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Voles or Moles? Identification is Key

Voles, otherwise known as field mice, are vegetarians that eat roots, leaves and bark. (photo: www.IMustGarden.com)

Voles, otherwise known as field mice, are vegetarians that eat roots, leaves and bark. (photo: www.IMustGarden.com)

We have the soil trails visible now that the snow is melting away. My neighbor has the piles, vivid conical evidence of a lawn perpetrator. The pests in these two scenarios, however, are not related — and often vastly misunderstood.

Voles were my culprit. They were tunneling through the lawn feasting on my nice, lush organic roots and grass. It’s my fault, really, because I never got around to mowing last fall one final time before they snow came. So the tall grass and unraked leaves made an ideal winter nesting ground for the voles, otherwise known as field mice.

My neighbor’s scourge is moles, which are carnivores that eat grubs and worms in the soil. Whereas the voles stay near the surface, creating superhighways that can make your lawn look like the Los Angeles freeway system, moles are light-sensitive and like to tunnel deeply. They’re built for tunneling, in fact, with these amazing paddle-like paws that make quick work of moving even the most dense clay soils.

Moles are nature’s insect control. Whenever someone asks about what to do about Japanese beetles in the summer, I tell them to cheer on the moles — which consume the grub phase of the beetle’s life cycle.

I, personally, don’t get wrung out about damage from either grubs or voles. It’s a good idea to overseed the lawn in the spring anyway, so I just rake out the damage, overseed and get on with my year.

I know some folks are freaked out by the damage, however, especially sports field managers in the Northern tier of North America who need to have fields playable by April. For those people, here are a few control tips that avoid toxic pesticides.

Surface trails are evidence of vole damage as the snow melts away in the spring.

Surface trails are evidence of vole damage as the snow melts away in the spring.

VOLES — As I stated above, how you leave your lawn in the fall can have a lot to do with whether or not voles become a problem. Mowing it short and getting rid of leaves, twigs and other debris makes your lawn less inviting.

Cats are the best defense. Traps, either the Havaharts or the lethal varieties, can work. Several companies sell natural repellents based in animal urines, animal blood or other foul scented products. Try Gardeners Supply or IMustGarden, among many other suppliers.

Moles love to dig deeply into the ground and only come out at night.

Moles love to dig deeply into the ground and only come out at night.

MOLES — If you’re not into cheering on the moles, the best defense is to be rid of the primary food source, which is most often grubs. Several repellents do exist, including many of the same products used in mole control. I’ve found traps to be fairly worthless with moles, however, because they don’t spend much time on the surface of the lawn. This Ohio State fact sheet, however, does have some information about traps that may be worth a try: http://ohioline.osu.edu/w-fact/0011.html.

To control the grubs in the lawn — and avoid the chemical imidacloprid-based products that kill bees — the three primary natural solutions are milky spore, beneficial nematodes and neem.

The piles of soil are strong evidence of mole damage.

The piles of soil are strong evidence of mole damage.

Milky spore’s drawback is that it takes time to innoculate (two or three years), it’s expensive and it doesn’t work in climates colder than Zone 5 (where winter temperatures get 10-20 degrees below zero.

Beneficial nematodes were covered on this blog at this time last year. Nematodes work well, but timing of application is key.

Neem oil has been used as an insecticide in North America for the past couple of decades and centuries before that in India. The Azasol company of Boston now has neem available as a water soluble powder, which can be mixed into a hose-end sprayer. The water soluble powder has a higher percentage of the active ingredient than the oil and, therefore, more efficacy. Check out www.azasol.com.

LOVE ‘EM OR HATE ‘EM, you’ve got to be fascinated by moles. Here are some facts from Ohio State’s web site:

1) A 5 ounce mole will consume 45-50 lbs of worms and insects each year.

2) Moles can dig surface tunnels at approximately 18 feet/hour.

3) Moles travel through existing tunnels at about 80 feet/minute.

4) Moles contain twice as much blood and twice as much hemoglobin as other mammals of similar size. This allows moles to breathe more easily in underground environments with low oxygen.

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

Number of Entries : 1023
  • Alyssa Owens

    Yes, cheer on the voles and moles– and, the skunks! Nice article and of course, timely!

  • Pingback: Use New Neem Product for Grub Control | Safelawns Daily Post and Q&A Blog

  • Toolcat973

    Right. My cat was catching these critters that I’d never seen before, too big 4 mouse, 2 small for rat..so…?? You’ve cleared it up for me. It is voles, whatever they are. Time to rake. Thanks!

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