Delayed density-dependent demographic processes are thought to be the basis for multi-annual cyclic fluctuations in small rodent populations, but evidence for delayed density dependence of a particular demographic trait is rare. Here, using capture–recapture data from 22 sites collected over nine years, we demonstrate a strong effect of population density with a one-year lag on the timing of the onset of spring reproduction in a cyclically fluctuating population of field voles Microtus agrestis in northern England. The mean date for the onset of spring reproduction was delayed by about 24 days for every additional 100 voles ha−1 in the previous spring. This delayed density dependence is sufficient to generate the type of cyclic population dynamics described in the study system.