How to vanquish voles from the yard

Last fall, Meadow Voles — also known as Meadow Mice, or Voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus) — began preparations for winter. To survive our winters, the Voles need habitat and food.

While these unwelcome visitors can cause anxiety and a strong desire for immediate control, it is worth understanding their habitat.

Meadow Voles look like plump mice with short tails and are members of the rodent family. Their main dining experience is with spent bird seed, roots from garden vegetables, bulbs and — to keep their teeth sharp and trimmed — bark from our favorite landscape shrubs.

These mice-like creatures create extensive subsurface trail systems throughout the yard with runways excavated from up to 2 inches deep. When excavating the runways, they chew off the turf grass roots leaving dead strips of grass in their wake. During times of snow cover, they tunnel under the snow and eat the bark of our landscape plants. Their favorites include viburnums and burning bush. If they chew off enough bark, they can even girdle and kill the shrub.

Voles use their runways, primarily to hide from predators such as the neighborhood cat. They also need protection from the overhead attack of hawks. Besides the grass runways, they also make use of landscape mulch. Regular mowing of lawns and keeping landscape mulch at no more than 3-inch depths will go a long way in reducing their habitats. Another control tactics is to simply put on heavy boots and stomp on the grass ridge tunnels to flatten them. If you have a vole epidemic consider removing bird feeders.

Unfortunately, these control methods are not a one-size-fits-all scenario. Some landscapes have voles with no bird feeders. Voles, a member of the rodent family, have been known to store or cache food. They may raid seed storage areas and bring it back to their homes. They also may raid bird feeders on neighboring properties.

The best long-term control is modifying their habitat and trapping, using mice snap traps baited with apple slices and peanut butter, placed near the tunnels.

I would be remiss if I did not mention natural controls. In the case of the Voles, there are prey and natural predators’ relationships. The same habitat that nurtures Voles also nurtures the Eastern Fox Snake (Pantherophis gloydi). Besides the common housecat and overhead hawks, the Eastern Fox Snake also preys on Voles. Young-of-the-year fox snakes experience high mortality rates, and generally remain under cover. When disturbed, young fox snakes may strike and bite, but older snakes rarely bite, even when handled; instead, they shake or “rattle” their tail vigorously and may spray a musky-smelling anal secretion (which is supposedly foxlike and hence its name).

When it comes to Voles and their control, habitat modification is the number one goal in having a happy landscape.