Got voles? Your first clue is likely vole tunnels and lawn damage in the form of snake-like ribbons of dead grass. Here’s how to repair a vole-damaged lawn.

    Identifying the Problem 

    Voles are small rodents, also known as meadow mice or meadow voles. They’re about 4-8 inches long, and their fur is grey or brown. They resemble field mice, except they have short tails, short ears, small eyes, and their fur is longer. You can find them throughout the northern United States. They’re most common in meadows and woodland areas, but you’ll also see them in grassy areas and gardens. These critters gnaw on grass, vegetables, tubers, and garden plants — basically, everything you plant in your yard. They’ll also leave gnaw marks on the bark of shrubs and trees, especially in the colder months.

    Voles like to live under dense brush and mulch, along with wood and rock piles. These shy creatures are active year-round and don’t hibernate. They’re especially active in the winter and early spring, scurrying from their burrow entrances in search of food. According to the University of Massachusetts Extension Turf Program, “Winters with lasting snow cover provide relative protection from predators, and voles enjoy the freedom to construct elaborate and frequently used ‘runway’ systems within the turf canopy.”  They move around your lawn, under the snow, eating the grass as they go. Come springtime, you’ll discover the damage when the snow melts.

    Vole damage. Credit: Wikipedia, CC SA 4.0

    It’s easy to spot and identify vole damage. They leave rope-looking “vole runways” in your lawn. The creatures create them by eating the grass or plants along their chosen path. They repeatedly use these paths and leave their excrement behind, causing even more damage. These vole runways can lead to their burrow openings. One burrow may have several adults, and a large infestation can mean the vole population has reached up to 500 critters per acre. Voles are prolific breeders with short gestation periods.

    Voles can also damage trees and shrubs. When food sources are scarce, they’ll eat the bark around the bottoms of trees and shrubs. They’ll also gnaw the roots and low-lying branches if they can get to them. While they prefer young trees, they’ll attack older trees if that’s all they can find. Like lawn damage, this can be tough to spot over the winter because voles do their dirty work under the snow. If voles are girdling your trees or shrubs (eating all the bark around the bottom of the trunk), the trees or shrubs may not survive. In some cases, hiring a professional to prune and/or fertilize may help.

    Once you’ve made the unhappy discovery of vole damage, turn your attention to fixing it. There is good news here: In most cases, the damage doesn’t require a complicated fix. Unlike gophers, voles only eat the blades and stems of your grass, and not the roots or crown. So, the grass should grow back as the weather gets warmer. 

    Follow these tips to repair your lawn after vole damage:

    4 Steps to Repair Vole Damage

    1. Rake to remove the dead grass and excrement. 
    2. Fill pathways with topsoil.
    3. Apply fertilizer.
    4. Overseed areas that don’t adequately recover.

    Preventing Vole Damage

    Now that you’ve repaired your lawn, how do you keep voles from wrecking it again? This answer is a bit more complicated because once voles inhabit your lawn, it’s tough to get rid of them. 

    Remove their hiding places. Keep woodpiles and mulch piles off your lawn and away from trees. Lawn care is also important: Mow, weed, and cut back brush and ground covers to give voles fewer places to hide. You can stop voles from gnawing on new plants by keeping mulch 6 inches from the stem and surrounding them with a wire cage. Shield the base of trees with tree guards or hardware cloth. 

    Vole control is easier than getting rid of other small mammals that dig underground tunnels. You can try setting mouse traps on their surface runways with peanut butter as bait. Consider humane traps (not snap traps) that catch but not kill the rodents. Relocate them if that’s allowed in your area. Predator urine (i.e., fox or coyote) is a great repellent. You can buy it at your local garden store near the pest control section. Keep in mind, you need to reapply it every time it rains. Other natural deterrents include castor oil and capsaicin. Capsaicin is the compound that makes peppers “hot.” You can make a spray with water, chopped hot peppers or hot pepper flakes, and biodegradable soap. 

    If you have a large infestation, you may need the help of a pest management professional.

    We’re not making a mountain out of a vole hill! Voles can do some serious damage to your lawn. But you can fix it with a bit of effort and time.