By David Lott
UNL Extension Educator
Burrowing creatures in the garden and landscape tend to grab the attention of homeowners and gardeners. Many times, moles or pocket gophers are blamed for the damage.
There is another culprit that causes damage here in Nebraska that many people do not know about. Here is a more in-depth look at voles, and the damage they can create in gardens and landscapes.
Voles are mouse-like rodents that are found across Nebraska that are commonly called meadow or field mice. Voles can be distinguished from true mice due to their inch-long tails, stockier body build and small eyes.
They weigh between one to two ounces, and vary in length between three through five-and-a-half inches for the pine vole found in southeast Nebraska, to four-and-a-half to seveb inches in length for the prairie and meadow voles found in a larger geographical part of the state.
The prairie vole is found statewide, and would be the common subspecies found here in western Nebraska.
Why should gardeners be concerned about voles and the damage they cause? Voles feed and cause damage in winter and early spring when searching for food.
They gnaw the bark on trees and plants to reach the inner green bark they prefer to eat. Their damage can kill young trees and shrubs in windbreaks, orchards or landscapes.
Voles also damage field and garden crops as young plants germinate. They tend to chew off the young plant, and dig up the seed. This can lead to decreases in field or garden planting stands.
They can also damage or eat flowering bulbs in the garden or landscape. They can also create runways in lawns, clipping grass plants very close to the roots.
Surface runways between one to two inches wide can be found in lawns after the snow melts when food is scarce for voles.
Voles can also gnaw on trees and shrubs in the landscape by burrowing in the snow up to the height where snow accumulates against various host plants.
The gnawing marks will be irregular, and at all angles, compared to the regular gnawing marks from a rabbit that will also be one-eighth inch wide.
Moles are often blamed for vole damage. One major difference between both species is the food source. Moles feed on earthworms and insects. They rarely eat plant material unlike the vole.
The level and severity of damage from voles depends on the population of voles in the area. Many times, this damage goes unnoticed until highly-valued, garden crops, flowers, trees, or shrubs are damaged from their feeding.
Here are some suggested vole damage control options from “Controlling Vole Damage,” from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension, written by Stephen Vantassel, Scott Hyngstrom, and Dennis Ferraro.
Landscape management practices can be used to reduce optimal vole environments in landscapes, orchards or windbreaks.
Reducing grass height and weeds through mowing or use of herbicides reduces living environments. Removing bird feeders or cleaning spilled bird seed can help remove a food source for voles.
Reducing the food source can reduce the ability for the vole population to grow and expand, which reduces the chance for the population in the area to increase.
Woven wire or one-fourth inch mesh can also be placed highly valued trees, shrubs and small gardens as a way to exclude voles form chewing on plant material.
Bury the wire a couple of inches below the ground with 18 inches of wire material covering the plant material above ground.
Repellents containing thiram and hot sauce can be used on specific ornamental plants. These items are not intended for use on garden plants or for human consumption.
The beneficial impact of these repellents is generally short lived considering the cost of the product.
Precipitation washes away these products, and more will need to be applied. Mothballs, electronic repellent devices and other non-registered repellent products should not be used.
What about trapping voles? Voles can be controlled by traps over small areas. Setting mouse trap perpendicular across the runs in the grass, with the triggers in the run way can be beneficial.
No bait is necessarily needed, but a mixture of peanut butter and oatmeal can be used. Placing a box over the trap with a one-inch hole cut in it can reduce the chance of trapping birds or squirrels. Multiple catch mouse traps also work well.
These traps can be placed adjacent to the vole burrows and trails. Placing a small amount of grass or birdseed by the entrance of the trap can entice voles to enter the trap.
Zinc phosphide is a registered toxicant for controlling voles.
Most of these products come in grain or pellet form. Many times, zinc phosphide is a restricted use pesticide, and certified pesticide applicators are the only ones who are allowed to purchase and apply these products.
Some formulations are registered as a general use pesticide use, and the general public can purchase and use. Please read and follow all label instructions and restrictions.
Fumigants, including gas cartridges and aluminum phosphide can be used to control voles in their tunnels. This process is very time consuming due to the complex tunnel system that voles use underground.
Aluminum phosphide is a restricted use pesticide, and only certified pest applicators can purchase and use products containing aluminum phosphide.
A combination of two or more practices including mowing, vegetation reduction, exclusion, trapping, repellents, and toxicants when necessary, can be employed together to reduce most vole populations in gardens and landscapes.
As always, read and follow all product directions and restrictions to reduce environmental, animal or human harm.
If you have any questions about vole damage and control, please contact me at
, by calling (308) 532-2683, or by contact your local University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension Office. Have a great week!
David Lott is the Horticulture Extension Educator with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in North Platte, Nebraska.