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Voles

Voles

Species’ Names

  • Meadow vole / Microtis Pennsylvanicus
  • Pine vole / Microtus Pinetorum

Size

4–7 1/2″ long; 1/2–2 1/2 ounces. Meadow vole is larger than the Pine vole. The Meadow voles’ tail is longer than its hind foot; the Pine voles’ tail is shorter than its hind foot.

Signs of their Presence

High vegetation, when mowed, reveals a network of small, crisscrossing tunnels, 1–2″ wide, ‘roofed over’ by vegetation, at the soil surface. If the lawn is mowed, you will see pathways, not tunnels and similar tunnels through mulched garden beds and tree and shrub borders. (They also tunnel under plastic and paper mulch.) Tunnels are particularly well displayed during Winter thaws.

Scat piles at tunnel crossroads and scattered along tunnels, 1/4″ long, cylindrical (mouse scat fits same description). Plant cuttings, 1/4–1/2″ long, are often scattered through tunnels.

For the Pine vole, a subterranean burrower, small holes mark the entryway to their burrows. Burrows are 3–4″ below ground, or occasionally just below the soil surface; in this case they resemble small mole tunnels. Pine voles may take over the abandoned burrows of moles or short-tailed shrews—and even make surface tunnels at times.

Trees and shrubs, especially seedlings and saplings up to about 15 years old and ornamental and orchard plantings are equally at risk to voles. Tooth marks (1/8″ wide, 3/8″ long) make a crosshatch pattern near the ground or snow line. (Rabbit gnaw marks are larger and not as distinct; they clip right through branches with a clean, oblique cut.)

Diet

Green plants, roots, tubers, bark, mushrooms, and occasionally snails, insects, carrion, and each other’s young. They store food for the Winter (grains, tubers, bulbs, and rootstock). Pine voles generally eat roots and tubers. Like rabbits, hares, and beavers, they eat their feces to extract more nutrients from grasses and tree bark, which are difficult to digest.

Typical Activity Patterns

The are generally solitary, except female with young.

They are active all day and night, with alternating periods of rest and feeding.

They do not hibernate. In fact, voles may even breed and bear young through the Winter if snow cover is deep enough to provide sufficient insulation for their nests and they do not migrate.

Location

Distribution in New York and the Northeast is abundant and widespread in rural and suburban areas. The Pine vole is mostly found in the Hudson Valley, Long Island, and further south. Population densities vary wildly, often in four-year cycles.

Their habitat is fields and moist, meadowy bottomlands, but adapt well to suburban woodlots, gardens, and ornamental plantings as well as orchards. Pine voles prefer deciduous forests, brushy areas, and orchards with dense vegetation. They are excellent swimmers and decent climbers (though the Pine vole is a bit clumsy).

Females are scrappy fighters and territorial toward other females; males are not territorial. Females’ home ranges cover roughly 75 square yards, males’ about 200 square yards. The home ranges of the males may overlap those of several females and other males as well.

Breeding Habits

They are polygamous and breed year round as the weather permits. Gestation takes about 20–23 days. The birthing period is also year round as the weather permits. Litter size is 3–5, with an average of 4.You may see as few as one pup or as many as nine. They are weaned between 2–3 weeks of age. Females may breed within days of being weaned. Males are sexually mature at 45 days old.

Common Nuisance Situations

These animals can be a nuisance any time of year but the type of damage changes seasonally.

Early Spring (mid-April through end of May) voles can ruin lawns, golf courses, some perennial bulbs (especially tulips and irises), newly planted vegetables (peas, beans), and some ornamental shrubs

In the Spring and Summer they damage hay, leafy vegetables, and legumes (beans and peas)

In Summer and Fall voles eat root crops (carrots, beets, potatoes, as well as kohlrabi).

In Fall (September through November) they damage lawns, golf courses, fruit trees, and some perennial bulbs, and in Fall and Winter they will girdle trees and shrubs, (especially fruit trees and some ornamental shrubs). Look for the damage up to the level of the deepest snow cover.

Voles eat flower bulbs, especially tulips and irises, some vegetables in gardens and farms, especially legumes (peas, beans) and root crops (carrots, beets, potatoes). They chow on hay crops too. A population of 100 voles/acre may reduce the crop by a half-ton over the course of a season.

Disease risks are minimal because of their infrequent contact with people, but voles can carry tularemia.

Voles are often confused for moles and below is how to tell them apart.

Voles legal status in New York is unprotected.

If your strategy includes a plan to reduce vole populations before the first Winter snow, or to protect ornamental plantings and lawns, mow closely under and around ornamental trees and shrubs; remove vegetation and pruned branches. Pull mulch away from the bases of trees.

Make vole guards for trees. The guards must be large enough to allow 5 years growth. Circle the tree with 1/4″ hardware cloth that’s buried 3–6″ deep. The tree guards should be taller than the anticipated snow depth by about 3–4 inches.

Mow lawns regularly. Protect garden crops: Remove vegetation, ground covers, and brush piles or other plant litter near crops. Tilling before planting annual crops destroys tunnels and removes cover. Small areas may be fenced with 1/4″ hardware cloth that’s buried 3–6″ deep. Protect orchard crops and follow recommendations for ornamental plantings.

Consider the relative economic and environmental value of tilling or close mowing between rows and applying herbicide in rows to reduce cover. Rotary mowers cut closer than sickle bar mowers do.

Mow adjacent strips and drainage ditches; work to reduce vole populations in older orchard blocks (where trees are too big to be vulnerable) that border younger blocks. Clean up windfall apples.

Trap intensively over a 5-day period. Trapping can reduce vole populations by 90 percent.

Encourage predators. (Voles provide 85% of a hawk or owl diet. All the other carnivores—foxes, skunks, weasels, coyotes—rely on them, too.) However, voles are so good at reproducing that predators alone won’t give ultimate control.