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What is digging my lawn: not a gopher, not a mole, it could be a vole!


Mario Villarino DVM, Ph.D.
Hopkins County Extension Agent for Ag and NR
1200B Houston Street
Sulphur Springs, Texas 75482

Recently I got a phone call from a gardener related to controlling digging pests. She mentioned having mole problems but also her failure to control the pesky critters. As I communicated with her, I decided to ask her if she had actually “seen” the moles. She said no. I then tried to explain that there are several creatures than can create tunnels in Hopkins County. It is important to determine the pest causing problems to find the correct method to control them. It turned out that there were not moles but voles affecting her property.

According to Cornell University, voles, also called meadow mice or field mice, belong to the genus Microtus. Voles are compact rodents with stocky bodies, short legs, and short tails. Their eyes are small and their ears partially hidden. Their underfur is generally dense and covered with thicker, longer guard hairs. They usually are brown or gray, though many color variations exist. Voles occupy a wide variety of habitats. They prefer areas with heavy ground cover of grasses, grasslike plants, or litter. When two species are found together in an area, they usually occupy different habitats. Though voles evolved in “natural” habitats, they also use habitats modified by humans, such as orchards, windbreaks, and cultivated fields, especially when vole populations are high.

Voles eat a wide variety of plants, most frequently grasses and forbs. In late summer and fall, they store seeds, tubers, bulbs, and rhizomes. They eat bark at times, primarily in fall and winter, and will eat crops, especially when their populations are high. Occasional food items include snails, insects, and animal remains.  Voles may cause extensive damage to orchards, ornamentals, and tree plantings due to their girdling of seedlings and mature trees. Girdling damage usually occurs in fall and winter. Field crops (for example, alfalfa, clover, grain, potatoes, and sugar beets) may be damaged or completely destroyed by voles. Voles eat crops and also damage them when they build extensive runway and tunnel systems. These systems interfere with crop irrigation by displacing water and causing levees and checks to wash out. Voles also can ruin lawns, golf courses, and ground covers.

Girdling and gnaw marks alone are not necessarily indicative of the presence of voles, since other animals, such as rabbits, may cause similar damage. Vole girdling can be differentiated from girdling by other animals by the non-uniform gnaw marks. They occur at various angles and in irregular patches. Marks are about 1/8 inch (0.3 cm) wide, 3/8 inch (1.0 cm) long, and 1/16 inch (0.2 cm) or more deep. Rabbit gnaw marks are larger and not distinct. Rabbits neatly clip branches with oblique clean cuts. Examine girdling damage and accompanying signs (feces, tracks, and burrow systems) to identify the animal causing the damage.

The most easily identifiable sign of voles is an extensive surface runway system with numerous burrow opening . Runways are 1 to 2 inches (2.5 to 5 cm) in width. Vegetation near well-traveled runways may be clipped close to the ground. Feces and small pieces of vegetation are found in the runways. The pine vole does not use surface runways. It builds an extensive system of underground tunnels. The surface runways of long-tailed voles are not as extensive as those of most other voles. Voles pose no major public health hazard because of their infrequent contact with humans; however, they are capable of carrying disease organisms, such as plague (Yersinia pestis) and tularemia (Francisilla tularensis). Be careful and use protective clothing when handling voles. Cultural and habitat modification practices can reduce the likelihood and severity of vole damage. Eliminate weeds, ground cover, and litter in and around crops, lawns, and cultivated areas to reduce the capacity of these areas to support voles. Lawn and turf should be mowed regularly. Mulch should be cleared 3 feet (1 m) or more from the bases of trees. Voles can live in dense populations in ditch banks, rights-of-way, and water ways that are unmanaged. Adjacent crop fields can be cost-effectively protected by controlling vegetation through mowing, spraying, or grazing. Soil tillage is effective in reducing vole damage as it removes cover, destroys existing runway-burrow systems and kills some voles outright. Because of tillage, annual crops tend to have lower vole population levels than perennial crops. Voles are nevertheless capable of invading and damaging annual crops, especially those that provide them with cover for extended periods of time.

Repellents utilizing thiram (also a fungicide) or capsaicin (the “hot” in chilis) as an active ingredient are registered for meadow voles (see Supplies and Materials). These products (or repellents registered for other species) may afford short-term protection, but this has not been demonstrated. Check with your state pesticide regulatory agency for availability. Zinc phosphide is the most commonly used toxicant for vole control. It is a single-dose toxicant available in pelleted and grain bait formulations and as a concentrate. Zinc phosphide baits generally are broadcast at rates of 6 to 10 pounds per acre (7 to 11 kg/ ha), or are placed by hand in runways and burrow openings. Although prebaiting (application of similar nontreated bait prior to applying toxic bait) is not usually needed to obtain good control, it may be required in some situations, such as when a population has been baited several times and bait shyness has developed. Zinc phosphide baits are potentially hazardous to ground-feeding birds, especially waterfowl. Placing bait into burrow openings may reduce this hazard. Anticoagulant baits are also effective in controlling voles. Anticoagulants are slow-acting toxicants requiring from 5 to 15 days to take effect. Multiple feedings are needed for most anticoagulants to be effective. In many states, one or more anticoagulant baits are registered for controlling voles. In addition to broadcast and hand placement, anticoagulant baits also can be placed in various types of bait containers (Byers and Merson 1982, Radvanyi 1980). Water repellent paper tubes with an anticoagulant bait glued to the inside surface make effective, disposable bait containers. Tube size is about 5 inches (12 cm) long by 1 1/2 inches (4 cm) in diameter (Libby and Abrams 1966, Marsh et al. 1967). Bait containers protect bait from moisture and reduce the likelihood of nontarget animals and small children consuming bait. Fumigants usually are not effective because the complexity and shallowness of vole burrow systems allow the fumigant to escape. They may work in new, small burrow systems with only one or two entrances.

Trapping is not effective in controlling large vole populations because time and labor costs are prohibitive. Mouse snap traps can be used to control a small population by placing the trap perpendicular to the runway with the trigger end in the runway. A peanut butter-oatmeal mixture or apple slices make good baits. Fall and late winter are periods when many vole species are easiest to trap. Although voles rarely invade houses, in the event that they do, they can be controlled by setting snap traps or live traps (Sherman or box-type) as you would for house mice.

For more information on this or any other agricultural topic please contact the Hopkins County Extension Office at 903-885-3443 or email me at [email protected].

Author: Staff Reporter

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