MASTER GARDENER: Recognizing pesky lawn problems: Moles and voles

Moles can tunnel up several feet per hour. (Courtesy)

Moles can tunnel up several feet per hour. (Courtesy)

Moles are typically not considered welcome visitors by most homeowners. In their search for insects, grubs, larvae, and earthworms, moles dig tunnels just below the surface of the earth.

This tunneling is evidenced by unsightly raised ridges and the proverbial cone-shaped molehills, seen in both lawns and gardens. A person’s first encounter with their tunnels may not be a pleasant one, sometimes resulting in a fall or a twisted ankle. At the very least, moles’ tunneling damages the root systems of plants.

Moles actively feed day and night all year long. Along with this, they have the ability to tunnel up several feet per hour. But their tunneling does perform at least three benefits that we sometimes overlook: It loosens soil, providing aeration; it allows soils to shift, blending the surface soil with deeper soil thereby improving overall soil quality; and moles consume numerous garden pest insects, grubs and larvae. It is estimated that moles consume up to 100 percent of their body weight daily.

Moles are solitary animals, rarely seen above ground. Sometimes dogs do dig them out, drawing much attention to them because of their unique appearance. They have large paddle-like front feet with prominent claws protruding from the sides of their body, well designed for very efficient digging.

They also have very tiny eyes, no visible ears, elongated heads and snouts, and short necks. Their fur can vary in color from black to brown to gray. They also vary in size, up to about 8 inches long. Other natural predators include foxes, coyotes, snakes, skunks, badgers, weasels, hawks and owls.

By way of contrast, voles are not as widely known and not even members of the same family. Actually they are rodents and look very similar to their cousin, the mouse. (Voles have sturdier-looking bodies and shorter, stubbier tails than mice.)

Unlike moles, voles are not insectivores, preferring instead plant material such as seeds, fruits, grasses, roots, tubers, bulbs, bark, and underground fungi. Some live below ground but some live above ground.

Generally, voles prefer grassy areas and underbrush where their trails and grass tunnels are not easily spotted by their predators: hawks, owls, foxes, snakes and cats.

Signs of voles in your garden may include 1- to 2-inch wide runways on the surface of the ground or in your lawn and golf ball-size holes with no mound. Voles will readily use and feed within tunnels created by moles though.

Vole damage can occur any time of the year, but especially in the winter, when the food supply is short. Voles will then gnaw the bark on shrubs and along the root collar of small trees. This can cause severe or critical damage to them.

Plants that voles have eaten will be left with a pointed tip at the end of the stem. When voles eat roots and tubers underground, the gardener is faced with a dead plant that, when lifted, has no remaining root structure.

Because moles and voles do have a part in the natural food chain, and are natural inhabitants of forest and meadow areas, killing them is likely not the best option. Consider natural repellents or live traps instead.

Tina Betts, a Master Gardener, is a trained volunteer of the Mississippi State University Extension Service. For gardening questions, call the Help Center at (662) 620-8280 in Lee County or (866) 920-4678 outside Lee County and leave a message.