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mole patrol

No, REALLY let me inMY FRIEND TOM emailed the other day to ask about how to fight the moles who are disrupting his lawn and garden. And Garden Guy Kenn, another reader, posted the same plea. From folk remedies like chewing gum or castor oil laced with dish soap, to hiring the nearest licensed nuisance wildlife control service, I have tried it all in years when they have similarly besieged me. I’m down to two methods of attack that I employ consistently:

A cat who goes out each night (like Jack the Demon Cat, top), and a lot of mousetraps.

First order of importance: Make sure you know what you’re fighting, since seeing mounded soil or tunnel-like activity in lawns and beds doesn’t always mean moles. Know thy enemy. An interesting interview with a wildlife expert in the Seattle paper awhile back offered a test to determine whether it’s moles or voles you’ve got.

“Gardens that border wild areas probably have both moles and voles,” the piece reported. “To find out what is bugging you, (hang) a piece of apple from a stick laid across rocks to keep it above the ground. If after 24 hours, you find the apple has been fed on, you’ll know what you’ve got…Rodent teeth leave clear parallel marks. Moles would shred it; their teeth don’t make the same line.”

MOLES ARE A GOOD THING

Moles are actually a welcome part of the community: They’re insectivores, not interested in chewing on your bulbs or plant roots, but tunneling around blindly looking for protein-rich worms and grubs, sometimes disturbing plants in the process. Since they are blind they are neither nocturnal or diurnal, meaning they can be a 24/7 nuisance, with some individual or other always on the job.

Moles are relatively solitary compared to, say, mice, so if you eliminate a few in your garden you will make a dent. A page at the well-named site Center for Human-Wildlife Conflict Resolution from Virginia gives a great lowdown on moles.

INOCULATE WITH NEMATODES?
To combat moles a few years back, when they were on an upswing here, I inoculated my soil with nematodes, infinitesimal creatures that kill the Japanese beetle grubs that are among the mole’s sought-after food sources. I got the stuff by mail, from Gardens Alive, after reading about it. But did it really help? Experts at Purdue and Ohio State say that combating grubs is not the answer, since earthworms are the main food source for moles.

I can’t say with 100 percent certainty that it did, either—but the population of both grubs and moles has reduced significantly. I say I can’t be sure because populations ebb and flow in nature all the time, so it may be a total coincidence. Gardens Alive also sells a mole repellent, which I have not tried.

But the cat did help a bit at that time when there were many in evidence, killing (but not eating) moles as he does mice and voles. A big caveat about employing your cat in garden predation: Cats who go outdoors during daylight hours are a major threat to songbirds. Keep your cat in or supervised by day, especially.

Also very effective are my outdoor mousetraps–which I use to reduce mice entering my old foundation, and voles damaging the bark of woody plants, in particular, in the areas right near the house. I place them in activity areas underneath a basket or box or flower pot, at the end of tunnels.

  1. Layanee says:

    Good to know that the nematodes worked on the grubs for you. I haven’t had a problem with moles but often get that question and the gum just seems mean. Castor oil seems to work but then you are left with grubs. Who needs grubs? Well, just moles…a vicious circle!

  2. margaret says:

    Indeed, Layanee…and around we go, and go, and go. (Well, until we don’t go anymore, I guess.)
    In my two-cup-of-tea frenzy this morning, I forgot to mention Milky Spore, another way to inoculate your soil against grubs (in this case with a bacterium).
    It takes a long time to build up and become effective, and I was always suspicious of the fact that the bags of this bacterium were lying around in the blazing hot garden center…could it really be still viable? If I were to use it, I think I’d order from a specialty place, too, like I did the nematodes. And I know several people who have done the two-prong approach: nematodes and Milky Spore.
    M.

  3. Dave Pehling says:

    The trick for finding if you have voles, moles or both using tunnels is to actually open a tunnel and stick the apple slice right in it, securing it with a string or bamboo skewer. Moles hardly EVER come above ground and, if there are actual mounds, you certainly have moles but voles (and even deer mice) will readily use mole tunnels to get at root and bulbs.

    If you have an apple slice above ground, you will almost certainly have voles or mice sample it.

    Most species of North America moles spend very little time above ground. I suspect if you are catching critters in mousetraps above ground, you are catching voles or mice (look at the teeth… rodents have LARGE incisors with a large gap between those and the molars. Moles have a solid line of pointy teeth from front to back and a pointy, naked nose (the eastern ‘star-nosed mole’ actually has over a dozen ‘tentacles’ on the end of the nose))

    Dave
    Zoologist
    WSU Extension

  4. margaret says:

    Welcome, Dave, and thanks for the advice. I have never seen a star-nose except in the wildlife guides in my library–never “in person”. They look pretty amazing.
    I am catching moles (Eastern I suppose), I promise–completely different body and head/nose shape from voles and mice, shorter tail, different fur, those weird paddle-like feet, etc.
    I will tell my naughty moles to stay below ground and behave like moles…they often scurry from a stone wall about 10 feet from my 130-year-old stone foundation across and into the basement of the house. As I mentioned, I’ve even caught them in the attic (once). Ditto with my old barn foundation–they can be seen scurrying around there. And inevitably I unearth some when digging here and there around the yard, usually in the deep areas of leaf litter, where they think they have made a safe home.
    Nature! Endless fascination.
    M.

  5. teaorwine says:

    Margaret,

    You are most welcome for the add to my reads. I enjoy stopping by to read your entries and an informative gardening site.

    I had a chuckle when I read of the mole in the attic, having trapped several flying squirrels in mine over the past years. Those furry and unwelcomed guests can make a ruckus for all to hear!

    teaorwine

  6. gardenboy says:

    I don’t have any good mole advice. I have a cat too, though he seems more inclined to nap in the sun rather than hunt these days. But I did hear a neat, if rather gruesome trap for chipmunks from a gardener I visited last week. Fill a steep sided bucket with at least 8 inches of water. Create a ramp to the top for the chipmunks to climb. Cover the surface of the water with black sunflower seeds which will float. The rodents run up the ramp, jump in the bucket thinking it is solid sunflower seeds and drown. As I said, it’s gruesome, but very effective.

  7. Farmer John says:

    Mmmm…never thought of using the mouse trap approach I will have to try that. Our cats do a great job with the mice, but not moles. Here in the wine country people put out owl houses to attract resident owls. Most vineyards now sport many an owl house!

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Farmer John. Apparently moles are not tasty (maybe even distasteful) to cats, or so it seems, yes. My guy will catch the occasional one, but never eat it. Mice are another story. I love the owl-house remedy, than you, and am glad the mousetrap idea seems helpful. This year I have gotten more moles than mice this way, a big year for moles all-around it seemed. See you soon again, I hope.

  8. I would add my voice as a happy nematode user. I also got my supply from Gardens Alive & applied it per the instructions – perhaps a too-soon rain or cooler temps helped to lessen the impact at your place? In any case, when dealing with gardens & other living things there are so many variables it’s hard to determine the impact, but the year after I applied the stuff my mole issue seemed to diminish and the following season they were completely gone. It’s been six years since I applied the nematodes and have not had a new mole tunnel since. I’d suggest you might try another application.

  9. chigal says:

    My cat used to line moles up by the back door, overnight. We thought this was a tribute, but I’ve since had a cat that piled mice on a suitcase. So I guess they just like collecting, and my first cat was working out a plan to sneak his mole stash into the basement. Word to the wise.

    Reflective tape (anything shiny, really) helps keep birds out of harm’s way. An owl statue under a nut bush helped save our low-nesting cardinals (or maybe it was that introductory bloodbath). And rabbits never nested in our yard again, after the cat appeared, so they do learn to stay away. I think that’s what drove him to mole hunting — the lack of other available critters (except toads).

    Nematodes seem like a less lethal measure all-around. But aren’t nematodes supposed to be bad for garden plants?

  10. chigal says:

    Forgot to mention, our moles were star-nosed — never realized there was such a thing as moles without tentacled noses! We had weird toads, too — kind of a black-green, sludgy color I’ve never seen anywhere since.

  11. Anne says:

    Nothing will clear your yard of moles like a Jack Russell Terrier! We have a fenced area for the dogs and our JRT Katie did not rest the summer we moved in two years ago until she had cleared the area of moles, killing one poor bloke in the process. Of course she dug some major holes in the process, too! The cat approach is definitely easier on your sod.

    I’m a mole fan. It is annoying when they disturb plants and beds, but their activity in your lawn is beneficial. Once the snow melted this year I could see that they had been active on one side of my house, but not the other. I’m thinking this means that their previous two seasons of energetic tunnelling cleared the area of grubs.

    One solution that I haven’t tried sounds interesting. I’m told it came from Roald Dahl. The suggestion is to bury an empty wine bottle with just an inch or two of the bottle above the ground. The wind blowing over the opening apparently makes noises the moles don’t like. If you try this, mark the locations well so that you don’t break the bottle with a spade or the mower. Pretty quirky but seems worth a try!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Anne. Any friend of Roald Dahl’s is a friend of mine (he was a fave of my parents’). I appreciate the work moles do, too, and I hate discouraging them, but it is very challenging to garden with them in profusion, so i admit to mole patrol in the beds just near the house. Elsewhere, they flourish. See you soon again?

  12. Nancy says:

    I’ve seen small moles (live and with head chewed off, thanks neighborhood cat/hawk/owl) and chipmunks (all alive) in the same area. Either or both are probably responsible for the huge holes, tunnels and dying plants in a couple of my gardens. How do I know which to get rid of and what is the most humane way? I don’t wish to kill either, the chippies especially. Thanks for your love website by the way. Visiting my daughter Abi who has visited your gardens and spoken highly of you and your talents.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Nancy. Thanks for your kind words. How nice of Abi to alert you!

      If you have moles, which are mostly insectivorous (eating grubs and worms and such), then have a read of this older post about “mole patrol” and the related links in it. Reducing their food source by tackling grub populations underground may reduce the attractiveness of your garden as a place to live (as would more predators like those local birds of prey and cats and so on). As would snap-type mousetraps, but you say you don’t wish to harm them.

      If you don’t want to use snap-type traps there are “live” traps (Havahart types) and also various repellents (even the Havahart company now makes one nontoxic brand), but I find it all very impractical, as I’d need a thousand dollars’ worth of it to make a dent here. I will also mention that it’s not legal in various areas to move live wildlife without a license, so even if you use the live traps…then what? A tricky topic, which I generally turn a blind eye to (and just plant “extra” for the animals, figuring there will always be some losses) except in years when things are so out of control that I start to feel murderous.

      Wish I had a better answer for you.

  13. Theresa Jones says:

    We have a mole problem in our basement. Help!! We have a sump pump and a trench that runs to it behind a basement wall. They seem to get behind this wall and disrupt our peace. ( hear it moving around day and night) We have caught with a mouse trap in a two year period 3. One in a connecting tool room. Two, we put a trap behind the wall by making an opening. Now we are hearing movement again about 2 weeks after catching one behind the wall. This one seems to be moving in an opposite wall. Help!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Theresa…and are you sure you’re not talking about *my* basement? :) The moles are so tricky because they are harder to catch in the traps, I think — at least they seem to be here, but that’s the only remedy I know: lots of traps, changed all the time and so on. They can dig quite deep so the other “solution” is to try to identify the entry point and cement it or stuff it full of hardware cloth or some other deterrent material. My foundation is so old and full of holes, it’s a nearly impossible dream.

  14. I tried the mouse traps this past fall and winter. Baited with peanut butter, covered with a pot and heavy stone or brick on top, I was totally astonished that all traps were GONE when I lifted the rock and pot off to check. I then switched to rat traps but they too disappeared. I saw no evidence of them having been dragged down into the holes. The pots and rocks were exactly where and how I put them over the holes. Can anyone explain this to me? Now I’m back to using MoleMax but that is an expensive endeavor over a one acre garden with 100’s of holes. The voles are having a ball here, especially with tunnels provided by moles. Ev Whitmore wrote in the Rock Garden Society bulletin that she pours gasoline or Ammonium into the holes so that’s my next try.

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