CO-Horts Blog

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Voles Invade Macy's!

Tony Koski, Extension Turf Specialist

Vole trails in Macy's lawn - originating in the junipers
OK, not the store…but their landscape. I was walking by Macy’s at Centerra (Loveland) today and saw textbook signs of vole activity on the small turf areas adjacent to the juniper beds near the front entrance. The recently melted snow had provided ideal cover for these small rodents, and fresh signs of their activity were quite evident. While active year-round in our landscapes, vole activity is more apparent in winter and spring when turf is not actively growing. Less obvious is the damage they may be causing to woody plants in the landscape. There are eight species of voles that live throughout Colorado; the one most likely to be found in urban landscapes is the meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) –  often called the field or meadow mouse.

Cute, yes - but destructive in the landscape
Voles are strictly vegetarian. In our landscapes their favorite food sources include turfgrass and the stems and bark of shrubs and trees. They can also be a nuisance in vegetable gardens, where they will eat seedling plants, as well as potatoes, carrots and other root veggies (voles are excellent burrowers). They will eat iris, flower bulbs, and some perennials (hostas are an apparent delicacy) in flowerbeds. When vole pressure is heavy, both newly planted and older, established trees can be killed by feeding that girdles the trunk. Along the Front Range, junipers frequently suffer from vole damage – probably because they provide both perfect cover and a ready source of food throughout the year.

Voles can totally girdle trees and shrubs
Even mature trees aren't safe from vole feeding
Hosta root system destroyed by feeding voles
Vole populations – and thus the damage caused by them – are very cyclical, with peak numbers occurring every 3-4 years, followed by years where they are hardly noticed. Turf damage is more severe in years where snow cover persists for more than a few weeks – shaded landscapes, the north side of structures, or where snow is piled during removal. Mountain golf courses often suffer severe vole damage on an annual basis because snow cover lasts so long. The above-ground trails seen in lawns will connect to a hole which is the entrance to a maze of underground tunnels.

Voles are more common in landscapes that border natural areas or greenbelts where grass is tall and infrequently mowed. Especially attractive are shrub and flower beds which are covered with landscape fabric (another reason NOT to use landscape fabric in your landscape!).  Discourage voles by eliminating places for them to hide and reproduce (they breed throughout the year, having as many as 5 litters of 3-5 young each time!).  Avoid the use of landscape fabric and pull mulch away from the bases of trees and shrubs. Mow tall grass in “native” or natural areas adjacent to lawn areas in the fall after the grass has stopped growing. Woody plants and treasured perennials can be protected by the use of wire mesh screening to prevent feeding.

Vole damage on carrots
Research with voles suggests that repellents are largely ineffective because they don’t last long and simply cause the voles to move to another area of your landscape. While there are poisonous baits (the anticoagulants used for mouse and rat control in structures) that can be effective, you have to be vigilant in providing the bait and have to be concerned about children, pets and other non-target wildlife when using them (read more about the use of poisonous baits in this fact sheet).

Set traps in the runways: end-to-end,
with triggers on opposite ends - or so
the trigger is directly on the runway.
Baiting appears unnecessary.

Trapping can be highly effective for eliminating (or at least reducing) vole populations in the home landscape. The plain ol’ mousetrap (unbaited), placed on vole trails and/or near their holes at the end of the trails, can be used with great success. Drill a hole in the center of the trap so that it can be anchored in the ground with a large nail, to keep it in place. Look for signs of activity on the trails and at the burrow openings  - bits of chewed grass clippings and freshly deposited (they will have a green tinge), tiny pellets of mouse poop (technical term). Set the traps where the voles are most likely to cross the trigger. Because you can’t tell from which direction voles will be traveling on their trails, a good strategy is to place two traps end to end (with the triggers on opposite ends) directly within the vole trail. 

Cover mouse traps with pieces of gutter
to keep pets and children from disturbing the
traps, and to guide the voles to the traps
Cover the traps with a length of gutter or a tunnel fashioned from a half-gallon, cardboard milk carton. The tunnel will keep nosy dogs and cats from messing with your traps and can “guide” the voles into the traps. If you do choose to trap voles, take special precaution with handling and disposing of the  the vole cadavers. Recent research has shown that voles can be heavily infected with the bacterium that causes tularemia in humans and other mammals. 

A good source of more detailed information on voles can be found in this CSU fact sheet: Managing Voles in Colorado


  1. Heidi with a mousy lawn in Broomfield ColoradoJanuary 26, 2015 at 8:52 PM

    Hello! I was just asking my husband this morning where those trails in our lawn came from! This is great information. I sent him out for mousetraps tonight. It will give him something to do tomorrow. So you don't put cheese on the traps like for mice? Thank you for solving our lawn mystry. And you are right. All of this was hidden until the snow melted yesterday and today.

    1. Hello Heidi,
      Voles are vegetarians, so the cheese wouldn't be attractive to them. You place the traps on their trails so that they scamper over the trigger of the mousetrap - so no bait necessary.
      Thanks for reading...and for giving your hubby something to do in his spare time.

  2. Does this work for pocket gophers. That is what I have in my area.

  3. I used to work with voles as a Master's student at Illinois. We baited traps with a combination of peanut butter and oatmeal. They like the oatmeal and PB helps to stick the bait to the trap. Seemed to be more effective than unbaited traps but there is no peer reviewed literature to support this.

  4. It's crazy how much the vole population has exploded in Colorado in the past few years. I found a great blog on it over at Mountain High Tree.