The Vole: Furry Friend or Foe?
Our customers are justifiably proud of their landscapes. We like to work in our gardens and turf. We like others to enjoy them as well. We plant species which attract butterflies, bees, and birds. They add to the attractiveness of our landscape. There are others who often show up uninvited in one sense; but they too, also are most appreciative of the work we do in our landscapes.
We receive a number of calls each spring regarding tracks in the yard as the snow melts. Invariably, the tracks are vole runs. There are three species of voles in Nebraska, but for turf areas, we are probably only dealing with two of the species. In size, they are a little larger than mice with a shorter tail and a stocky build. They have cyclical populations which can range from 25 per acre to as many as 250 per acre. While those numbers seem high, consider the size of your turf area, as well as the fact that cycles are irregular and not sustained at any level for long, before becoming too alarmed. As they are the favorite prey of snakes, owls, coyotes, hawks, weasels and other carnivores, they have a high mortality rate. To compensate for this, they are rather prolific breeders.
The tracks you see in the spring as the snow melts are clipped grass surface runways connecting underground entrances and feeding sites. Voles are active year round, but the runs are less noticeable when turf is actively growing. Voles eat bulbs, the shoot and roots of plants, tree bark, tubers, the seeds of grasses, all of which leads to plant and tree damage, the severity of which varies with the size of the population.
So what does a body do? Doing nothing is always an option. Once turf begins growing, the surface runs usually fill back in. If vole numbers are not large, you may notice no damage. However, if you cannot abide any interlopers, or the ones that are there are doing a number on your plantings, you do have options.
You can modify the habitat by making sure grass is mowed properly and gardens are weeded, especially around trees. This denies them covered access, making them more susceptible to predators.
One can try to exclude them by fencing off expensive trees and plants. This usually works better with smaller gardens. The mesh openings should not exceed one quarter inch, and the fence should be twelve inches high and buried slightly below ground (if you want to fence out rabbits at the same time, go to twenty inches high and four inches below ground). You can also wrap trees with wire or plastics, making sure there are no gaps.
Now, if they have really made you mad, you can hire an assassin; or if you are not too squeamish, you can do the deed yourself. Mouse traps work nicely. Set two in a run, with triggers facing away or one trap perpendicular to the run with the trigger in the run. You can place two traps on either side of an entrance, triggers facing the entrance hole. It may be a good idea to secure the traps to the ground with a nail into the soil. Peanut butter makes great bait.
These are remedies that most people can do. There are other methods best left to a professional.
A great deal of this information comes from the wisdom and experience of Dennis Ferraro, resident herpetologist, and an extension associate professor at the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Dennis is a frequent speaker and instructor at various turf conferences and classes for professionals in the turf industry. He is most entertaining and always eager to help us do a better job of serving you. He will be referenced often by us throughout the year.