The vole is perhaps one of the most destructive mammals in the home landscape, but seldom gets blamed for its damage. Since few of us have ever seen a vole up close, we tend to blame problems on mice and moles. In many parts of the country, there are more voles on the property than mice and moles combined. It is time to learn about the vole.
What Voles Look Like
Typically, voles are brown or gray, though many color variations exist. There are 27 species of voles throughout the world. The one in the lower 48 which provides most problems, resides in the eastern portion of the U. S. is the woodland vole. The woodland vole ranges from Maine to the middle of Texas and northward.
Voles have beady eyes, small ears, blunt head and short legs. The tail is only one inch long. Very different from a mouse! It digs shallow tunnels, leaving in its wake ridges that look like the work of a mole. The vole has been clocked digging at 15 inches per minute. They are slightly larger than a mouse and by the time you are aware of them, they have multiplied to the point to where they are a problem. As with most rodents, if caught in a trap, they can be a meal for another vole. They like to work underground but do venture forth to forage in leaves or mulch.
Voles are prolific breeders averaging three or four litters per year, with each litter containing four to seven baby voles.
Voles are active day and night year-round. They construct extensive tunnel systems and surface runways. Several adults and young may live in one tunnel system. Populations seem to peak every 2 to 3 years, depending on food availability, climate and other stress factors.
Distinguishing Voles from Mice and Moles
Both voles and mice belong to the family of gnawing mammals commonly called rodentia or rodents. The mice belong to the broad group of pointed-nose, long-tailed rodents and the voles belong to the other group of blunt-faced, short-tailed rodents. There are, what seems like millions of different mice and voles, and to describe each would take a book in itself. However, if you remember the blunt-nose, short-tail and the pointed-nose and long tail, you are 80 or 90 percent there on identification.
Moles will be bigger than most mouse or vole. Depending on their sex and age, moles vary in size from 4 to 9 inches long. Their low-slung, streamlined bodies are covered by a thick, velvety fur that is gray to blue-gray. The big difference are the front feet. Moles have very distinctive large thick-clawed forepaws which are their digging tools.
BASIC RANT ABOUT VOLES IN THE LAWN
Voles look a lot like mice. While mice have pointy noses and long tails, voles have blunt noses and short tails. Voles experience a major population explosion every four or five years, This phenomenon is rarely noticed unless it coincides with a winter like we had this year, with extended snow cover in many parts of Michigan.
The vole damage manifests itself several ways. Sometimes it looks like wavy paths of dead grass about 2 inches wide. More often, the paths become little ditches of bare soil about 1/2 inch deep. The devastation can cover 500 square feet or more.
And there's more bad news. When the snow melted, the voles didn't go away. They're still on the property, living under mulch, in weedy areas, or somewhere undercover hiding from their predators -- cats, hawks, and owls.
Voles are vegetarians and they can munch their way through a lot of additional plants after messing up lawns. So if you did suffer vole damage on your lawn, keep an eye on your perennials this spring, especially hostas. If they don't come back, they were probably lunch for some voles. Tulips planted last fall that don't show up this spring were probably snacks. Voles also love to dig down and eat the tender roots of newly planted trees, shrubs, and flowers, so keep an eye on new transplants. The good news is voles don't eat daffodils
Getting rid of voles is the next step to saving what's left of your lawn and garden if you've been victimized.
Some folks rig barriers around trees and shrubs using hardware cloth, but that approach requires a fair amount of time and trouble. While there are repellents to get rid of voles, they haven't worked very well for me.
I recommend trapping voles with those old fashioned wooden snap traps, just like the ones my grandmother used to catch mice behind the wood stove 60 years ago. Voles won't go near a trap set in the open. It has to be covered with boards leaning on a stone or even better in upside-down clay flower pots. While peanut butter bait is often effective, apples are a special treat for voles. The technique begins with putting a slice of apple under five or six upside-down clay flower pots set at least 10 feet apart in areas where you suspect voles to be hanging out -- garden beds, weed patches, or mulched areas adjacent to the damaged lawn areas. Set a brick or rock on top to keep the raccoons from interfering. If in a day or two, you find an apple slice with little teeth marks, you then place a snap trap under the pot with apple for bait, but do not set the trap. After providing the voles a buffet for two or three nights , you set the trap. That is when you begin a serious reduction of your vole population. This may seem like a lot of work, but you are dealing with cagey critters.
Do this again in late September and October and you can reduce the chances of being faced with lawn damage next spring.
Meanwhile, don't assume that those vole paths in the lawn will disappear naturally as the grass plants reproduce. If you don't do anything, you're just inviting weeds to grow in the bare spots. The area damaged by voles needs to be overseeded. Don't do that job until the weather and the soil warms in May. Next week, I'll give you tips on overseeding.