Featured Animal: March 2015

    What is a vole? And how can you keep them from damaging your yard?

    By Nicki Frey, Utah State University Extension Wildlife Specialist


    Each year as the snow melts and people being working in their yards, to prepare for this year’s orchard and garden, Utah State University Extension begins to field many calls regarding voles. Voles (sometimes called meadow mice) are mouse-shaped animals that live in grassy areas, although they are larger than mice. They are often 5-10 inches long and, unlike many mouse species, they have short tails, and very small ears. In fact, their Latin name Microtus, translates in to “small ear”. Larger voles are often confused with pocket gophers.

    Voles are active year round, day and night. However, you will rarely see them, because, like pocket gophers, they spend most of their time underground. Voles breed throughout the year, and females can produce up to 5 litters each year of up to 11 young in each litter. Young females can begin breeding when they are 40 days old. You can imagine that vole populations can become very large, very fast!

    Most people concerned with voles don’t see them; instead, they see the tracks and burrows that voles make through their lawns, and the chewing damage that voles make on tree trunks. Voles eat grass, bulbs and tubers throughout the year. They may also eat garden veggies in the summer, and add tree bark to their diets in the fall and winter.

    tree damage

    Voles use trails created in thick grass to get from one burrow hole to the next. They will also create trails under the snow in the winter. Once the snow melts, these trails can become obvious. People also notice vole damage once they mow tall grass or harvest hay. If you notice voles in your yard, and have experienced vole damage, there are some simple things you can do to reduce the damage.

    Voles do not like to travel or feed in the open. Remove their cover by keeping your lawn or field mowed short. Additionally, reduce the amount of weedy vegetation nearby by clearing out ditches and fallow areas. In gardens, manage the surrounding area to create weed-free or bare borders around your garden, the larger the better (15 ft. is recommended, although that isn’t always feasible). If you have a small garden, you might consider building raised garden beds, which are more difficult access by voles.

    vole burrow

    To protect your trees, keep an area 3-ft in diameter around the truck of each tree free of vegetation. Using a thin layer of mulch is often a simple, effective method to create bare ground around trees. To protect individual trees, you can also place hardware cloth (i.e. small gauge mesh wire), sheet metal, or plastic around the trunks of each tree. Be sure to bury the bottom of the device about 6 inches below the soil so that the voles can’t burrow under it. Also make sure it is tall enough to extend above the snow cover.

    It is legal to trap or bait voles to reduce their number in yard when vole damage has been identified. If you have a smaller yard, or think that the vole population is small, you could trap voles using common mousetraps. Place the mousetraps directly in the vole runways. You can bait them with peanut butter or apples, but it usually isn’t necessary. In larger yards and gardens, trapping is not time-effective. There are two toxicants – zinc phosphide and anti-coagulants - that can be used to lethally control voles by broadcasting the toxicant in or near the burrow entrances; of these zinc phosphide is more commonly used. To administer zinc phosphide, you must be a certified applicator.

    Toxicants are not recommended in residential areas where pets and children can accidentally ingest them. Additionally, zinc phosphide is toxic to ground-feeding birds. If you think you need to lethally control voles using a toxicant, please call your county Extension office for assistance.

    vole trails

    While voles can cause damage to yards and trees, they are also interesting creatures. Those of you that aren’t frustrated by them can find out more by exploring the website Arkive.org. This website has videos and photos of voles in their natural habitat. Even if you are frustrated with them, it is worth finding out more about the critters around you.

    For more assistance with vole damage or to ask any wildlife-related question, please contact me at nicki.frey@usu.edu

    1: Vole, courtesy of ucanr.edu, N. O'Connell
    2: Tree damage and vole burrow entrance, courtesy of ucanr.edu, N. O'Connell
    3: Vole burrow in grass field stubble
    4: Vole trails in grass field stubble