circle the base of trees and shrubs with wire mesh hardware cloth, snugly against the trunk, and firmly into the soil to prevent bark gnawing. Place rodent bait at the base of trees and shrubs. (more on baits later.)

In summer and fall, to protect carrots, melons, beets, squash, and potatoes from voles, we’ve found baits to be very effective. The type I’ve especially found handy are the baits called “place packs.” They can be found at hardware stores and farm supply stores. The bait is inside a weather proof packet. You drop a packet (unopened) at both ends of the vegetable rows. If voles are in the area, they eat into the packets and consume the poisoned bait. If there are no voles, the packet remains intact and ready.

These packs are handy to drop at the base of trees and shrubs in the fall, where they remain under the snow, providing winter protection from voles looking to gnaw bark. 

If pets are a concern with the baits, some gardeners have used pvc cylinders (plumbing and sewer products) and located the bait packs inside the cylinders, which are laid horizontal on the ground.

Traps can also be effective, as can a good mouser cat.

Let’s hope the increasing number of voles will soon meet their match if natural predators (hawks and owls) are encouraged. Until next time, may your gardening days be happy, and your yard vole-free.