Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Western Mountains and High Plains
March, 2005
Regional Report

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You can spot vole damage by the surface runways that appear in a snake-like pattern throughout the lawn.

Tunnels in the Grass

As the snow recedes from home landscapes and the lawn begins to awaken, there have been increased sightings of physical damage to the lawn. And not just any kind of damage, but irregular or snake-like tunnels visible throughout the grass. These tunnels or pathways are caused by voles.

I remember calling these critters meadow mice, field mice, or meadow voles. In some ways, these indigenous rodents resemble tiny pocket gophers, stout and short with a coloration of gray to almost black. They have small rounded ears, small eyes, and short tails. Let's face it, we moved into their habitat, so it is natural for them to make aboveground runways as they move and graze throughout the lawn.

Voles thrive in a habitat that offers protective cover, such as abandoned fields, weedy areas, and snow-covered lawns. This preference for a protective habitat makes the winter garden vulnerable to damage. Voles will nest at the base of shrubs and trees, often causing considerable damage to the root system. Damage may not be visible until late spring when the plants begin to grow and dieback sets in.

Since voles are primarily vegetarians, they feed on grasses, bulbs, roots, tubers, and nuts. Damage can occur to all parts of the plant including the roots and aboveground portions. Their incisor teeth will chew through bark and girdle the roots of ground covers, particularly evergreens and other shrubs, and young fruit trees. This later causes the branches to die since plants are unable to take in water and nutrients.

It's difficult to control voles by excluding them since they tunnel both above and under the ground. For individual trees and shrubs that are vulnerable, your best defense is to construct a wire mesh collar around the base of the plant, buried 3 to 4 inches into the soil to protect the bark and shallow roots.

Live Traps
You can catch voles in live traps if you are persistent. Set several traps in the runways or near the nesting site at the base of shrubs, ground covers, and trees. Bait the traps with peanut butter, small pieces of apple, or grains of wheat. Set the traps out by midday so they are ready when voles start to prowl in the evening or early morning hours.

Once you capture a vole, relocate it to a distant empty meadow or field, and reset the trap in the same area. Though trapping may require that you be more persistent in baiting and resetting traps, it will help prevent extensive vole damage to your lawn and other plants.

Repellents are somewhat effective, but not very long-lasting. They must be reapplied every few weeks since they break down from sunlight and moisture. Follow labels directions to achieve the best repellent action.

You can also make your yard less welcome to voles by keeping weeds down so they don't have a place to hide. And don't forget about the wise, hunting cats that are adept at catching these critters.

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