Moles and Voles
These small critters often wreak havoc on beautiful lawns with their tunnels, hills, and trails. Despite being similar in appearance, they are quite different in the damage they cause to our gardens and lawns.
Moles vary in size from four to eight inches and are very well-adapted to subterranean life. They are rarely seen above ground. Moles have cylindrical bodies, velvety fur, and very small, inconspicuous ears and eyes. They are virtually blind but can detect dark and light. Large paddle-like front feet with large, strong claws are designed for digging. For the most part, moles are solitary animals.
Moles are insectivores, eating earthworms, grubs, insects, and larvae. These small mammals consume up to 100% of their body weight daily, using movement and scent sensors on the tip of their noses to find their prey. Moles actively feed day and night, all year long.
Usually, the damage of moles is only visual. They create unsightly tunnels and volcano-like mounds in lawns by pushing dirt up to the surface. Their shallow tunnels near the surface are often used only once as they hunt for food. Moles make dens in areas under trees, buildings, and sidewalks. The dens consist of many chambers connected with runways 12-18” underground. Runways provide the critters with safe passage from living areas to hunting grounds, and out of sight from many predators. Moles can inadvertently cause damage to roots if the shallow tunnels allow plant and turf roots to dry out.
Moles do provide a valuable service to a yard’s eco-system. Tunneling loosens the soil, improving aeration, as well as blending surface soil with deeper sub-soil, improving overall soil quality. One of my favorite garden authors, Sharon Lovejoy, writes in her book Trowel and Error “Don’t make a mountain…. Moles are often blamed for garden problems, but these insectivores can eliminate thousands of grubs and insects weekly. Harvest some of the rich, crumbly soil from their mounds and use it as a topper for container plants”. I know I hate the damage Japanese beetles do to my garden plants so much more than the pain it can be to stomp down the tunnels or getting rid of the hills.
Voles, also known as field mice, are small rodents in the same family as rats and mice. They vary from three to five inches from the nose to the tail depending on species. Like moles, voles are also active both day and night all through the year.
Generally, voles prefer grassy areas and underbrush where their tunnels and trails are not easily spotted from predators. Voles will use mole tunnels to move from place to place and feed on the roots within. While voles thrive on small plants, they also feed on dead animals. Voles feed on the succulent root systems, grass, favor bulbs and tubers, seeds, fruit, and underground fungi. Voles also girdle small trees and shrubs as they nibble the bark, causing severe damage or death to the plant.
Voles are prolific breeders. One breeding pair can birth 100 more voles in a year. Voles live in colonies as the young remaining in the family group for a relatively long period.
Vole burrows can be identified by holes found in lawns or around the base of trees. The grass immediately surrounding the hole will be very short, and unlike moles, there is no mounding of soil around the opening. The trails they make above ground are one to two inches wide. Voles also live in mulch, leaf and grass piles, and tall ground cover.
Like moles, voles also help to disperse nutrients throughout the soil, but voles cause much more damage to the plants, and don’t provide the benefit of insect control.
Getting rid of moles and voles is not easy. If you look up information on how to get rid of these pesky creatures, various methods are suggested. Unfortunately, many of these methods have harmful or little impact on the ecosystem or your pests. Pouring ammonia, mothballs, or kitty litter and putting chewing gum or poisoned gummy worms down the holes are not effective control methods. Another suggestion is using ultrasonic and vibration devices that annoy them and chase them away, but studies have not confirmed their effectiveness.
Poisoning is not necessarily the best choice either. This method posse hazards to humans, pets, and may enter the wildlife food chain or be washed into water resources.
Trapping is one of the most successful methods, but many don’t like dealing with getting rid of the dead critters, or find that it can be too emotional to use. If using live traps, the next decision is where to release the live captures.
Getting rid of grubs in the lawn can help control the mole population by using either an insecticide for grubs, or applying milky spore. Milky spore is at many garden centers, and is a non-toxic soil organism deadly to beetle grubs eaten by moles. Removing the food source forces the moles to move on.
Castor oil is the main ingredient in most commercial mole and vole repellent in garden supply stores. One can make your own. Sharon Lovejoy shares her mix of eight tablespoons of castor oil, mixed in one gallon of water with a tablespoon of liquid soap. She says in her book to pour the mixture into the critters runs. While castor oil is more environmentally and animal friendly, it does need to be reapplied every one to two weeks.
Wire screening, wrapped at least 18-20” high around the trunk of young trees, will help control damage from voles, especially in the winter months.