Moles, Voles and Holes

Charlie Metz
Frederick County Master Gardener Program

The snow finally melted in my yard last week. As I walked around my yard I noticed that there were numerous tunnels running up and down the lawn. These are tunnels made by moles. There seems to be some confusion about the difference between moles and voles and what to do about them. This article should shed some light on these critters.

Moles are insectivores, meaning they eat insects, earthworms and grubs. Moles live a solitary life, constantly digging tunnels in search for food. Large front claws distinguish this small animal from a vole or mouse. A mole can dig up to 15 feet per hour, so it doesn't take more than a few to tunnel all over your yard. An adult mole is colored gray to brown, attaining a size of 6 to 8 inches. They do not hibernate, and will tunnel under the frost line in winter. Moles reproduce once a year, in the spring, and will only produce 3 or 4 offspring. Spring tunneling in most noticeable.

The mole is considered beneficial because it eats insects and grubs. It also aerates the soil when it digs its tunnels. However, the tunnels can be annoying and there are some ways to discourage moles. Wandering cats and dogs can effectively control mole populations. Some people have told me that chewing gum works by causing the mole to choke on the gum. A windmill placed over a mole run has also been used for mole control, since the vibrations scaring the mole away.

Repellant plants such as spurge, also known as 'mole plant' have been used by some people. Moles can be trapped, however this is difficult because the bait used needs to be an insect or slug, an attractive meal for birds and skunks. If a trap is to be used, look to place the trap where two tunnels intersect to increase the probability of finding a tunnel with higher use.

Voles, on the other hand, can be very destructive. This rodent resembles a house mouse, only with a short tail and small ears. Colored brown to gray, voles have a lighter colored belly, an easy difference from mice. Voles grow 4 to 6 inches long. Large incisor top teeth are what distinguish this rodent from a mole.

Voles eat vegetation, feeding on roots, bulbs and anything they can find. They cause a lot of destruction by gnawing on young trees and shrubs. They can strip the bark of the plant at ground level, killing or exposing it to insects or diseases. One way to tell if you have voles is to locate runways in the lawn. These 2 inch wide strips meander throughout the lawn at the surface. These strips usually end at a hole, going into an abandoned mole hole. Nicely rounded holes in your yard indicate you have both moles and voles.

Voles have a tremendous reproductive rate, able to give birth at one month of age. Voles have several litters a year, sometimes seeming to take over. This rodent can be especially destructive in Christmas tree farms and fruit orchards.

Populations of voles are controlled in the wild by owls, snakes, foxes and cats. One method of control is by trapping. A mousetrap baited with peanut butter or an apple slice works well. To prevent damage to small trees, make sure to trim grass closely against the trunk to eliminate their hiding place. This is especially important to do before winter sets in.

Moles and voles are difficult to eliminate once they have become established. Chemical controls can be used, but it is advisable to use a professional. Two methods are employed. One uses an insecticide to eliminate the food source for moles. This method also kills the beneficial earthworms, a consideration before deciding to eliminate grubs. Another chemical method uses poisons, a dangerous material that could be taken up by pets or even children.

I have had moles and voles every year in the spring, but they seem to subside during the summer months. Perhaps the noise of the power mower scares them off. I also have 3 cats that present these animals at my back door. They seem to enjoy providing this service. I think I will continue to put up with my wildlife. My lawn really doesn't suffer that much.

Read other articles about controlling insects & garden pests

Read other articles by Charlie Metz