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How to Get Rid of Voles in the Garden

Few pests annoy me more than voles. They suck down seedlings overnight, leaving no evidence that a plant had stood there unless you count the two-inch hole in the soil. Or they just devour the roots, so that I pull up a carrot top to find nothing attached or walk through the garden to see wilted plants sticking out of otherwise empty holes.

If you, too, have ever shouted in frustration after stepping on a soft tunnel in the garden, journey with me to learn how to get rid of voles in the garden and keep your plants from disappearing. Vole populations can feel hard to manage when you’re not sure where to start. You can catch this small rodent with a live trap and relocate it, but there’s a good chance there are others already there. That’s a lot of trapping and moving, and then, they can always come right back!

So, what can you do if you see vole tunnels and you know these small mammals are taking over your garden?

vole in the garden

How to Get Rid of Voles in the Garden

The first question that many gardeners will have is how to get rid of voles in the garden. And there are lots of ways to do this, from poison baits to natural predators, and vole repellents. But which methods give the best results? Which methods work for treating large areas?

A quick search online or a trip to the garden center will reveal a range of methods for getting rid of voles. But which ones actually work, and which are simply a waste of time and money? First, make sure you’re targeting the right pest.

How to identify voles

These small, pudgy, ground-dwelling rodents are actually rather cute. Averaging five to seven inches long, voles have brown fur that ranges from grayish to chestnut that almost hides their small ears. They also have rounded, blunt snouts and short tails. They are often mistaken for mice but they have a shorter tail to distinguish them. Although they are in the rodent family, they’re not actually mice.

Although commonly called meadow mice or field mice, voles are not mice at all, though they look similar. The tail is the most obvious distinguisher, as mice have significantly longer tails. But a vole will have a short tail. Voles are also often confused with moles and shrews. However, moles have distinct, large front feet, small eyes, and no external ears. Tiny shrews have long, pointed snouts, and their eyes and ears are almost hidden in their fur.

Voles are very fertile and reproduce all year round, so once you have an infestation, they can grow very rapidly. One vole can reproduce up to fifty thousand voles in two years!

They are active year-round, day and night, and they don’t hibernate. And the downside is that they can do a lot of damage to your garden or lawn. It’s often easier to identify them by the damage they make than from seeing the rodent itself.

No voles? Maybe you have shrews. Here’s how to get rid of shrews.

What vole damage looks like

Meadow voles often tunnel near the surface of the soil, creating a system of raised tunnels that leave the ground looking bumpy and feeling squishy. Voles will often make several burrows in the ground to connect extensive underground runways and to make a shelter for the protection of the colony.

They occasionally use underground tunnels, as do woodland voles, leaving the one-and-a-half- to two-inch entrances as the only clues to their presence.

Voles will eat roots or even entire small plants (typically seedlings), as well as tree bark. Wilted plants with no roots and missing plants replaced by a tunnel entrance indicate vole activity in the garden.

Since other animals also eat tree bark in the winter, look closely at the gnaw marks. Voles create shallow, nonuniform marks at varying angles, typically only 1/8 inch wide by 3/8 inch long.

How to control voles

Does your garden have a maze of squishy tunnels and small holes where plants should be? Here are a few ways to discourage the culprits.

1. Keep the ground clear

mowing lawn

Tall grass and weeds provide cover for small critters like voles, so try to keep your garden well weeded and your lawn mowed to under six inches. If your trees are affected by voles, establish vegetation-free zones that reach at least two feet from each trunk, and keep the area clear of prunings, leaves, and other decaying plant matter. This can be a very good way to reduce a vole infestation.

You can start in early spring as soon as the grass begins to grow back after winter, so that you keep up with it. After your first mow, look for burrow openings or any other signs of vole damage. The best time to treat for voles is as soon as you see signs they are present. Of course, it’s always better to prevent them from showing up in the first place.

2. Use repellents

Apello Mole Repellent Pack of 4 Solar Powered Mole Repeller Vole Deterrent Gopher Repellent Ultrasonic Mole Chaser No Mole Trap Gopher Trap Harm to Your Lawn

Gardeners have reported varying amounts of success using different repellents, so if one type doesn’t work for you, another one might. Spray repellents include castor oil, capsaicin (including hot sauce), thiram, and predator urine. A benefit of castor oil is that it works by soaking into the ground and only needs to be reapplied every few months, whereas foliar sprays must be reapplied frequently.

For the health of your household as well as the environment, always choose OMRI-certified organic products whenever possible.

I have had minimal success with the sound-emitting spikes you so often see in garden centers and hardware stores. They seem to work best in small areas and in combination with other methods — I have not seen any vole activity in the four- by-20-foot bed that I currently have a spike in, but there are definitely voles in other parts of my garden.

This spring, I also planted mole plants (Euphorbia lathyris), or caper spurge, around the perimeter of my garden and have seen reduced activity in the areas closest to the plants. Note that mole plants are highly toxic, so I do not recommend planting them if you have young children or curious pets. Other potentially vole-repelling plants include daffodils and marigolds.

3. Bury fencing

If you prefer a physical barrier, try putting up fencing and burying the bottom four to six inches to discourage tunneling. It should also reach at least 18 inches above the ground, or higher if you want to exclude rabbits and other critters as well. Since fencing can be expensive and burying it is labor-intensive, this method may work best with cylinders around young trees and shrubs. It’s a lot of work, but underground fencing of your garden areas is usually effective vole control and it doubles as a deterrent from other critters as well.

You can also use a wire mesh to achieve the same effect as full fencing, especially in a small garden. The best ways to prevent vole damage to your garden is to prevent the voles from having access to it in the first place. Some people have found it works to use hardware cloth as a way of blocking their tunnels, too. Physical barriers like this will stop their surface runways and also prevent digging tunnels and they will be forced into other areas where digging is possible.

4. Set traps

Trapping is most effective in the fall and late winter. Set mouse traps baited with peanut butter, bits of apple, or rolled oats perpendicular to vole tunnel entrances. Cover each trap with a box or other container large enough for the trap to still operate, and check them every morning and evening. It’s important to use a few successful tips for live-trapping to ensure you don’t just get them right back in your garden.

Mouse-sized live traps can also be used. Release the voles at least a half-mile from the trap site and away from other homeowners who may not appreciate them in their yards and gardens. When live-trapping, always check with your local laws, as many areas prohibit the release of wildlife across property lines.

5. Encourage predators

Many predators feed on voles, including bobcats, coyotes, foxes, hawks, owls, snakes, weasels, and even house cats. While predators likely won’t eliminate the voles in your yard, they can help keep the population in check, especially when other methods are also used. If you don’t have many large trees around your yard, consider installing a raptor perch and nest boxes. If you have an outdoor cat, this might be enough to keep the voles at bay. When they are given a choice, they’ll nest down someplace without a natural predator on the loose.

Of course, if you don’t have a cat, you can also consider adopting one from your local humane society. Our local SPCA offers a reduced adoption fee for unsocialized barn cats. Keep in mind, though, that this option involves more than just pest control: you are adopting, if not a pet, a working animal that requires proper care.

Some people have seen success with using the scent of a predator, like a coyote urine, around the perimeter of the garden. Others find strong scents they don’t like, such as hot peppers, can be a good way to keep them out of the garden. You can also try to remove food sources that will draw them in.

What not to do

Note that I did not include poisons – or toxicants – in this list. There’s a good reason for this! That is because nontarget wildlife might eat the poison directly or consume it by eating a vole or other animal that has the poison in its system.

Because so many predators feed on voles, this should be avoided. Poisons and toxins are always dangerous in the environment. You can’t be certain only the pest you are trying to target will be affected by it. These can have a detrimental impact on the local wildlife, and in some cases, toxins can even seep into the ground and into your garden crops.

You also do not want children or pets to come into contact with the poison. So if none of the above control methods work for you, contact a local wildlife pest control expert for assistance.

I also discourage against using snap traps. They are unnecessarily cruel and can also capture other animals besides the intended voles. You also have to clean up dead voles that are caught in the traps. There’s a more effective way that is not so cruel, as we’ve laid out above.

At the end of the day, voles may be cute but they do a lot of damage to your garden plants and to the soil underneath. If you find yourself shouting in frustration at seemingly invisible rodents in your garden, it may be time to learn how to get rid of voles in the garden and take action!

How to get rid of voles in the garden
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Serena Manickam is a freelance editor and writer and sustainable market gardener in rural Virginia. She holds a BA in environmental science and runs Fairydiddle Farm, a small market garden in which she grows no-spray produce and herbs to sell at a local farmer’s market.

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