By Janice Aulisio
VCE Southside Master Gardener
Have you ever noticed small, mouse-like creatures scurrying across your yard or notice burrows in your mulch or raised tunnels just below the grass or snow? These little creatures could be a mole, vole or a shrew. It is important to properly identify what you have because they each have different characteristics that will help determine the best management practices to control them.
With those large front feet made for digging it is difficult to mistake a mole for anything else. Since they generally spend all their life underground, it is important to learn the difference between mole tunnel and a vole tunnel.
First, let’s discuss moles (we are not talking about the chemistry mole which is a unit of measurement). Moles are meat eaters (carnivores) feeding on earthworms, grubs and beetles found in the soil. They live underground in tunnels. Pointed snouts and enlarged front feet for digging are their most prominent features. Eyes and ears are very tiny and barely visible.
Voles, on the other hand, look more like a mouse (often called a meadow mouse) and are primarily herbivores which feed on roots, bulbs, bark and the seeds of ornamental plants and grasses. They have rounded ears and can have red, brown or black fur with a grey underside. Voles prefer living in low lying or creeping vegetation and can also make tunnels under grass and snow.
A shrew (also an old-fashioned word for a bad-tempered woman!) also has a pointed snout, but do not have enlarged feet as a mole. The eyes are tiny but visible. They are omnivores and feed mostly on insects, slugs and earthworms and less on seeds and roots. When digging their small holes they tend to uproot plants, but tend to stay out of garden beds. They like to live under leaf litter and leave a strong, pungent odor (like a skunk) to ward off predators. Shrews also eat mice and bird and chicken eggs and have a very rapid metabolism and must eat
constantly. Coyotes are natural predators and coyote urine can be used to rid your property of their presence. Shrews have different habitats depending on the species, occasionally invading buildings and reusing tunnels made by moles and voles. Using the above descriptions can help you determine which creature is invading your lawn and garden.
One way to tell voles from mice is the length of their tails. Voles have short tails and mice have longer tails (about the length of their body) and voles look heavier than mice. Voles are more active in open areas where as mice are thigmophilic (like making contact with surfaces). Mice also tend to stay in more protected spots with more cover like vegetation and next to structures due to predator activity. Mice are rodents which have gnawing front incisors. Moles, voles and shrews are not classified as rodents and have pointed front incisors. The meadow voles found on the East Coast stay outdoors in the winter, but mice need warmer places such as houses, barns and sheds.
Voles can do significant damage to your lawn and gardens so gardeners are more concerned with them, so getting rid of them should be taken seriously. They are active day and night, year around, especially at dawn and dusk. They do not hibernate. So how do you know if you have a vole problem? Look for plants that have a wilted look or appear yellowish. If you lightly tug on the plant and it lifts easily from the soil, the roots may have been devoured by a vole. If there is little green vegetation, they will gnaw on the bark of fruit trees or shrubs.
There are many methods to eliminate these pesky critters, but cutting back brush, mowing, weeding and cleaning your yard or garden can help. Remove wood piles and hiding places, especially near your garden, shrubs and trees. Avoid putting dense mulch up against trees and shrubs (mulch volcanoes). Pick up vegetables and fruits that have fallen on ground. Some other measures that can be taken to control them are Havaheart live traps, mouse traps or poisons (be careful of pets and children). Garden fencing can deter them.
A safe and non-toxic mole and vole repellent can be made with 6 ounces of castor oil (from castor bean plants) plus two tablespoons of liquid detergent to one gallon of water. Spray entire lawn at a rate of one ounce per gallon per each 300 square foot of lawn. Also, the use of capsaicin, an oil found in hot peppers can be used. Both of the above are unpleasant for these little critters. Some have tried pouring ammonia or bleach down the holes and burrows or soaking a cloth and pushing it into the holes.
Other methods used are ultrasonic pest repellents, granules (Ortho Animal B Gone All Purpose Animal Repellent) and sprays (All Natural Rodent Defense Deterrent and Repellent).
These little creatures are an important part of the food chain. They are prey for many predators such as hawks, owls, snakes, raccoons, foxes, opossums and house cats.
For more information check out Virginia Cooperative Extension publication “Managing Wildlife Damage: Moles” and Pennsylvania Cooperative Extension publication “Identifying Moles, Voles and Shrews. While we are all still practicing ‘social distancing’ due to COVID-19, and all Halifax County buildings remain closed to the public, if you have gardening questions, you can best reach an Extension Master Gardener or Extension staff member by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you can’t email, you can call and leave a message at the Extension Master Gardener Help Desk at 434-830-3383, giving us your name, telephone number, and nature of the call. The Help Desk phone is checked timely and someone will get back to you, although it may be from a different telephone number. Keep washing your hands, wear your mask, and learn to identify moles, voles and shrews.