Brandt's voles (Microtus brandti) are small native mammals that inhabit the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, China. The species is considered a pest, particularly during population outbreaks, which have increased in frequency since 1970 from 1 every 7 years to 1 every 3 to 5 years. Using historical records taken between 1948 and 1998, we found that there was significant correlation between years for which the monthly averages of the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI) were consistently high, and years in which outbreaks occurred. Also there was a tendency for outbreaks not to occur in years with precipitation above or below average. For some years at some sites, annual or biannual estimates are available for the density of Brandt's vole populations. We found that the seasonal rate of increase over the non-breeding season from autumn to spring was negatively correlated with the density in autumn. The rate of increase over the breeding season from spring to autumn was independent of the density in spring but instead, reflects the species' preference for habitat with short, sparse grass; populations do not persist in highly degraded grasslands or in tall, dense grassland. The link between outbreaks and climatic indices, and the numerical response of Brandt's voles to particular habitat characteristics, suggest that current grazing intensity tends to maintain grass at low height in years with average precipitation. The substantial increase in livestock numbers over the last 50 years appears to have increased the number of years when the balance of grazing and plant growth favours high rates of increase in Brandt's vole populations, and hence, there has been an increase in the frequency of outbreaks.