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Our Latest Plague: Meadow Voles

By   /  March 29, 2021  /  4 Comments

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I try to keep in touch with our custom grazing clients, maybe call them once a month or so during th
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About the author

John Marble grew up on a terribly conventional ranch with a large family where each kid had their own tractor. Surviving that, he now owns a small grazing and marketing operation that focuses on producing value through managed grazing. He oversees a diverse ranching operation, renting and owning cattle and grasslands while managing timber, wildlife habitat and human relationships. His multi-species approach includes meat goats, pointing dogs and barn cats. He has a life-long interest in ecology, trying to understand how plants, animals, soils and humans fit together. John spends his late-night hours working on fiction, writing about worlds much less strange than this one.


  1. Bill Fosher says:

    Vole explosion years help keep my livestock guardian dog food bills down.

    I visited some friends who farm on an island in Lake Ontario. When we walked through their fields, you could see ripples in the grasses ahead of our feet, like the bow of a boat plying the water. If you stopped suddenly, you could hear them scurrying away from your path. (Or at least I could then; my ears aren’t what they were 20 years ago.)

    They had guard dogs that hadn’t touched their dog food for months.

    Coyotes, foxes, raptors, free-range chickens — everyone has a field day when meadow voles populations explode. These explosions seldom last long and they happen in fairly predictable cycles lasting 5 to 7 years. After these booms, there will be a crash when you don’t see a vole hardly at all and the dogs are all hungry all the time, and then the population will gradually build.

    The COVID-19 epidemic has familiarized us all with the exponential curve, and that’s basically what happens with voles. One year they skyrocket, but they reach a saturation point and diseases, starvation, or a harsh winter will wipe them out. If only viruses followed this latter part of the pattern!

    At least in the high rainfall areas of the East they don’t seem to have much impact on pasture productivity over the course of the season, though they may delay early grazing a bit.

  2. We have meadow voles in all pastures and hayfields. If in hayfields, the crows, ravens, kestrels and red-tailed hawks devastate them when we cut or rake. Foxes, coyotes, owls, and weasels do lots of hunting at dawn, dusk, night. Thank God for predators.

    When they reach plague proportions, farmers here tend to make sure there is not much cover in the fall (which may not be best for the grass). I think voles may breed under the snow but have not confirmed that.

    I have a series of photos of least weasel tracks hunting voles by running down a bare fenceline and then entering the snow beneath the crust where the fence posts have left a “hole” in the snow due to heat concentration on the posts.

    Like John’s dog, my dog(s)–over the years–have devoured zillions of voles in bad years. Probably should worm the dogs.

  3. Jim Gerrish says:

    Hi John,
    I think you may find the tansy and wild carrot patches are actually the product of previous vole damage. Our increasing Canada thistle infestation is almost entirely due to voles weakening our grass cover in those areas.
    On our irrigated pastures, we have see up to 40% reduction in grazing yields due to voles in heavily infested areas.
    We had one client near Twin Falls who had to completely reseed three pivots due to vole damage.

    On the positive side, I have seen over 1000 dead voles/acre after high stock density grazing. Cattle stomp a lot of them. If you see one dead vole on average per 6ft x 6ft area, that will equate to over 1000 dead/acre if uniformly distributed. You may see a half dozen stomped on one 6×6 quadrat and none in others.
    We frequently see hawks perched on the center pivots to prey on voles.
    A healthy coyote population will also make an impact on voles. Research shows a single coyote may eat 30-40 voles per day, especially in fall & winter.
    Jim Gerrish

    • John Marble says:

      Our old friend Mr.Occam advises that when someone has a hypothesis that is better than your own, you should steal it. Well, that’s kind of what he said. Anyway, thanks Jim, and I have to admit, your explanation for the Tar Weed and Queen Ann’s Lace invasion we suffered through last year makes good sense. I guess my biggest concern now (even if a plague wipes out the voles) is what the effect will be from massive amounts of bare ground associated with our current infestation. I’m not a fan of disturbance-farming, but I’m afraid I see tractors in my future. Aaargh.

      Thanks again, and by the way, I’m seeing more coyotes every day.

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