Holy Moly! Is it a Mole or a Vole?

I was going into the Keene Agway the other day and ran into my friend, Julie, who owns Julie’s Gardens out on Gunn Road in Keene. I asked her if she was feeling a little more relaxed now that her plant selling season is over. She’s high energy and in the matter of three seconds she was telling me about buying some permethrin to spray some clothing as a repellant for this year’s massive onslaught of ticks. Supposedly, after treating clothing with it, you can still launder it several times and it will retain the repellant effectiveness. Then we got on the subject of voles eating the heck out of plants. Both of us are overloaded with voles (and chipmunks) on our properties this year. Julie was telling me about the frequency she was catching them in snap traps. I can’t bring myself to do it, but I remember my Dad proudly tallying up the body count at the old farm stand when his saleable crops were being raided by the little creatures.

For the longest time, I thought voles and moles were the same thing… the same lawn and garden nuisance. Sometime over the last decade of gardening I learned I was wrong. It turns out, they’re very different creatures and we have both of them in good supply here in southwestern NH. The accompanying photos show you just how vastly different they look and even though we consider both of them destructive in our landscapes, their habits and the actual damage they do is also distinct.

A good source of information about these two furry creatures is at “How to Tell the Difference Between Moles & Voles” at hgic.clemson.edu. Neither one of them are the cute little things I find nesting in stored pots and storage bins in my shed. Those long-tailed, doe-eyed creatures are deer mice. Voles, also known as meadow mice, are chunky mouse-shaped animals 4-6” long (though voles can get to be almost rat-sized according to my Dad) with short, stubby tails, light brown fur, small eyes and close-cropped ears. Moles on the other hand are about 4-5” long, have dark grey fur, tiny eyes and no external ears. Most notably, they have large front paws with claws, turned outwards, for digging. The article pointed out a great pneumonic device: Remember the first letter of their names. Moles are “meat eaters” while voles are “vegetarians.” Moles eat grubs, insects and earthworms. Voles eat plant material and, when short on desirable food, they’ll even eat tree bark. Damage to lawns by the two is also distinct. Moles can burrow through the ground at amazing speeds, creating raised trails on the surface wherever they go and quite noticeable volcano-shaped mounds of soul at their entry and exit points. They really can create havoc with your manicured lawns. Voles don’t burrow for travel though they’ll meander through existing mole tunnels sometimes. They live and move about in vegetation on the ground’s surface. In the winter, they travel just under snow cover and can leave very noticeable pathways in the spring. I see both of these on my property after snow melt.

Voles, in my opinion, are the real menace. Moles disrupt the aesthetic of your landscape, but voles actually eat it! And, they’re not the most polite guests to dinner either. Rather than consume the whole seedling, they’ll often just chew it off at its base and leave the rest of the plant lying prostrate in the sun. Ripe tomatoes? Oh, they love them. But, just in case I might want to harvest a few of them myself, they’ll sample a dozen different fruit at a time with just a couple nibbles to taste-test them in advance for me. That’s thoughtful.

As I said, I really hate killing any creatures (and, yes, it does make me think about the irony of my own taste for meat) but there’s some methods to get rid of these pesky rodents that are less cruel and less environmentally dangerous. Snap traps. Good old fashioned mouse traps. They’re violent and usually decisive but at least there’s rarely elongated suffering. Do a search for mole traps online and you’ll feel like you’ve entered a torturer’s mini-mart. I’m guessing because moles rarely come above ground, there’s all these devices that are just as decisive as snap traps, but they involve mini guillotines and piercing implements to reach below the surface. Well, ok then.

Poisons are a whole other matter and ones to be avoided in my opinion. Almost every type of bait poison used has a chance of entering groundwater sources and the animal food chain. You do not want to take the chance of your cat or dog eating a vole dying from poison. Nor do you want a hawk or an eagle to. Personally, I can’t think of anything more cruel than a glue trap either. Discarded live into the trash, stuck to a piece of cardboard infused with glue… what living being deserves that? I wouldn’t even do it to a tick!

Anyway… moles and voles. They’re just trying to make their way in the world like the rest of us. I just wish they were doing it somewhere else. Like the great woods of Maine or something.