Vole Problems in Ornamental Gardens, Lawns, Orchards and Vegetable Gardens

Voles are small mouse-like rodents that can be highly destructive to lawns, ornamental gardens, vegetable gardens, orchards, forests and some field crops. They tunnel around underground creating an elaborate network of tunnels from which they use to feed on roots, tubers, and bulbs. Above ground they feed on seeds, berries, fruits, vegetables, herbs, grasses and other vegetation. In the fall they switch to eating the lower bark of trees and shrubs often girdling them. Some species like the woodland vole stay almost completely underground and are difficult to identify, while other species like the meadow vole, prairie voles and Montane vole spend a great deal of time on the surface. They differ from mice in that they have shorter hairy tails, smaller more rounded ears, smaller eyes, blunt noses rather than elongated, are stockier, have longer fur, and most North American voles do not climb. Mice mostly feed at night whereas voles feed day and night.

Voles are often confused with moles, another rodent who likes to tunnel under ground. Moles however look quite different from voles with their more elongated heads, long pointed pink snouts, no visible ears, shorter velvety fur (backs and belly same dark grey or brown colour) and unique paddle like feet that have long, thick claws. Moles spend most of their time underground tunneling around in straight lines, just below the soil surface, (deeper in the winter), which leaves slightly raised ridges on the soil surface where the grass eventually dies. They also create mole hills, which are volcano like mounds of soil on the soil surface, usually about 5cm (2″) high and up to 30cm (1′) wide. These hills are the result of the excavated soil the mole pushes up from their tunneling and burrow building activity. The hills may or may not have an entrance/exit hole in the center of it. As a general rule the farther apart these mole hills are the deeper the tunnel. A mole’s diet is also much different, feeding on grubs and insects underground rather than roots, tubers and bulbs.

An entrance hole to a vole burrow. Their holes are neat and have no soil hilled around them. They measure about t 25-35mm (1 to 1 1/2 in.) in diameter.
An entrance hole to vole burrow.
Underground burrows can be spaced quite close together.
This Japanese maple trunk was girdled by voles. This photo was taken right before the tree was removed and the wood has weathered quite a bit.

Identifying Voles

Their appearance can vary slightly, depending on the species, but typically they are small measuring about 8–23 cm (3–9 in) in length, and have stalky builds. Their fur is course, thick and silky consisting of both long and short hairs. The shorter hairs are often greyish with the longer hairs being either brown, yellowish-brown, reddish-brown or dark grey and can have black, red or yellowish tips giving the voles fur a grainy look. Their belly and underside of their tail is lighter in colour than their backs, usually silver-grey to white or a grayish buff colour. Their tails are usually significantly shorter than mouse tails and are covered in thin hairs, although there are some long tailed species. Their noses are blunt, rather than tapered and they have small black eyes and small rounded ears. They feed on grasses, roots, tubers, bulbs, seeds, bark, clover, alfalfa, herbs, fruits, and vegetables.

Voles tend to be quite specific about their habitat preferences, and those preferences can be used to help identify the species present. Following is a list of species and their preferred habitats, that you might find in North America.

  • Meadow Voles aka Field Mice are the most common species of voles in North America, occurring all across Canada, Alaska and the mid-north and northeastern United States. The 2 most common species are the eastern meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) being found in eastern Canada and the United States and the western meadow vole (Microtus drummondii) being found in the western Canada, Alaska and the mid and northwest United States. Their preferred habitat is, as the name suggests, moist meadows with dense vegetation, grasslands near bodies of water, lightly grazed pastures, orchards with tall fescue (especially apple orchards), and to a lesser degree, open woodlands. They also commonly take up residence in home gardens, golf courses and farms, especially those located near their preferred habitat. The fur on their back is typically chestnut-brown or grey, often peppered with black and red with their belly being a lighter gray or a grayish buff colour. They grow to about 15-20 cm (6-8″) in length and have a short hairy tail measuring about 3-6 cm (1-2.4″) in length. Unlike many of the vole species who live mainly underground, meadow voles spend much of their time above ground, feeding on grasses, seeds, tubers, bulbs, fruit and other vegetation during the summer and switching to bark in the winter. They mow down shallow, crisscrossing runways in the grass, that they use to travel from their burrows to feeding sites.
  • Long-tailed Vole (Microtus longicaudus) can be found in western North America, in a variety of habitats including, forests, grasslands, mountains, wetlands, shrubland, along riverbanks and in disturbed habitats. They measure about 15 to 23 cm (6-9″) long with brownish-grey fur on their backs that has black-tips, and a lighter grey belly. The most distinguishing feature of this species is it’s long bi-coloured tail which is longer than most vole species measuring about 8 cm (3″) in length.
  • Prairie Voles (Microtus ochrogastor) are found in some southern areas of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba and in the central prairie regions of the United States. Their preferred habitat, as their name suggests, is the drier prairies and areas with longer grasses such as undisturbed grasslands, ungrazed pastures and grassy fields. They can however be a problem in home gardens and landscapes, agricultural fields and golf courses that are located near their preferred habitats. They measure about 13-18cm (5-7″) in length and have greyish-brown fur on their backs, with the longer hairs having black or yellowish-brown tips, and their belly is a tan colour (a distinguishing feature). Like the meadow vole they mow down surface runways in the tall grasses that they use to travel from their burrow to food sources.
  • Woodland vole aka Pine Vole (Microtis pinetorum), is found in the very southern tip of Ontario and Quebec and across pockets in the eastern United States. In Ontario it is classified a species at risk. Woodland voles, as the name suggests, prefer deciduous woodlands with a deep layer of leaf litter. They also are fond of apple orchards. They are difficult to identify as they spend almost all their time below ground in their tunnels and burrows. They are one of the smallest vole species measuring about 10 cm (4 inches) in length. They have short, silky, dense reddish-brown fur on the top and lighter buff or grayish fur on their belly. Distinguishing features include a shorter tail, (about the size of the hind foot, about 1.5 to 4cm), slightly larger front claws and smaller eyes.
  • Montane Vole aka Mountain Vole (Microtus montanus), is found in some mountainous regions in southern British Columbia and in the north/western United States. Their preferred habitat is alpine meadows and drier grasslands near a water source, but they will also inhabit home gardens and landscapes and agricultural areas as well as pastures. They measure about 15-20 cm (6-8″) in length with brownish-grey fur on their backs, with some black tips and a light grey belly. Their tails are bi-coloured and measure about 2-7 cm in length.
  • Southern red-backed vole aka Gapper’s red-backed vole (Myodes gapperi) can be found across Canada and the northern tip of the United States. Their preferred habitat is cool coniferous forests with plenty of moisture, rock and mosses, but they can be found in any forest setting, as well as tundra and bogs. This is a small slender species that grows to about 12-16 cm (5-6″) in length with a short 4cm (1 ½”) long tail. They are grey in colour, with a lighter coloured belly and a red band that runs down their back, from head to tail. Two distinguishing characteristics of this species are that it does not tunnel underground, but rather nests in other animal’s empty burrows or constructs nests in sheltered areas on the forest floor; and secondly the species is able to jump and climb, thus may also be found nesting in trees.
  • North American Water Vole aka Richardson’s water vole (Microtus richardsoni) can be found in some mountainous regions of southwestern British Columbia and Alberta as well as the northwestern United States. Their preferred habitat is alpine and semi-alpine meadows that are located near bodies of water. They are the largest vole species in North America measuring about 14-22cm ((5.5–8.7″) in length. The fur on their back is varying shades of brown with a light grey belly. Distinguishing features include large hind feet (used for swimming) that measure about 2.5-3.4 cm in length. They also have longer tails measuring about 6–10 cm long. (Microtus richardsoni) found in some southern parts of British Columbia and Alberta.
  • Rock vole (Microtus chrotorrhinus) is found in moist rocky slopes along south-eastern Ontario, southern and coastal areas of Quebec and a couple of small bands in the north/eastern United States. Rock Voles have yellowish-brown fur on the top and a silvery-gray belly. Distinguishing features include yellowish noses and longer tails (about 5-cm).

A few other species found in North America include Singing vole, Townsend’s vole, Taiga vole, Creeping voles, Sagebrush Voles, Western heather vole, Eastern heather vole.

Identifying Vole Presence and Damage

In the winter, the voles live on the soil surface and tunnel around underneath the snow chewing on the bark of trees and shrubs. Vole damage only extends up to 30 cm (1′) in height but often is only a few inches both above and below ground. The trunk or branches can be partially girdled (in which case they may survive), or fully girdled (in which case the tree or branch will die). If you look closely at the damaged wood, you will see patches of gnaw marks made in the wood, which appear like 3mm wide by 1.5mm deep (1/8 by 1/16″) side-by-side grooves in an irregular pattern. Conversely rabbit damage has a more uniform appearance and goes higher up the tree, or shrub, between 60 and 90 cm (1-2′), depending on snow cover. Rabbits also have larger teeth and thus leave larger grooves and also cleanly cut off young branches at a 45-degree angle. Other rodents like gophers and mice also create similar damage and it can take some real detective work to properly identify the party responsible. Look for signs of their tracks, feces, surface runways, nests, entrance holes to burrows, etc. to get the whole picture.

Other signs of vole presence include small entrance holes to their surface tunnels, in the snow. As the snow melts it will reveal the surface runways in the lawn or garden, that appear as series of crisscrossing and snaking trails, where the grass has been chewed down. These trails are about 5cm (2″) wide. You may also find little grass nests which are often located in sheltered areas like under evergreens, decks, wood piles and such. As the frost comes out of the ground, they move underground constructing an extensive network of meandering tunnels and burrows up to 30cm (1′) below the soil line. Look for their neat circular holes that measure about 25-35mm (about 1-1.5in.) on the soil surface where they access their burrows. These hollow tunnel systems may make the ground feel oddly cushiony underfoot. As the voles’ tunnel around they feed on underground roots, which can weaken plants causing them to fail to thrive. You may observe yellowing or wilting leaves. In the perennial garden plants may fail to come up in the spring. If you try digging them up, you may find their roots are mostly gone. In the vegetable garden you may find half eaten carrots or potatoes or perhaps just empty holes where they once were. Also look for vole droppings which are cylindrical in shape, measuring about 6mm (1/4 in.).

Life cycle

The reproduction period is typically March through to October. Many vole species mate for life, such as prairie voles, a few exceptions being meadow and montane voles. After mating the female gives birth to a litter of 3-8 pups in about 3 weeks. In 3 more weeks, the pups are weaned and become sexually fertile around 5 weeks of age. This makes many litters a year possible, 4-5 in colder climates and as many as 10 in warmer climates. They have one of the shortest lifespans of rodents with the majority dying in their first few weeks of life. The average life span of those that survive is about 3-6 months for the smaller species and 1 to 1 1/2 years for the larger species. Vole population explosions tend to rise and fall in 3-5 years cycles, with mild snowy winters favouring higher populations.

Controlling Voles in the Garden

Voles have many predators in the wild such as owls, falcons, hawks, cats, weasels, skunks, racoons, snakes, coyotes, fox and others. Thus, attracting their natural predators will be helpful. Beyond this they are a difficult pest to control, largely because they live underground, but there are a few things home gardeners can do to help control their populations.

  • Keep the lawn mowed shorter, as voles prefer longer grasses.
  • Eliminate bird and squirrel feeders that also attract voles and other rodents to the spilled feed on the ground.
  • Cleanup vegetable gardens in the fall to eliminate food sources for voles.
  • Remove wood piles and other debris around the yard to remove hiding places for voles.
  • Rat traps can be laid at their entrance holes. Place a cage or tote box over them or place them inside a piece of PVC pipe, so as to not accidently snare local cats and wildlife. Bait with peanut butter and check them daily.
  • Remove mulch and vegetation away from the base of tree trunks to make the area less appealing to voles.
  • Construct protective barriers around vulnerable trees and shrubs using 1/4″ hardware cloth placed around the drip line extending 15cm (6″) below the soil line and 30-45cm (1-1.5 ft.) above soil line.
  • Use commercial plastic tree guards around the trunks of trees to protect against girdling.
  • Install a gravel barrier around the parameter of your fenced yard with gravel to prevent voles from entering the yard. The barrier should be about 20 cm (8″)) deep by about 30cm (1′) wide. This will not help to control any voles already within your property.
  • Deterrents like hot sauce, onion, mint, castor oil, coyote urine, ammonia and others can be put down their holes. They dislike these smells very much and may leave on their own.
  • Skoot Animal Repellent can be painted on full strength or diluted half and half with water and sprayed on dormant trees, shrubs and evergreens as a taste deterrent. It is safe to consume but has such a bitter taste the animal will not feed on that plant. Treat before it snows when the temperatures is at least 4 °C.
  • Protects dormant ornamentals, shrubs, nursery stock, young fruit trees, evergreens, hedges and perennials. This chemical repellent is distasteful but harmless to rabbits, mice and deer. The bad taste discourages feeding on any plants that have been treated with this product. Seldom is a second bite taken by the same pest.
  • Capsaicin-based products can be sprayed directly on susceptible trees and shrubs and plants material, (according to manufactures instructions). On any plants that will be consumed they must be sprayed before the edible parts form or after they are harvested.
  • If you have a serious problem with voles, you may want to hire a professional pest control company.

If you do receive some damage to your shrubs prune out the badly damaged branches. For trees that have had their main trunk damaged if the gnawed area is not to extensive wait and see how the tree responds to the damage. For young tree seedlings that have been completely girdled, they can be cut back below the damaged area (but above the graft on grafted trees). If the tree has not been completely girdled, but the damage is still extensive an arborist may be able to do a Bridge Graft Repair if the tree has great value to you.

Photo credits: all photos taken by the author.


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