Find out the difference between voles and moles

A woodland vole.
A woodland vole. Associated Press file

I received a letter from a lady who lives in Petal. She was having a problem with her plants.

Based upon her description, I came to the conclusion that she had voles. Voles aren’t a problem here on the Coast. But, you get north of Stone County and they can be quite a problem. In this lady’s case, one of her shrubs had suddenly died. When she went to pull up the corpse, it came out without most of its roots. A closer look showed gnaw marks just below the soil line.

There are almost two dozen species of voles in North America. But, the pine vole is the only one found in Mississippi. It is a small (10 to 12 centimeters), blunt-nosed rodent with a stocky body and a short, hairless tail. Some people call them meadow mice. Because they spend most of their life underground, voles are sometimes confused with moles. Moles are predators. Voles are generally plant feeders. They will eat the occasional insect.

Voles and moles are about the same size but can be readily told apart by their front feet. Voles have small, normal-looking paws. Moles have large, spade-like feet. Also, moles lack visible ears, have small eyes and a hairless snout. Voles live in large colonies and are voracious feeders. The pine vole prefers a diet of bark, bulbs, roots, tubers and grass. In the colder months, roots and bark are their main source of food. They don’t hibernate in the winter.

Voles maintain a system of tunnels that they use to forage and store food. Often, these tunnels will be located along ditch banks and other unmanaged areas. Reproduction takes place in the Spring and Summer. Their reproductive rate is mind-boggling. A female vole can produce a litter at only four weeks of age. They can have as many as six litters a year.

Coyotes, foxes, hawks, owls and snakes do a lot to keep vole numbers under control. It is unlikely that the typical homeowner is going to have many of these predators living near their house or garden. This means that you will have to undertake the task yourself.

Vole control isn’t all that complicated. But it may take considerable time to fix the problem. First, you need to determine if it is a problem with voles. Look for golf-ball sized holes in your yard and garden. These are exit points from vole tunnels. Place a slice of apple next to the hole and cover it with a clay pot. If the apple slice is gone the next day, you have voles. Now you can begin control measures.

The first method is to use old-fashioned snap traps. Bait the traps with some peanut butter or a slice of apple or sweet potato. Place the trap next to an exit hole and set a clay pot over it to keep children and pets from tripping the traps. You can also use live traps. These will work just as well as the snap traps. But you’ll have to take the trapped vole some distance away (at least a kilometer) to release it.

There are poisoned baits available. They normally consist of treated grains or peanuts. The bait has to be poured directly into an active tunnel. Use extreme caution if this is the method you choose. Pets and non-target animals, all can easily dig up the bait and eat it. You may see electronic devices for sale to control voles and moles. A recent study found that these devices are an expensive waste of time.

After control measures have been taken, you’ll need to do the apple test a month or so later to make certain that you’ve eliminated the problem. Continue the monitoring program every Spring and Fall.

Tim Lockley, a specialist in entomology, is retired from a 30-year career as a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For answers to individual questions, please send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Tim Lockley, c/o Sun Herald, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi MS 39535.