If you see shallow tunnels rising in your lawn or holes scattered here and there, you may rush to assume you have a mole or gopher problem. But in most parts of the country, shallow tunnels indicate voles instead. These small mammals can cause more damage than either gophers or moles because of their habit of tunneling just under the surface and eating the stems and roots of many landscaping plants.
If you have a garden or farm, a heavy vole infestation can cause serious damage to a variety of crops. Learn the right way to control voles without risking damage to the surrounding environment or other animals in the food chain.
What Are Voles, and What Attracts Them?
Voles look like small, chubby field mice. They have hairy tails and look a little like a hamster, which is a distant relative. They’re native to North America and can cause damage across the U.S. Over 100 species make up the entire group, which explains why they can be found in almost every environment.
These hungry rodents are always on the lookout for new food sources. They eat the stems and roots of many plants or strip the bark of younger trees. Almost all of their nibbling leads to the death of your landscaping plants or crops.
Even if they don’t find a food source, their habit of making shallow tunnels just under the soil surface leads to dead patches in your lawn.
Spotting Vole Damage
Look for shallow tunnels that curve or zig-zag across open areas like lawns. These tunnels may look raised from being so close to the surface or lay open entirely. The grass will die over the tunnel over time because of root damage. Small holes also indicate voles, but it’s important to rule out moles and gophers that tunnel deeper into the soil.
You may notice flowers, shrubs, and young trees entirely falling over or going dead all of a sudden. Or you go into the garden and tug on a wilted potato stalk only to find it disconnected entirely from the roots. All of that damage indicates voles. They nibble at the zone where the top of the roots and the stem meet. The girdling of smaller trees is a tell-tale sign. This involves the removal of a narrow ring of bark all the way around the base, which almost always kills the tree.
Keeping Voles Out of the Garden
You can’t flood or fumigate vole holes like you might for moles because they’re so shallow and open to the air. Instead, focus on creating physical barriers. Add turkey or chick grit around any bulbs you plant, especially on top. This discourages chewing without interfering with upward growth. For larger beds or shrubs, push 1/4-inch hardware cloth or “gopher mesh” into the ground at least 4 to 6 inches deep on all sides. If they can’t tunnel close enough, voles will avoid traveling over the surface just to get to certain plants. Use tubes of hardware cloth or plastic mesh around young trees to prevent bark damage as well.
Preventing Lawn Damage from Voles
Protecting your prized petunias is one thing, but stopping vole tunnels from crisscrossing your lawn is a bigger chore. You’ll want to turn to deterrents like fox or badger urine. These two predators are known to catch as many voles as possible, but you’ll need quite a lot of urine to cover the edges of the lawn and will need to reapply once every few weeks to months.
Trapping voles is a good solution that gives you a chance to either relocate or humanely dispatch them. Look for buried traps that simulate the entrance to their tunnels to catch the largest number. Don’t place the traps in the center of the lawn just because you see tunnel damage there. Start at the perimeter since the voles are beginning their tunnels under the cover of shrubs or brush. Avoid any ultrasonic or other sound-based deterrents since voles aren’t bothered by them.
Solutions for Agricultural Damage from Voles
Since voles can create thousands of dollars of crop damage in a single night, it’s often only poisoning that will work for their control at the agricultural level. The greatest threat to the environment from this method of pest control is a chain effect of the poison spreading beyond the target. You must take care to select baits or liquid sprays that don’t pose a risk to the scavengers or predators that might eat the voles. There are options that are both highly targeted to voles and quick-acting, so there’s nothing left in the animal that might affect others.
Staying on top of voles at the earliest sign of damage is key because they will reproduce and spread if they find a reliable food source. As a last resort, consider removing bulbs and small shrubs that feed them until the population drops enough that traps and deterrents will work.