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Vexing Vole Damage

Julie Harris, Master Gardener

As the snow melts this spring, you may observe trails of dead grass in your yard. Or, you may find that the bark near the ground of your small trees or shrubs has been chewed bare. What is the cause of this damage that occurred over the winter? Most likely, the culprit is voles. Read this article learn more about voles and how you can reduce the damage they may bring to your yard.

Vexing Vole Damage

Voles or field mice are small brown rodents about the size and shape of a mouse. There are several species of vole. In Minnesota, the most common species are the meadow vole and the prairie vole. While voles don’t live long (2 – 16 months) they breed abundantly. One female vole can produce 3 – 5 babies, 5 – 10 times a year. They nest a few inches into the ground in small nests or tunnels. Voles generally eat grass and plant bulbs. They feed day and night throughout the year. 

Evidence of voles is a series of criss-crossing trails in the grass. You might also see patches of dried grass. This may be a storage area for food and nesting materials. Voles also make small holes in the grass to get to bulbs and tubers. Voles can damage or destroy trees and shrubs by gnawing and girdling of the plant. Of course, other animals, such as rabbits, also gnaw on plants in the winter. Vole girdling can be differentiated from girdling by other animals by the non-uniform gnaw marks. They occur at various angles and in irregular patches. Rabbit gnaw marks are larger and not distinct. Rabbits neatly clip branches with slanted, clean cuts. 

How can you prevent vole damage? You can’t entirely. Voles are so plentiful that you cannot eliminate them completely. However, there are some steps that you can take to reduce the threat. 

  • Remove woodpiles and debris that provide a hiding place

  • Keep your grass trimmed short and your bushes trimmed up

  • Remove birdfeeders or keep the ground around them very clean

  • Loosely wrap your trees with a light-colored tree guard up to the top of the snow line

  • It may be possible to trap voles using a standard mouse trap baited with peanut butter; but this only works on small populations

  • It may be possible to use a toxic bait but this should be used only by certified pesticide applicators.

Voles are a food source for many animals. However, this doesn’t control the vole population because they reproduce so rapidly. The good news is that voles rarely invade houses. And, while vole damage is annoying, it is generally not permanent. You can rake of the dead grass and reseed the damaged area. 

References:; authored by Jennifer Menken, Bell Museum of Natural History; authored by John M. O’Brien, Nevada Department of Agriculture

Photo Credit: University of Minnesota Extension (1,2,3,4)

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