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How to manage vole damage on lawns, trees and shrubs

Quick facts

  • Voles can cause damage to small trees and shrubs.
  • They can have multiple litters in a year, and every 3 to 5 years there is a population boom.
  • Lawn damage is most visible in the spring.
  • Prevent and manage vole damage through yard sanitation, reseeding grass, tree guards, trapping and pesticide application.

Voles

Voles, also known as field mice, are small brown rodents very common in yards and fields. They are about the size and shape of a mouse, and have small ears and a short tail. Minnesota has several species of vole, the most common being the meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) and the prairie vole (Microtus ochrogastor).

Their presence is most often observed in the late winter and early spring right after the snow melts, when their grassy trails are exposed and areas of dead grass appear. Voles do the most harm to small trees and shrubs when they chew on the bark, often hidden below winter snow. 

Life cycle

  • Like most rodents, voles do not live long. 
  • They are very productive breeders.
    • One female vole can have 5-10 litters in a year, averaging 3 to 5 young. 
    • They may nest in shallow grass-filled nests on the ground, or dig a small tunnel about 4 to 5 inches down to nest. 
  • Vole populations cycle. Every 3 to 5 years there will be a population boom. 
    • Mild winters with good snowfall can help to increase vole populations.
  • Voles are a prime food source for many predators such as snakes, hawks, owls, foxes and badgers. 

Identifying vole damage

  • Voles spend a great deal of time eating grass and roots and making trails. These surface runways are one of the easiest ways to identify voles. 
    • Usually seen in early spring just after snowmelt, a series of criss-crossing trails can be viewed on the surface. 
    • There may be larger patches of dried grass that serve as storage areas for extra food and nesting materials.
  • Voles will also make small holes about 1 inch across to get to tubers and bulbs. 
  • Voles sometimes use mole tunnels, which causes moles to be blamed for eating roots instead of the white-grubs they actually eat.
  • Vole damage may also be noticed on trees and shrubs where they have chewed through the bark near the ground. The vole’s front teeth will leave ¼ inch side-by-side grooves in the wood.

Preventing and managing vole damage

Voles may go unnoticed for a large portion of the year. In an average year, it may not even be worth the effort to control the population.

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Jennifer Menken, Bell Museum of Natural History

Reviewed in 2019

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