It’s hard to say who’s got the worst deal: the mole, who gets framed for garden damage done by the vole, or the vole, who gets away with the crime but toils in anonymity.
How very vole
Gardeners commonly confuse the vole with both the unrelated mole and the closely related mouse. Voles are rodents (like mice), and they often go by the common name “meadow mouse,” but there are some important differences.
Mice are omnivorous, while voles are primarily vegetarian. Voles eat a variety of plant material, including shoots, bark, roots, bulbs, seeds, and fruit. (Some species do eat animal matter, just like their mouse cousins.) Voles lack the long hairless tails of mice; instead, they have short, stubby, hairy tails. Their snouts are somewhat shorter and blunter than those of mice, and their eyes and ears are a bit smaller. Though voles are not the strong diggers that moles are, some species do dig tunnels and live underground.
Voles can be troublesome in the garden. In warm months they gobble up vegetable seedlings and new shoots, and in the cold season they make a meal of underground bulbs and the bark of woody plants. Voles sometimes eat the bark around the entire trunk, girdling shrubs or small trees and killing them.
To protect seedlings, fashion fine wire mesh into fencing or row covers. No deterrent is foolproof, however, so plant more than you need and plan to share with the critters. In winter, protect woody plants with wire-mesh cylinders or plastic tree protectors.
Voles are an important food source for animals such as hawks, owls, weasels, and foxes. Putting out poison, moth balls, ammonia, or traps for voles robs these predators of a food source and decreases your chances of seeing them in your yard. These methods also pose a risk to pets and wildlife and can contaminate your soil.
The mole the merrier
Although moles are small and furry (just like voles and mice), they are not rodents. They belong to an order of mammals called Soricomorpha, and feed primarily on insects and other invertebrates. Moles lack the ever-growing incisors that rodents need to eat tough plant foods. They spend the majority of their life burrowing underground, and have flipper-like appendages that help them dig through the soil.
Since vision is fairly useless underground, mole eyes are so tiny that they’re hard to see without close inspection. Moles range from 5 to 7 inches long, compared to the 3- to 6-inch vole.
Moles are almost completely harmless to plants, but are often confused with plant-damaging voles. Most people are annoyed by the raised tunnels moles dig across their lawn—and sometimes a mole tunnel may topple seedlings or disturb bulbs—but for the most part, moles leave your plants alone. In fact, their tunneling helps aerate the soil, which is good for your plants. Considering that moles tunnel through your lawn to consume damaging insect grubs, they should be viewed as a boon, not a bane.
Beware of homemade remedies and most commercial animal repellents—they have limited effectiveness. The best way to avoid heavy mole damage is to eliminate large lawn areas and use nonchemical means to eliminate infestations of beetle grubs.
David Mizejewski is a naturalist, television personality, and author of Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife.