As you walk around your garden on a beautiful spring day, you might notice that the leaves on one of your plants are drooping. You see a small quarter-size hole around the root system. And the normally solid ground beneath your feet feels slightly soft.
Upon closer inspection you see a small burrow leading up to the plant and notice gnaw marks around the plants in an irregular pattern. If this story sounds familiar, you may very well have a vole problem.
Voles are small rodent mammals that feed on plant roots, stems, leaves, seeds, grass and other vegetation. They look similar to field mice and can vary in color and shade. Often brown, gray, or black, voles can grow to lengths of 5-8” from head to tail. They are common in areas of dense vegetation and are active throughout the year. Furthermore, they reproduce often and continuously throughout the year and can maintain high population levels under good conditions.
Now that you know what a vole is and how to identify them, the next question is what can be done to prevent them? There are three primary solutions for voles: traps, poisons, and barriers. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.
Most traps are costly, difficult to set up, and time consuming. These are three characteristics homeowners generally want to avoid. While ordinary mousetraps are less labor intensive, concern with the handling and disposing of dead rodents and traps makes this an unattractive option to many gardeners.
While certain poisons can be effective, the potential harm to non-target species, such as pets or children, is very high unless they are used with extreme caution. For this reason, they are generally not recommended for homeowner use. In fact, many rodenticides are only available to certified pest control applicators. Repellents exist but are often ineffective and require frequent applications after rainfall or new growth.
Wire or metal barriers can be used to protect seedlings and young trees from voles, but they are less effective against pine voles, which can tunnel under the ground. The best solution is to place a course abrasive material in the ground around the plant. Various companies manufacture this type of product, which is available at local garden centers.
Install the material around existing plants or when planting new ones. Because voles naturally will not dig into abrasive materials, this simple application will provide a physical barrier for your plant’s roots. This type of barrier is non-toxic and will not physically harm the voles. Furthermore, it will not break down or degrade in the soil so one application is all you ever need. While the voles will live to see another day, hopefully they will go someplace else for their next meal.