Identifying Moles and Voles

Identifying Moles and Voles

Question: How do I tell moles from voles and determine which of these pests is damaging my lawn or garden?

Moles and voles are often confused with each other but their appearance, diet and behavior are quite different. Adult moles are typically five to seven inches long with black or brownish gray velvety fur. They can be identified by their pointed, hairless snout and paddle-like front feet that are bent sideways for easy digging. They have small eyes and ears that are concealed entirely by their fur. Moles are primarily “meat eaters”, known as insectivores, and eat grubs and other insects (both adult and larvae), slugs, snails, earthworms. They may incidentally consume small amounts of seeds and other vegetation as they feed and tunnel.

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Voles, also known as meadow mice, are rodents. Full grown, voles are usually five to seven inches in length with a stocky body, rounded snout, chiseled-shaped front teeth and a furry one-inch tail. They have small black eyes and furry ears. Adults have chestnut-brown hair mixed with black and dark gray underneath and immature voles are uniformly gray.

As herbivores, voles are “vegetarians” and eat a wide variety of plants, primarily grasses, and forbs (broad-leafed, non-woody plants), and can cause major damage by gnawing bark and girdling trees.

Since moles and voles are primarily nocturnal, they are rarely spotted above ground.  They are most easily identified by their tunnels and the damage they do to lawns and gardens. Moles create a closed tunnel system, with shallow tunnels at ground level, deep tunnels for food storage, and volcano-shaped mounds of soil (“molehills”). A mole can tunnel 18 feet per hour in sandy or loamy soil and up to 150 feet per day. Although active all year long, they are most active during rainy days in the late spring and summer.

Damage done by moles occurs mostly in the lawn as they tunnel and feed on grubs and other insects. The molehills and ridges created by shallow tunnels can make it difficult to mow and cause unsightly brown spots in the lawn when grass roots are damaged by burrowing activity. Tunnels and molehills can also cause unsightly garden areas but damage to plants is usually minimal.

Voles construct many tunnels and surface runways with many open burrow entrances. The distinctive one- to two-inch-wide surface runways are a reliable indication of the presence voles. Freshly cut grass clippings and green or yellow droppings are evidence that runways are in use, while overgrown runways indicate that voles no longer use them. Voles sometimes inhabit mole tunnels. In these cases, active surface runways nearby and major damage to bulbs, seeds and other plants are good clues that voles are likely present.

Controlling moles and voles can be problematic. Thick layers of mulch can provide good cover for moles and voles. Keeping the mulch layer to no more than one to two inches can discourage tunnelling. Keeping mulch away from tree trunks can prevent voles from gnawing on tree bark and feeding on plants. Crushed marble or pea gravel can be used instead of organic mulches or landscape cloth. Control methods also include use of toxicants, fumigants, repellents, pesticides, traps, or barriers.  However, as a Virginia Tech podcast explains, success in eliminating or reducing moles and voles is likely temporary. Where mole or vole infestations are serious, Virginia homeowners may want to hire a licensed professional to trap or apply other control measures from the list posted on the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.

For more information on moles and voles, read the August 2015 Garden Shed article and this Ask A Master Gardener post and consult the references below.

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“Controlling Moles”, Kuhn, L.W., Professor Emeritus of Wildlife Biology and Edge, W.D., Extension Wildlife Specialist, Oregon State University, EC 987, Reprinted Mar 2002.

“How To Tell The Difference Between Moles & Voles”, Smith, Barbara H., Horticulture Specialist – Agent, Home and Garden Information Center, Clemson University, Clemson Cooperative Extension, Factsheet, Reviewed 15, Apr 2022.

“Identifying Moles, Voles and Shrews” Brittingham, Margaret C., Former Professor of Wildlife Services, Penn State, Penn State Extension, 10 Jun 2007.

“Managing Wildlife Damage…Moles”, Parkhurst, Jim, Extension Specialist, Fisheries and Wildlife, Virginia Tech, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Publication No. 420-201, Reprinted 2001.

“Moles”, National Wildlife Federation, Wildlife Guide.

“Moles: Damage Management”, Iowa State University, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, 2023.

“Voles (Meadow Mice)”, Baldwin, R. A., Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology, University of California Davis, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Updated Apr