MOLES AND VOLES
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
These two garden critters have similar names, and even may look similar at a quick glance, but they really are quite different. Knowing something about these garden pests—what they eat and where they live—may help in their control.
Both these critters resemble large furry mice, but moles are quite distinctive with their large, paddle-shaped front feet. These are designed for digging their characteristic tunnels in lawns, as is their whole body. They can dig with a force of 32 times their body weight, and dig surface tunnels at a rate of 18 feet per hour. They can then travel in these tunnels at up to 80 feet a minute. They make surface tunnels for feeding, and deeper tunnels to unite the feeding tunnels. These deeper tunnels have characteristic mounds or volcanoes of soil at the end—a sign you have moles instead of voles.
What moles are digging for is food—insects, grubs, and earthworms. In addition to the mistaken notion of many that moles and voles are the same, is the false belief that moles are eating plants.
By eating insects, moles can be helping to prevent insect outbreaks. It is some consolation though when one’s lawn is riddled with tunnels, though, to know they are eating the grubs. Many try to control moles by using pesticides to control the grubs. This may not help, however, as it forces the moles to only eat more earthworms which you actually want in your lawn, gardens, and flower beds. So even if not to prevent the tunnels, you may want to control moles to prevent them from eating all your earthworms. A five-ounce mole can consume 50 pounds of insects and earthworms a year!
There are some commercial repellent products, and even more home remedies, to control moles. More common examples of these are moth balls, vibrators, ultrasonic devices, and castor oil solution. Many of these seem more annoying to humans than moles, and are often of little effect. Poison baits are not recommended as they can be quite toxic to non-target organisms (humans, pets), and work their way into the wildlife food chain.
The best control seems to be traps. I use a mouse snap trap, baited with peanut butter, and placed at the opening of an active tunnel. I then cover the opening and trap with a clay pot, which is attractive, keeps other critters out of the trap, and makes the mole think the trap is in the tunnel. Other trap types may be used such as harpoon and scissor-jaw. Just make sure and follow directions when using these. Traps are most effective in spring and fall when moles are most active.
Voles are often called meadow mice, as they resemble mice with short tails. They too make extensive tunnel systems. Near tunnels and openings you can often find non-uniform gnawing of plants (girdling) in irregular patches. This may be above or below the soil surface, and may result in roots eaten, and perennial plants heaved out of the ground. Obviously such plants are weakened if not outright killed by such feeding. Although they mainly feed on stems and seeds of grasses, they will feed on most ornamental plants too.
Vole control is similar to that of moles. I have found that keeping attractive (to them) organic fertilizers away from plants in high vole areas tends to reduce their damage. Such fertilizers may be, or contain, bone meal, cottonseed meal, and similar strongly smelling products. Other least toxic approaches to vole control include keeping gardens weeded, and grass mown, thus removing habitats. Similarly, keep snow away from bases of favored trees and shrubs, and avoid mulching too deeply.
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