Apparently, two years ago there were so many voles scampering across the yard that not even cats could keep them under control. Aren’t voles supposed to stay hidden in tall grass where they’re safe from predators? What are they doing scurrying about in broad daylight? I can understand voles munching on potato tubers and peony roots, but eating zucchini?
To be better equipped to address gardeners’ concerns, I searched the internet, read research reports, visited garden centers and trapped a vole so that I could look him square in the eye.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s website confirmed there are indeed bad vole years. A story by Elizabeth Manning stated that every four to five years vole populations can be 50 to 100 times greater than usual. I also learned that there are seven species of voles in Alaska.
Vole control options for those of you not interested in sharing your garden include modifying habitat and using rodenticides, repellents and traps. To try to lure voles away from the garden, keep vegetation around the perimeter short and provide habitat elsewhere that voles might prefer. Leave some areas away from your garden unmowed and don’t trim tall grass along fence lines.
You’ll find many nontoxic repellants on garden center shelves. Most labels I studied included castor oil as the active ingredient. I knew castor bean was the source of the extremely toxic substance ricin, but I had no idea that the oil from the same plant was used as a nontoxic active ingredient to repel voles.
I didn’t give any of repellents a try. I could imagine the chubby little creatures making a new burrow right next to the place where the spraying stopped. Instead, I went for the traps.
My first choice was a live trap — I wanted an up-close look at the voles in my yard — but finding a live trap in Fairbanks was not easy. I started out looking for a trap designed to catch more than a single vole in one night. I ended up with a trap big enough for a squirrel, but I was satisfied to have found a live trap at all.
I set up my trap late in the evening and was disappointed to find it empty in the morning. A couple of hours later, however, success! A vole had triggered the door shut and was caught in the trap. I’m not sure if he was a red-backed or meadow vole. What I do know is that my yard has one less vole.
Julie Riley is horticulture agent with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service in the Tanana District Office. She is currently out of the office, but will be back on contract with the university in July and can be reached at 907-474-2423 or firstname.lastname@example.org.