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Vole Control

When the snow finally melted this spring, I was horrified to see hundreds of vole paths crisscrossing the lawn: open on the top, but dug into the turf — sort of half-tunnels. By now the grass has grown over them again, because these critters go underground in summer.

Voles differ from mice in having shorter tails; also smaller ears, which instead of sticking out from the head, lie flat. Voles are smaller and quicker than moles, and see quite well in daylight. Moles eat grubs, worms, and insects, but voles eat plants — a very wide variety.

Often the damage is underground: the top of the plant may look okay at first, except it just doesn't grow. Or it may have symptoms of other problems, aggravated by poor nutrition from root loss. In a windstorm, poorly anchored plants can blow away.

For the past three years, the eastern US has had a plague of voles. They reproduce fast, but predators normally control them: shrews, coyotes, foxes, badgers, weasels, bobcats, gulls, hawks, owls, and cats.

Thick mulch and ground cover shelter voles; I watched one run out of a tangle of wintercreeper and then run back when it saw me. One variety — the pine vole — doesn't even make surface runways in winter, but depends on cover. If your garden is near rough woods, a barrier of fifteen feet of regularly-mowed lawn might keep them out.

Plants they don't like may be useful as a repellent barrier: some are alliums, bluebells, daffodils, digitalis, fritillary, gladiolus, hellebores, leucojum, squill, snowdrops, and winter aconite.

Creative tactics some say work: stuffing the holes with dog or human hair, with thorny rose canes, or with Juicy Fruit chewing gum with the foil wrapper left on; pouring in tobasco sauce, peppermint oil, or castor oil mixed with liquid dish detergent; or peeing in the holes. You can also buy powdered bobcat and fox urine.

Others think underground vibration drives voles away (but sandy soil doesn't conduct sound well). Mousetraps often work; put them next to burrows, with buckets over them, and baited with apple slices.

Hardware cloth keeps voles out; dig it in 15" deep, and cut the top edge so wire-ends project above ground. Or a gravel barrier: apparently voles dislike digging in it. A Carolina company makes a small, lightweight gravel by expanding slate (like popping popcorn). Called VoleBloc, Lakeview Nursery in Lunenburg sells it.

I just bought some.

© Copyright 2003 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publishing papers on Friday, 27 June 2003

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More information:
  • Univeristy of California Pest Management Guidelines: Voles
  • Plants voles eat:
    • Vegetables reported: artichoke, beet, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, celery, lettuce, turnip, sweet potato, spinach, and tomato.
    • Odrnamentals reported: Ornamentals reported: hostas, dahlias, daylilies, davidii phlox, true lilies, petunias, roses, and tulips.
    • Other plants I've seen their holes next to: bergenia, sedum, coreopsis.
  • Shake-Away: fox and bobcat urine powder (but it also repels shrews).
  • Solar Moler (sound)
  • Voles: Identification, Habitat, Damage, Prevention, Control — from
  • PermaTill — an expanded slate product
  • Susan Kierstead suggests for bulbs, get a plain metal mesh scratchy dishwashing puff (not the pre-soaped kind), take it apart, wrap it loosely around the bulb before planting. That's a lot easier than hardware cloth!

After this article had been on the Web a few weeks, I got this email message from another beleaguered gardener:

The voles in my yard were very happy to eat my Fritillaria Imperialis and [F.] meleagris, some of my gladioli and all but one of my alliums.

[About burying hardware cloth:] in my experience (and I have had more experience with voles than I care to admit), the bottom of the cage must be enclosed unless it rests on hardpan and/or is at least two feet deep.

Also, unless you want to dig the cages up in two or three years, you'll
need to use stainless steel or aluminum hardware cloth, very expensive and somewhat difficult-to-cut materials.