January 7, 2010 at 9:25 a.m.

Voles could be the culprits

Voles could be the culprits
Voles could be the culprits

The Chisago County Master Gardeners received more calls on critters destroying their lawns, gardens, trees, and shrubs, and bulbs, than any year in past memory. The problem was identifying which critter was doing the damage. Were they moles, voles, gophers, mice, rabbits, shrews, or something else? Quite often moles or mice get the blame when voles are the culprits.

Voles, also known as meadow or field mice, have stocky, furry bodies, short legs, and short tails. There are twenty-three species of voles in the United States, but the two of most concern to gardeners are the meadow and pine voles.

Meadow voles have grey to yellow-brown fur with black-tipped hairs and a bicolor tail. They are five and a half to seven and a half inches long. They live mostly above ground traveling in one-to-two inch wide runways in meadows, orchards, and old fields. These trails are most visible shortly after snow has melted.

Pine voles have soft, dense, reddish brown fur and their undersides are grey, yellow, or cinnamon colored. They can reach a length of four to six inches. Pine voles are subterranean rodents that create extensive networks of underground tunnels. Their habitat is the shrubby edge between woods and meadows.

Voles are omnivorous, eating both a wide variety of plants as well as snails, insects, and animal remains. In the summer and fall they store seeds, tubers, bulbs and rhizomes. During the winter they also include bark in their diet.

Voles breed throughout the year but most commonly in the spring and summer. Wild voles will have from one to five litters a year with an average of three to six in each litter. The young are weaned at about twenty-one days and mature in about forty days. The mortality rate is almost ninety percent during the first month and the life span ranges from two to sixteen months.

Despite enemies such as hawks, weasels, snakes, and domestic cats and dogs, the population of voles remains constant. Voles avoid exposed areas so it's important to keep the grass mowed and remove weeds and litter from their habitat. Also protect the trunks of young trees with a cylinder of wire or plastic during the winter months. This should extend from an inch or more below the ground to the height of the snowline. Pulling the mulch away from the trunk will also reduce cover for the voles. Voles can live in dense populations in ditch banks, right-of-ways, and water ways that are unmanaged. Therefore, as difficult as it may be, it's important that the vegetation be controlled in adjacent areas.

Trapping is not effective in controlling large vole populations because time and labor costs are prohibitive. Mouse snap traps can be used to control a small population by placing the trap perpendicular to the runway with the trigger end in the runway. A peanut butter-oatmeal mixture or apple slices make good bait. Fall and late winter are periods when many vole species are easiest to trap.

Soil tilling is effective in reducing vole damage as it removes cover, destroys existing runway-burrow systems and kills some voles outright. Annual crops tend to have lower vole population levels than perennial crops due to tilling.

There are many remedies that have been tried to control voles, but most have short-term results or none at all. Frightening agents are not effective, nor fumigants. Shooting is not practical, effective, and in some areas illegal. Repellants are somewhat effective but you need to check with your state pesticide regulatory agency for availability. There are poisons and toxicants that may help with the control of voles but the restrictions keep changing so I would rather direct the readers to those that can give up to date information. Please contact the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection service, Animal Damage Control, for more information.

As stated earlier, the best way to control voles is to protect the base of young trees and shrubs. Keep the grass cut and weeds and debris away from the area that will eliminate the nesting, and till the soil to reduce cover.


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