Voles drive gardeners and homeowners crazy! You’ll know voles by the snakelike tunnels all over your lawn. Here’s advice on how to identify, prevent, and control your vole population.
What’s the Difference Between Voles and Moles?
First off, voles are not moles! People confuse the two animals because they both tunnel through your yard and are small, dark-colored mammals. You might not have seen either critter since they’re usually underground, but they look very different up close. Voles are small, stocky rodents similar to field mice. In fact, a vole might look like a mouse at first glance. In contrast, moles are NOT rodents. Moles are all nose and mouth. And they have big feet used for digging! See our article on dealing with moles here.
Voles have small, rounded ears that are often hidden by their fur, small eyes, and short tails. Their fur is generally thick and light brown to gray. Two common species of voles in North America are the prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster) and the meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus). Meadow voles are more widely distributed, but prairie voles are more common in grassland and prairie areas. They are very similar, and methods for controlling them are mostly the same.
What Do Voles Eat?
Voles, like many other rodents, are omnivores, which means that they’ll eat almost anything. However, voles have a primarily vegetarian diet; they mainly eat stems and blades of lawn grass—so it’s usually vole tunnels that you’ll see near the surface of the yard. Moles, on the other hand, have a mainly carnivorous diet consisting of invertebrates. (Moles are actually beneficial in many ways. They help plow the soil and eat pest larvae and insects!)
It’s helpful to know this difference not only because it will help you identify the damage (see below) but also because a vole bait might use peanut butter, whereas moles would be more interested in an insect or earthworm.
If it helps, remember that their frenzied activity does subside. Vole populations cycle, and about every 3 to 5 years, there will be a population boom. Mild winters with good snowfall can help to increase vole populations, as the voles can travel beneath the snow cover, safe from predators.
You’ll know voles by the shallow, snakelike tunnels that you’ll see all over your lawn. The tunnels are about two inches wide and very near the surface so they can eat their favorite foods: grass stems and blades. Voles are especially manic in the early springtime.
Moles, on the other hand, have deeper feeding tunnels that they use as a network. They do have secondary runways that appear on your lawn’s surface; however, they look more like raised ridges and have little volcano-shaped mounds. Voles leave no mounds behind.
You’ll also be able to identify voles by the type of damage. Remember: It’s the voles who are plant eaters.
If you have partially eaten carrots, potatoes, or other root vegetables in your garden, you probably have a vole problem. According to one reader, “They dig under my carrots, pulling them down, and eating them. There’s just a row of holes where the carrots were. Kind of amusing, like a bugs bunny cartoon. They’re a real pest this year.”
Voles also eat flower bulbs from below the ground as they’re near the surface.
If you see chewed-up bark near the base of trees and shrubs, look closely. A vole’s front teeth will leave ¼ inch side-by-side grooves in the wood as it gnaws away on the bark. (They’re rodents, after all!)
Voles also tunnel through any root system, causing damage to trees and shrubs. If you see young trees or shrubs leaning over, it may be due to vole activity.
Control and Prevention
How to Get Rid of Voles
If you’ve come to this page, we assume you’re looking for immediate ways to deal with these crazy voles! If it’s too late for preventative measures, consider these control measures:
In small areas, trapping may be an effective way of reducing vole populations. Try Havahart live vole traps situated perpendicular to the widest vole runways or near the nesting sites at the base of trees and shrubs. Bait traps with peanut butter. Set baits midday to early evening when voles get more active. Reset the traps as often as necessary until you eliminate the population. Relocate voles if it’s legal where you live. (Note that it may not be!) The key to trapping is persistence. You may want to cover the traps so that pets and children do not accidentally find them.
Repellents have mixed results and need to be reapplied after it rains. Garden stores sell fox or coyote (vole predator) urine, which usually turns off voles.
Bulb control? You can discourage voles from nibbling on bulbs by adding gravel to the planting hole (surrounding the bulbs). When you plant bulbs, drench or powder them with a fungicide to keep voles at bay.
Vole damage to tree bark is best prevented by encircling the tree with a light-colored tree guard (mesh or hardware cloth). The guard should be tall enough to reach above the snow line in the winter, and the base should be buried in the soil or have a soil ridge around it. Make sure that the guard is loose enough so that it does not constrict the tree.
Voles in the veggie garden? These little critters aren’t very good climbers. Protect plants by fencing the area with a half-inch of mesh (hardware cloth), at least 12 inches above the ground, and burying them 6 to 10 inches deep.
Some readers have suggested a variety of irritants sprinkled into vole tunnels (from natural to chemical): cayenne powder, garlic, onion, castor oil, a little nitrogen fertilizer, and ammonia. In many cases, these ingredients can be mixed with water or soapy water and put in a spray bottle. However, you will need to reapply after it rains.
One of the best control methods is an outdoor cat or a dog who’s a specialized ratter!
While the damage may look visible in early spring, it is rarely permanent. Vole activity is heaviest in the springtime in most regions and does subside! Simply rake up the dead grass and reseed the area. As the surrounding grass grows, it will cover up the trails.
How to Prevent Vole Damage
Make your yard inhospitable to voles! Prevention is very important to keep vole numbers down.
Voles like dense, heavy vegetative cover, weeds, and meadows because they provide them with protection from predators and provide nesting material. Cut back brush, mow, weed, and create a clean space.
Remove woodpiles and hiding places for voles from near your garden, shrubs, and trees.
Keep your lawn mowed and bushes trimmed up from the ground.
Avoid putting dense mulch too close to trees and shrubs.
Keep snow cleared from the base of trees and shrubs. Protect young trees by wrapping the lower trunk with a chew-proof material (such as small-grade hardware cloth).
Bird feeders are another attraction for voles and should either be removed, or the ground kept very clean to keep vole numbers down.
Fortunately, voles are a prime food source for many predators, such as snakes, hawks, owls, foxes, and badgers!
Catherine Boeckmann loves nature, stargazing, and gardening so it’s not surprise that she and The Old Farmer’s Almanac found each other. She leads digital content for the Almanac website, and is also a certified master gardener in the state of Indiana. Read More from Catherine Boeckmann