by Connie Oswald Stofko
Over the years, I have heard gardeners complain about moles and voles, so when I saw a mole in my garden a couple weeks ago, I freaked out.
After talking to John Farfaglia, extension educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Niagara County, I’m much more relaxed. Now I have a plan.
And my plan is to do nothing. (I’ve already started. It doesn’t get easier than this.)
First, let’s sort out the difference between moles and voles, the damage they can cause and steps you can take to deal with these critters.
Is it a mole or a vole?
It can be confusing for gardeners to tell whether they’re having problems with moles or voles, Farfaglia said. Moles often get blamed for tunnels dug by voles.
Before I noticed any tunnels, I saw the animal, and its long, bright pink nose tipped me off that it was a mole. Its fur was a dark charcoal color and its eyes were so small, it looked as if it had its eyes closed.
Voles look more like mice. You can see images on this blog post from the New York State IPM (Integrated Pest Management) Program. That post also includes more information that compares moles and voles.
Landscape damage from moles and voles
When I learned more about these critters, I was glad I had a mole and not voles. Here’s why:
- Moles eat insects and earthworms. They can help your garden by eating undesirable grubs and insects. Their tunneling is actually good for the soil, aerating the soil and moving nutrients closer to the roots of plants, according to a fact sheet from the University of Kentucky.
- Moles do little if any direct damage to plants. However, their tunneling may disturb the roots of plants, causing indirect damage.
- Moles leave mounds of soil here and there.
- Voles eat plants and can do extensive damage, especially to trees. They can chew on the bark of young trees and shrubs. They will also feed on bulbs and tender leaves of annuals and other plants.
- Voles are a much bigger threat to gardens when their populations are high.
- Voles leave shallow above-ground pathways that may be seen in lawns or mulched areas as the snow melts.
Dealing with moles
Since moles don’t eat plants, the damage that moles cause is often only cosmetic. You’ll see little volcanoes of dirt in your yard, Farfaglia said.
You can just rake the piles of soil back into place on your lawn and throw some grass seed on top if necessary, Farfaglia said.
Not only is the mole damage relatively minor, the problem will go away on its own in a couple of seasons. When moles have exhausted their food supply, they will move on.
Moles have to cover a large area to find enough food. They dig 16 hours a day, Farfaglia said.
According to the mole fact sheet, a mole typically travels one-fifth of an acre. It’s constantly moving to find food. A mole’s appetite is almost insatiable and it eats almost constantly. In captivity, if they don’t get enough food, they can die within several hours. If you have a small yard, your resident mole may move on quickly.
If you see mounds of soil, you may think you have lots of moles in your yard, but there are probably just a few moles– maybe even just one. There are typically only two or three moles on an acre.
If the mole damage is bothering you so much that you want to try something, several options are listed in the mole fact sheet, but the sheet says that trapping is the only effective method. (The sheet also lists common methods that you shouldn’t try at all because they don’t work and can even be dangerous.)
Farfaglia concurred. Garden stores carry repellents and poison baits for moles, but neither is as effective as trapping, he said. In addition, poison baits can be a problem for pets.
“Most people I talk to try various things,” Farfaglia said, “and those things don’t work or only partially work.”
The mole fact sheet shows the special kind of traps that you need for moles. (The animals will be killed in the traps.) It can be tricky placing the trap in the right spot, so trapping moles takes patience and persistence.
Then again, if you have patience, you can just wait it out. Farfaglia said that he has rarely talked to someone who has had a prolonged problem with moles.
So maybe you don’t need to waste your energy on trying to find and trap the two moles that are in your yard. Maybe you can just wait until they leave on their own.
“We should be tolerating nature rather than always fighting against it,” Farfaglia said.
If you want to take preventive measures against attracting moles, you could try using non-chemical grub control, he said.
Dealing with voles
Voles are a big concern in apple orchards with young trees, and they can be a problem if you have young trees in your yard. Voles may also eat bulbs.
Voles like to live in an area with tall vegetation situated on the edge of a wooded area. Voles normally eat leafy, grassy food, but when that’s not available in the winter, they turn to tree bark. They want young, tender bark, Farfaglia explained, not the tough bark of mature trees. When voles eat the bark all the way around the trunk (called girdling), it kills the tree.
The best way to deal with voles, he said, is to prevent damage.
In late summer or early autumn, before you see damage, make a cylinder out of hardware cloth to wrap around the trunk of your tree. Hardware cloth is like chicken wire. It’s rigid and has small holes; use hardware cloth with holes that are 1/4 inch or smaller. Protecting tree trunks with hardware cloth can work with rabbits, too.
The taller you make the cylinder, the better, Farfaglia said. It should be one to two feet above the top of the snow. Remember that the animals can sit on top of a snow pack.
Leave a couple inches of space between the tree and the protective cylinder to allow for the growth of the tree. Leave the cylinder in place all year for three or four years.
Plastic and paper tree wraps are available, but they’re not as effective against voles and rabbits as hardware cloth is, he said.
Trees are expensive, Farfaglia said, and he encouraged people to take steps to protect them.
To prevent damage to bulbs, you can try dipping them in thiram when you plant them. Thiram is a fungicide, but it is also labelled for repelling rodents, deer and rabbits, Farfaglia said. When using any kind of pesticide, make sure you use it according the directions on the label.
Vole populations rise and fall over time, Farfaglia said. If you want to try getting rid of the voles, regular mouse traps work well. You can use a small piece of apple as bait. Setting out traps in late summer may prevent damage that occurs in the winter and early spring.
There are poison baits available, but Farfaglia doesn’t recommend them for use in residential settings because of the risk to children and pets.
Some cats are very good at keeping the population of voles down, he noted.
See more ways of dealing with voles in this fact sheet from Cornell Cooperative Extension.