Extension connection: Voles, not moles, create garden problems

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 14, 2008

By DAVID HUBBARD / Guest Columnist

I have had problems in the past with something gnawing on some of my shrubs and small trees. The damage seems to always be below the mulch?

Any ideas?

While I can’t be 100 percent positive, it sure sounds like you have a “vole” problem. While most people blame much of their damage on moles, most of the time it is probably the vole.

Across the country these little guys are known by many names such as potato mouse [they love tubers], apple mouse [yes, they love apples too] and the meadow mouse, which seems to be what I hear most around our area.

These rodents are small, but pack quite a punch. They gnaw on roots of young trees and shrubs and seem to be gaining in number.

Well-mulched areas, which we strongly suggest as an essential management practice, are just what voles love. They can hide from their natural predators and make runways to move around without being seen.

If you notice something in your mulched areas that looks as if someone had traced a path with a broom handle from shrub to shrub, you probably have voles. If some of your ornamental plants — especially junipers and azaleas — are dying or if there is missing bark around the base of young trees, you probably have voles.

Voles are voracious feeders and reproducers. Damage caused by their tree-girdling way of feeding usually occurs from late fall to early spring and is noticed as plants begin their growing season.

Trees and shrubs are just one of the problems with having voles. If you wonder why your garden may not be doing so well, and you are losing seedlings and tubers without seeing insect or disease damage, you probably have voles.

You need to look for any tunneling or soil disturbance and check for root damage on the sick plants.

Control of these varmints is not easy and will take time. While there are bait stations and repellents available, they don’t seem to be very effective. It seems trapping is the best way of getting the population back to a manageable level.

Types of traps vary from box trap, to multiple-catch mousetraps, all the way down to just the old wooden rattrap [the large one]. Place traps in the runways or along foundations or walls.

If you chose to use the basic gopher trap, it seems a mix of peanut butter, oatmeal and small pieces of apple work best as bait material.

I always wish folks good luck with their problems, but if you have a large population of voles, I am afraid you will need more than luck.

I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you.

David Hubbard is the regional extension agent for forestry, wildlife and natural resources for Shelby County