Moles vs Voles
First, let’s clarify the difference between these oft-confused critters. Voles and moles are often confused one for the other. Having similar sounding names, both being smallish gray furry critters, looking like rodents, spending most of their lives (unseen) underground certainly contributes to the confusion. Let’s begin with this distinction:
Voles are rodents; moles are insectivores.
What is a Mole?
Moles are insectivores. An insectivore is a carnivorous plant or animal that eats insects. Moles are small mammals that live and burrow underground and eat insects along with earthworms and garden grubs.
What is a Vole?
Voles are rodents. A rodent is a mammal characterized by a single pair of continuously growing incisors in each of the upper and lower jaws. Voles are sometimes called meadow mice or field mice and are actually in the subfamily Arvicolinae, along with lemmings and muskrats.1)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vole2)http://icwdm.org/handbook/rodents/voles.asp
Voles look like a cross between a mouse and a mole, as you can see in these pictures of voles, share from NorthernWoodlands.org, illustration by Adelaide Tyrol.3)http://northernwoodlands.org/outside_story/article/shrew-or-mole-mouse-or-vole#prettyPhoto
What’s Eating My Garden?
Get to know your furry intruder: What is it? If you don’t already know what kind of animal is disrupting your garden, finding out should be your first step. If you identify the creature you can learn more about their habits and behavior so that you can find the best solution to protect your garden.
Knowing what these creatures eat (insects, plants, worms, and such) can guide you to taking the more appropriate action. Both moles and voles may occupy tunnels but vary in their feeding habits. 4)http://extension.psu.edu/natural-resources/wildlife/faqs/nuisance-damage/identifying-moles-voles-and-shrews
What do Moles Eat?
Well, since we’ve already established that moles are insectivores, we know that moles are not eating your plants, but they can destroy a crop overnight from the tunnels they burrow. The effect is to leave your plants’ roots dangling in the tunnel, dying as they starve for nutrients.
Have you ever found a garden plant shriveled up for no apparent reason? If you pressed upon the soil with your toe only to have the plant drop into a tunnel below, chances are it’s a mole tunnel.
Anyone who’s ever lost a crop of lettuce or other garden veggies overnight in this way will agree that these harmless appearing critters aren’t so harmless.
Mole Animal Control
The problem with moles is that they are ravenous prospectors who prefer loose, moist, organically rich earth in which they can tunnel and consume up to 70 to 100 percent of their body weight per day.
They dig to eat and they eat to dig.
“It has been demonstrated that if a mole was a 168 pound miner, he would be moving the equivalent of 12 tons of soil in one hour.”5)https://hartley-botanic.com/magazine/801409421-moles-can-benefit-gardeners/
Garden and yard moles are mostly solitary creatures who come together only to mate and (for females) to nurture their young in deeper burrows. Because of this high food intake, moles can range over an acre.6)http://extension.psu.edu/natural-resources/wildlife/wildlife-nuisance-and-damage/small-mammals/wildlife-damage-control-5-moles So even one mole can do a lot of damage to your precious crops and grass.
One mole can range over an entire acre.
Image by UAEX.edu 7)https://www.uaex.edu/publications/pdf/FSA-9095.pdf
These peculiar traits give insight as to how to control moles in yards, gardens, and fields. The tunnels they dig may or may not be visible, especially in rich garden soil. Often, we find a drooping row of wilted plants and when probing beside them, we punch through into a tunnel. Sometimes, compressing the tunnels and applying water may resuscitate the plants but all too often the mole returns to feast on the AYCE (all you can eat) worm buffet. The battle for turf ensues!
As mentioned, crop damage due to moles is purely incidental to their voracious consumption of subterranean crawlers and creepers. Yet, in addition to the damage done directly, moles create perfect subways for rodents like voles, deer mice, and shrews–all of which do feed on vegetative material. So, if you have a mole problem, you will likely have a rodent problem as a bonus. All the more reason to control moles from the get-go.
If you have a mole problem, rodent problems may soon follow.
The Law on Mole Animal Control
In some areas, moles are protected by law and a permit may be required in order to use mole traps or other methods that dispose of them. Check with your local Ag. Extension agency or local wildlife office regarding restrictions, or search online, “are moles protected in [your state].”
These devices look outright medieval in their design. They are basically spring-loaded impalers, chokers, or scissoring contraptions that are triggered by a pressure plate. As such, there are all kinds of warnings about handling and setting, so follow the instructions very carefully.
Mole Traps… Do They Work?
Mole traps will often do the trick. It depends on the level of familiarity with the mole’s patterns and the how skillfully the trap is set. If the trap doesn’t do it’s job after two days, relocate to another tunnel. 9)http://extension.psu.edu/natural-resources/wildlife/wildlife-nuisance-and-damage/small-mammals/wildlife-damage-control-5-moles
The Best Mole Traps
Here’s a quick rundown on the various types of mole traps and their pros and cons.
Image from University of Arkansas Research10)https://www.uaex.edu/publications/pdf/FSA-9095.pdf
Note: Once the mole is no more, the tunnels can still be used as a rodent conduit. So, we recommend that the tunnels be compressed and flattened out as best you can. This will also help spot any new mole activity.
Catching Moles Alive
A more humane approach is to live trap the moles. One of the more effective devices is called a tube trap, such as this one on Amazon. When buried lengthwise in a tunnel, the short tube allows the mole to push through a one way door only to discover a block exit at the other end.
These tubes are akin to the no-kill (humane) mousetraps. Keep in mind that in order to be humane, the traps have to be checked often so as not to allow the creature to starve or suffer hypothermia. Also note, that once an animal is live trapped, there are likely legal restrictions, even permits, which may apply to your area as to how the animal is to be handled and released. A paper published by the Public Library of Science covers these aspects in detail. 11)http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/file?id=info%3Adoi/10.1371/journal.pone.0146298.s004&type=supplementary
First and foremost, we gardeners tend to be practical. Whatever works works, right? In our research on how to drive away moles, we’ve come across many methods–homespun and technical. According to most of the academics (state university agricultural departments) the following methods are spotty at best.
Home Remedies that May Not Work
Some swear by these home remedies. Chewing gum, mothballs, castor oil seeds (more on this below), vibrating whirly gigs, electronic sonic devices, broken glass, human hair, bleach, engine exhaust, along with a host of other remedies that folks swear by. 12)http://woodlandstewards.osu.edu/sites/woodlands/files/imce/0011.pdf 13)https://www.uaex.edu/publications/pdf/FSA-9095.pdf 14)http://extension.psu.edu/natural-resources/wildlife/wildlife-nuisance-and-damage/small-mammals/wildlife-damage-control-5-moles
But do they really work?
My mother-in-law, swears by the chewing gum, saying that after using it she didn’t see any more signs of moles. Apparently you just stick some sticks of gum in the mole hole, they eat it but can’t digest it and die. Likely a long and painful death. Hmm…
Last year, we used about 50 pounds of an “organic” mole repellent that had castor oil listed as its main ingredient. The instructions recommended a “thorough watering” after application. Sometimes, we got lucky and a hard rain came along. Other times, we set the sprinkler and let it run for a couple hours. We even punched holes in the tunnels neath our garden beds and poured pellets into the holes. We likely exceeded the recommended dosage each time.
And yet, while the mole activity abated, they kept coming back! Checking the Amazon ratings and reviews on this product, 25% of them are 3 stars and below. And one other consideration is that all the watering, especially the heavy rains, may have done more to curb the activity than any of the treatments.
Moral of this section: Before delving into any home-based or commercial tactics, check the facts and the ratings. We’ve seen many on-line recommendations for this and that. They especially crop up in the comment section. Hey, if they work, they work. Just be careful about wasting time and effort while the damage continues.
Mole Poison and Mole Bait
Mole poison approach often combines the use of mole baits (like peanuts) laced with poison (like zinc phosphate). The effects of using a vegetative product which moles don’t consume doesn’t really make sense. However, certain poisons infused inside artificial worm and grub baits have been deemed effective by some users. 15)https://www.stevejenkins.com/blog/2014/09/getting-rid-of-moles-what-works-and-what-doesnt/ All poisons need care in handling and keeping away from pets, children, water supplies, etc. Also, state and local restrictions, even bans, may apply to your area.
Another type of mole poison is a gel injector syringe which places a glob of rat poison (Wafarin) into the tunnel. Theoretically, the mole gets it on their coat and being fastidious groomers, licks up the poison and dies from an overdose of anti-coagulant. We’ve seen some positive reviews and the product is available on-line.
There are also poisons and biocides which kill one of the mole’s food sources–grubs. These are pesticides and “organic” products like Dipel (Bacillus Thuringiensis) that do away with certain kinds of grubs. But some of the harsher treatments also kill earthworms and other helpful organisms that help gardens thrive. The effect of just getting rid of grubs could be the opposite of what you want. It can cause a feeding frenzy on earthworms and more tunneling into rich organic soil.
If you have a small garden, particularly a raised bed, it’s possible that a physical barrier of 1/4 inch galvanized hardware cloth placed at the bottom will stop the mole and other rodents from entering the root zone. If there’s no frame, laying in L shaped lengths of the same 1/4 inch hardware cloth to run along the bottom and sides may work as well. We did this on a raised ‘lasagna bed” and it’s been effective so far.
Mole Control Naturally
Moles do serve a natural function in the ecosystem. Moles contribute positively to soil management and control of lawn-destroying grubs. They also control insects, aerate the soil, bringing organic humus down into lower levels while transferring subsoil closer to the surface where plants can more easily derive needed mineral nutrients. 17)http://extension.psu.edu/natural-resources/wildlife/wildlife-nuisance-and-damage/small-mammals/wildlife-damage-control-5-moles
Natural mole predators include snakes, coyotes, foxes, weasels, and occasionally, birds of prey if they spy them above ground. Also, cats and dogs will go after moles as well. Mixed results can occur when Bowser starts digging channels and holes trying to locate one, and all the more disastrous if done in a garden bed. When we spied several “good snakes” (non-poisonous) in the garden, we noted a definite drop in mole activity. Last year, the cat also nailed one, but seemed to think just a single trophy would be adequate for the entire year.
A Final Solution for Moles
The final solution offered may not be seen as such, but here it is.
Just learn to live with them.
In saying that, we’re not recommending a totally hands-off approach. There should be limits to all “live and let live” relationships.
We’re talking co-existence with boundaries.
In our garden, we made them unwelcome by routinely crushing their tunnels within the garden perimeter. We allowed them to burrow under the worm-rich compost bins, but used a broom handle in our plant beds to poke holes into the tunnels and then drenched the area with water. By around June, we seemed to have achieved a truce.
We also adapted by using straw bale gardening in some sections. This obviously did away with any mole issues.
Straw bale gardening did away with any mole issues.
Having surveyed our most reliable resources on the topic of moles, these are the main take-aways.
- If moles have come into your yard and garden, congratulations! It means you’ve done a swell job of enriching your soil so it can sustain them with juicy worms and luscious organic matter.
- Mole traps are the most direct and effective means of control.*
- Mole poisoning can work but take all necessary precautions as directed.*
*Note: Legal restrictions may apply to these two methods.
- Physical barriers are the best mole deterrents if you are working a relatively small area like a raised bed.
- Predators (wild and domestic) can help with mole control, though there could be collateral damage.
- Beware of the home-spun remedies and gadgets that may actually delay taking effective action and allow more damage to occur, (and waste money).
- Repellents (like castor oil pellets) may prove effective but not reliably so.
- Co-existence is an option, and we can set boundaries and adapt how we garden.
Please let us know your experiences with moles, in comments here or on the Gardens All Facebook page. Gardening like life, is an unending learning and growing process, so…
Let’s keep on growing!
G. Coleman Alderson is an entrepreneur, land manager, investor, gardener, and author of the novel, Mountain Whispers: Days Without Sun. Coleman holds an MS from Penn State where his thesis centered on horticulture, park planning, design, and maintenance. He’s a member of the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society and a licensed building contractor for 27 years. “But nothing surpasses my 40 years of lessons from the field and garden. And in the garden, as in life, it’s always interesting because those lessons never end!” Coleman Alderson
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